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Articles Blog

Aboriginal Food

Karyn Planett

And On Today’s Menu…

Imagine your handsome waiter exclaiming in mouth-watering detail that evening’s chef’s special featuring what we imagine Australia’s Aboriginal food to be. “We’ll be offering for your dining pleasure this evening an unrecognizable insect, lightly seared then served in a fusion of its own bodily fluids followed by a medley of hand-gathered bark shards dusted with crushed boulderbits.”

It’s extraordinary how wrong one can be.

Having said that, just know that many celebrated Australian chefs are acknowledging that certain foods, once only traditional Aboriginal fare, have star market value. Australians are recognizing not only the importance of these offerings to people who literally live off the land but to cityfolk as well. Scientists, too, are analyzing the nutritional value these foods provide those who gather and serve up what Mother Nature supplies.

But is this all that appetizing for the Western palate, you ask? It might be just about as tough a sell a bush tomato as are brussels sprouts to any five-year old worth his bubble gum. 

Some Bush Tucker, Mate?

A look at Australia’s history reminds us that the Aboriginal people lived off the land long before England dumped her “undesirables” on this vast continent. And who said their cooking was so great anyway? Bubble and squeak, for goodness sake! Nonetheless, the Aborigines eventually traded in their digging sticks for Teflon cookware and turned their backs on Mother Nature’s bounty. That was until recently when there was a renewed interest in native foods. For the record, the early settlers learned from the Aborigines and shared in the bounty. But that all changed.

To acquaint the novice to native Australian delicacies, we need to learn about a few of the many options available to the keen bushtracker who has learned to read the land. These are the true gatherers we learned about in school. They do little cultivating and merely search for or stumble across berries and fruits, edible grasses and unsuspecting animals.

More Than Just Witchetty Grubs, Bub!

Currently there are a number of specialists chronicling Aboriginal foods. A fellow named Les Hiddings, considered one of the country’s foremost authorities on edible plants, hails from Townsville’s Land Command Battle School. He has formally documented more than six hundred edible plants. Thankfully, we’ll highlight only a few.

Bush bananas resemble crisp cucumbers that are quite moist. Billygoat plums are there for the picking across a sweep of northern Australia. They’re so rich in Vitamin C that lab tests show they provide the same amount as a dozen oranges. Think propagation for export! So, too, the quandong, the screw palm nut, and something lovingly referred to as the bush monkey nut. The screw palm nut has a high fat content supplying the diner with lots of energy. On the other end of the spectrum, the bush monkey nut is low in fat and seems promising for health freaks and dieters. And the wattle seeds deserve a mention. They serve as a spice.

Croc, ‘Roo, and Carpet Snake

Can’t forget our protein. Native fare includes tender morsels brought to you by the neighborhood crocodile, emu, kangaroo, wombat, bogong moth, mangrove worm, carpet snake, and echidna, which is said to closely resemble pork. Goanna, on the other hand, is compared to, yes… chicken. Everything seems tastier if cooked with yarlka bush onions.

And dessert is a rare treat, indeed. If you’ve eaten all your veggies, you get to bite down on the engorged abdomen of a two-centimeter-long honey ant savoring the nectar stored within. For the vegetarian (and who wouldn’t be at this point), there’s the sweet taste of the Grevillea flower. Wash this all down with alcohol-laced fermented eucalyptus sap brew and you’ve got yourself some darn good grub.

Oh, and speaking of grub… the witchetty. In truth, this is a rather generic term given to a host of larvae of several beetles and moths lurking around the trunks, roots, and stems of certain trees and shrubs. Aborigines and starred chefs panfry them to a golden glow. It is said they remind the diner of a browned sausage filled with, yet again, chicken, egg yolk, and ground almond.

Chef, your work is cut out for you.