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five ways to incorporate bush tucker into your diet

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Australian native foods Late last year I read the book Eating Between the Lines: Food and Equality in Australia (no longer, it seems, available – I borrowed it from the library). While this book raised many interesting points, the one that resonated with me the most was the observation that Australians are very, very good at accepting and incorporating other ‘ethnic’ cuisines into our diet, and yet we’ve all but ignored the foods of our own country.

Apart from being the food source to Aboriginals for thousands of years, Australian native foods also helped keep early white colonists alive. However, native foods soon gave way to more traditional and familiar European foods, and apart from macadamia nuts and the occasional interest in ‘exotic’ cuisine, Australian native foods haven’t enjoyed widespread popularity.

I think this is a real shame. It’s at our own loss that we have, by and large, ignored our native food source. It doesn’t make sense that you can buy chia seeds (native to Mexico) at your local supermarket while wattle seeds, for instance, are much harder to source.

Native foods are, obviously, perfectly adapted to growing in this country’s climate. They are also very nutritious: the Kakadu Plum is thought to be the richest source of Vitamin C of any food in the world. And if you forage for wild foods, then they are also free.

My own exposure to native foods has been limited to the occasional Quandong jam that my dad used to make, some lemon myrtle tea, as well as macadamia nuts, of course. And if you count kangaroo as bush tucker then yes, I’ve eaten that too (there’s an irony there – a nation that’s all but rejected it’s own native food is also one of the few that eats it’s national emblem).

But I’ve been looking into ways to widen our palate by making native Australian foods a regular addition to our diet.

Below are the five steps that we are taking to incorporate native Australian foods into our diet, beginning with the easiest. If you would like to explore native foods but find the idea of foraging for your own a little daunting, you can go the baby steps route like we are taking.

One reader, who does have experience in foraging, was wondering if there are other like-minded people out there who forage for food in Australia. If you do forage for native foods, it would be wonderful if you shared your experiences in the comments below (and there’s a link to a native foods forum in the resources if you’re looking for other passionate foragers). I would also like to hear about the experiences of others as I am very interested in learning more.

1. learning about bush tucker foods

If you’re new to Australian native foods, then the first step is to learn about what’s available. Information overload can be counter-productive, which is why it’s best to pick one food at a time to explore (something that I am doing).

Choose a native food (one that is palatable and not just edible) that grows in your local region, and learn how to identify it, it’s natural environment, it’s seasonality, what parts are edible, how to grow, how to harvest it and how to prepare it, use it (some plants are also medicinal) and cook with it.

Buy some. Try some. Taste it. Cook with it yourself. Grow it.

And familiarise yourself with native foods one plant at a time. The knowledge you gain through this process will be more valuable than any single book.

At the end of the article is a list of resources, including information on various plants, to help you get started with this process. Your local library will also have books on native foods.

2. buy foods made from native ingredients

We went to the food festival in Kenilworth over the Easter break and came home with a local product: a lovely jar of bush tucker / Moroccan fusion simmer sauce. At $8 a jar, it wasn’t cheap, but as the lady suggested, we only used about a third of the jar, so it will make three meals for the three of us.

Once you begin to look, there are actually lots of ready made products that incorporate native Australian ingredients (like sauces and jams); local markets are one of the best places to find these products. They make a good introduction both to the taste of native foods as well as ideas on how to use them.

Another place to find these foods is in your health food shop (and even sometimes in your supermarket). Lemon Myrtle tea is a good example. This is the one I’ve tried, although there are many different brands (as well as different native teas).

3. buy native ingredients to cook with

The next step is to buy raw native ingredients to cook with, things like native herbs and spices or native fruits and greens at your local markets. Find ingredients in specialty stores, health food stores, greengrocers, at local markets or online.

There are many recipes online to guide you in using native foods, although it will be a lot more fun to experiment and come up with your own recipes.

4. Grow native food plants in your garden

This is the aspect of native foods that I’m particularly interested in: incorporating native food plants into the garden. The benefits of growing your own bush tucker are many.

Firstly, and particularly if you’re buying from nurseries that specialise in native food plants, you can be assured you’re eating plants that are not poisonous.

Secondly, by planting native trees, you are providing a food source for native birds and insects as well as helping maintain a good balance between native and introduced species and helping to keep endangered species alive. Native plants are also hardy and water wise.

Thirdly, as much of the bush tucker currently consumed is ‘wild harvested’, increasing demand puts pressure on its sustainability. Many native plants are low maintenance so by growing your own, you have the best of both worlds.

If you are interested in adding native food plants to your garden, find out which ones are appropriate for your local climate and start from there. Your local nursery should be able to help or check out the resources section for more information.

5. Forage for native foods

Foraging means food for free, which is always nice. One day I would like to get more into foraging; it’s a great way to supplement what you buy and what you grow. Foraging is also a great way to really understand, appreciate and live within the natural rhythms of the environment.

Of course, foraging doesn’t just mean native foods, there are many introduced plant species (aka weeds) that can be picked and eaten. If you’re in Melbourne, Doris Pozzi does edible weed walks and workshops; she also has a book that you can buy online.

There are two things to keep in mind when foraging for foods. The first is to really make sure you know what you’re picking and eating. It can be very easy to mistake one plant for another, sometimes with deadly consequences. In the reading I’ve been doing lately, I’ve discovered that even within the same species, some plants are edible while others that look very similar are poisonous. Also, some parts of a plant may be edible, while other parts poisonous.

Ideally you would want to take a course or workshop (if you can find one) from someone who knows the native foods in your local area  and can teach you where to find them and how to identify them.

Secondly, keep in mind that some plants are endangered and protected and therefore require a permit to harvest. The NSW variety of Davidson Plum comes to mind here (although the QLD variety is not endangered). You will also need to check out regulations if foraging in National Parks.

Further resources

If you have any other resources or experience in growing, foraging, cooking or eating Australian native foods, let us know in the comments below.

Image by Tatters, used under the creative commons licence.

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19 Comments

  1. I’ve tried native peppers/spices – marketed as “Mountain Spice” through Cradle Mountain in Tasmania. Heavenly when added to pumpkin soup and other soups. After trying the “Mountain Spice”, we researched and planted a few native species in our garden, including native mint. Great for unique flavours in regular recipes.

    I’d love to know more about the Yam Daisy (it has a tuberous root, which can be baked over a fire.) These were apparently a staple of the Aboriginal diet. I’ve seen patches of them up in the high country in Victoria, in National Parks, but we’ve never disturbed them or taken seed – would love to know if there are legitimate sources of seed or plants.

    Have tried kangaroo a few times, but wow it’s a strong flavour! Apparently it is great health-wise – lean, full of iron. But the taste is a bit full-on for me!

    Great topic for future discussion!

  2. Oh, I’ve just remembered too that when I was a small child, maybe aged 7, Dad took us out in the bush and we came across some witjuti grubs, which he duly passed across to us to eat…

    …AND WE ATE THEM!!!

    Just call me Bear Gryllis….!

  3. Great post. I forage for some bush tucker – but am keen to learn more. I mostly forage for greens I know – like Warrigal Greens (native spinach) and weeds like Purslane and prickly pear fruit.

    and we buy Maccadamias from a local grower and eat Kangaroo regularly.

    I agree with your first point. It may seem overwhelming at the start to work out which bush tuckers to eat – but do a few courses or pick one easily identifiable food at a time. Warrigal Greens is an easy one to start with. I write about foraging for it here: http://www.littleecofootprints.com/2011/04/foraging-warrigal-greens-bush-tucker.html.

    1. Thanks for sharing your link Tricia. I’ve read about the oxalic acid in Warrigal greens; they say it’s similar to spinach which makes me wonder if we should blanch spinach first too.

  4. This raises a question I have asked myself recently. I would love to do a local ‘Bush Foods’ tour. When I was a kid our family lived in the NT and used to go camping with some local indigenous people who taught us a few things they ate. Mangrove worms are not my idea of a nice meal though! There are bush apples, plums, macadamias are native to Australia, wattle seed etc. Actually I noticed that Dick Smith uses wattle seeds in his ‘Bush Breakfast’ cereal.

    1. Hi Chez – do you mean run a food tour or go on one? If you run one, count me in!

      I think you live in the same area as me (love your blog btw – that’s how I know, not that I mean to sound like a stalker, lol). The Sunny Coast Council has a livng smart program http://www.livingsmartqld.com.au/, I was hoping to be able to meet locals through this who are interested in sustainable living but also hopefully find people who are knowledgeable about local bush foods.

  5. We buy Dick Smith’s peanut butter made with Kingaroy peanuts (no idea if these are native though, but we like to support Aussie over imported stuff!) and he also sells a lemon myrtle tea which is INCREDIBLY delicious! (Bit expensive but soooo worth it!). I’m pretty sure the lemon myrtle is native too!

    1. Yep, Lemon Myrtle tea is native – was at the market today looking for one to plant in the, erm, shared garden of our townhouse complex (no one will notice :D). The tea is very nice. If I remeber correctly, Rhonda from Down to Earth has a post about using lemon myrtle in cooking.

  6. I grow Warrigal greens in my Tassie garden, seeds from Diggers’. They thrive in summer, when I use them as the green layer in lasagne, or add them to stir fries. Very high in oxalic acid, so I steam them first. They struggle in frost, but just survive the winter. We also have native pepperberry and native mint in our garden. We also eat wallaby which our butcher gets in from his family farm on Flinders Island. Apparently game has up to 90% more iron than farmed meats..

    1. That’s interesting about the game meat having so much iron. I’ve gone quite anaemic again and could do with some extra iron (we don’t eat beef and lamb is a bit pricey but roo meat isn’t very common in our local supermarket as it seems to be in others’ supermarkets).

      I just ordered silverbeet seeds – next time I think I will try the warrigal greens from Diggers. Thanks!!

  7. Your post reminded me immediately of my son and his mate trying to microwave a huge Witchetty Grub which they found in the reserve behind our house. It exploded and you guessed it I was left to clean up the mess…..

  8. I remember eating witchety grubs on a school camp, remember they tasted like nutty mashed potatoes. I’ve had wattle seed biscuits in the Qantas Lounge many moons ago, they tasted great. Kangaroo is very gamey, the best way I’ve had it is Thai marinated and then on the bbq. I like macadamia’s, I’ve even found them being sold in Europe in the supermarkets. I’ve eaten a quandong, but it wasn’t ripe enough, but my Grandmother would make the jam often. My hubby has eaten Possum, wallaby, Crocodile and Emu – I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I’ve used Lemon Myrtle soap. I too wish is was available in the main stream market.

    1. Lemon myrtle soap would smell devine! I think I may just stick to the mashed potatoes :).

      1. I love reading articles like this,and I especially love reading the comments. I have a food business based in Northern NSW that focuses on using Australian Native Spices in all of our dishes. The Mountain Pepper Berry from Tassie is fantastic in flavour, and there are another couple of Peppers (Dorrigo and Atherton Ranges Mountain Pepper) are also very unique. The key is to not over do it, as a lot of Australian Bush Foods can be toxic if too much is used. The Native Rainforest Mint is an amazing flavour (we found the River Mint not as refreshing and had an aftertaste) and is reported some say up to 10 times stronger than regular mint, but it shouldn’t be taken when pregnant.
        The Myrtles are versatile with Aniseed, Cinnamon and of course Lemon. Even the Lemon Myrtle has a food grade and soap grade that is not edible so make sure you do your research. A few searches and you will find plenty of recipes.

        Shane

  9. I pick Lilli Pilli berries when pink/hot pink very tart taste, but makes great Jam, after you have pitted them,, 1 kg gives about 4 x400gm jars

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