‘Bush Tucker’ is the name given to foods that are native to Australia. Aboriginal Australians have built up extensive knowledge of what time of year certain foods should be eaten and what is and is not edible in their area. This knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, and has been essential for survival in the often-harsh Australian terrain. Aboriginal groups would often travel from season to season, moving to where they knew various food sources would be available. The more plentiful the area a tribe lived in, the less nomadic they were. Tribes living in the desert may have been constantly moving, searching for food, while coastal tribes may have remained reasonably stationary due to the availability of fish as a food source.
Connection to Dreamtime
Dreaming tracks, or songlines guided nomadic life. In dry regions, food gathering was linked with the need for water. Through daily singing of songlines, children were made to memorise the sequence of locations in the Dreaming tracks, and thus the location of waterholes. Songlines also corresponded with the cycles of plants and animals. Most fruits, nuts, and insects were seasonal. Through generations of knowledge, Aboriginals knew exactly when and what foods were available, and when certain animals were fattest.
Hunting and Food Gathering
The Aboriginal people traditionally grew no crops as the bush supplied all their needs. Food harvesting was carried out by clearly defined gender roles. Usually, the women were gatherers and the men were hunters. The ability to bring home game reflected a man’s prestige. Hunting often spanned days, and required both endurance and strength, as well as skill. To ensure success during hunting, the men performed various rituals to soothe totem animals.
Food Rules and Laws
The laws laid down by the Dreaming affected the types of food eaten. It also affected who gathered certain types of food, eating habits and the preparation of food. Some foods have spiritual significance to some people. These are often called totems. These animals and plants need to be protected and were often not eaten or only eaten during ceremonies.
Women and men can have differing relationships with the rituals surrounding food:
- In many language groups the men and women would eat separately.
- In some tribes certain foods are prepared by women and others by men. Fruit and vegetables are often prepared by women, whilst meat such as kangaroo and emu are often prepared by men. This rule is not the same in all language groups.
- In some language groups the men do all the cooking, whilst in others it is the women’s role.
- In some language groups food prepared by a man was not eaten by a women, and vice versa.
Types of Indigenous Foods
There are numerous foods native to Australia, discovered by Aboriginal people as food sources in often, inhospitable climates and surroundings. Some are still relatively unknown food sources, like the honey ant and witchetty grub, while others are becoming part of a new contemporary Australian cuisine, which fuses old European recipes with traditional Aboriginal foods:
- Nectars Grevillia: Nectar-baring flowers are sucked for their sweet nectar and taste. By immersing the flowers in water, a sweet tasting drink is made.
- Witchetty Grubs: One of the outbacks most nutritious foods. Ten of these fat white grubs per day are said to be sufficient for survival. The flavour is described as almond-like or similar to peanut butter!!
- The Honey Ant: The honey ant stores honeydew in their abdomens. Women dig deeply to uncover them in their underground nests.
- Wattle Seed: These seeds are dry roasted and ground to enhance their natural nutty, coffee-like flavour.
- Lemon Myrtle: The leaves and stems of this rain forest tree exhibit a wonderful citrus flavour and aroma.
- Macadamia Nuts and Oil: This delicious crunchy textured nut is grown widely in Queensland and New South Wales, and was Australia’s first indigenous plant to be used commercially.
- Paper Bark: The Mellaluca tree has been used by Aboriginals for a multitude of purposes, from cooking, to carrying water, to providing shelter.
- Kakadu Plum: This sharp flavoured green plum has the world’s highest recorded fruit content of vitamin C, and is found from Katherine to the Kimberly.
Steve Sunk is a celebrity chef in Australia more fondly known as the ‘Walkabout Chef’. His passion for Aboriginal cuisine was born out of concern over the poor diet and subsequent poor health of many Aboriginal Australians. He recently published a book which explores the nutritional values of the traditional Aboriginal diet and includes some appetising and original culinary creations. Below are some examples of a modern twist to traditional ‘bush tucker’ …and not for the vegetarian among us!!
Kangaroo tail soup with witchetty grubs
Wash, blanch, then lightly brown in olive oil one kangaroo tail cut up into small pieces. Add several litres of water plus three peeled carrots, three roughly chopped onions, four celery sticks and one shredded leek, bring to the boil. Add two bay leaves, 10 pepper corns and two beef cubes. Simmer for three hours or until meat is tender, adding more water if necessary. Season with salt and pepper. Serve topped with lightly fried witchetty grubs (three grubs per serving).
Wild greens and crocodile frittata
Lightly brown six to 12 finely chopped bush onions in olive oil. Add one cup of crocodile meat, cut into strips, and cook until tender. Add one cup of roughly chopped wild spinach and toss lightly. Reduce heat. Whisk five eggs with three tablespoons of milk plus salt and pepper. Pour mixture into pan and mix well. Oven cook at 180-200C for 10 minutes. Serve with a salad or roasted yams. (Emu eggs may be substituted for hen’s eggs)
- For more information on types of Aboriginal food and customs surrounding food go to http://www.frogandtoad.com.au/aboriginies/bushtucker.html
- For extensive information on the evolution of the Aboriginal diet and food preparation techniques go to www.tamingthemonkeymind.com
- For an insight into the workings of Steve Sunk’s unusual culinary approach check out this interesting interview with the man himself: http://www.eniar.org/news/bushtucker1.html