Once considered specialist ingredients, indigenous foodstuffs like saltbush, finger lime and riberries are finding their way onto menus across Australia.
It’s often said that Australia doesn’t really have its own national cuisine – that as a young country, its food culture is best understood as a mosaic of traditions drawn from Asia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Europe, blended together and adapted to suit Australian produce and palates.
On one level, this is true. On another level, it disregards the rich history of everything Indigenous Australians ate pre-British colonisation. Sure, the macadamia nut has achieved international recognition, but what about the thousands of other edible native species? Even five years ago, for the interested diner to experience native Australian produce, they’d have to seek out a specialist, capital “F” Fine Dining restaurant like Ben Shewry’s Attica or Jock Zonfrillo’s Orana in order to sample the country’s endemic produce. Lately, it seems this is changing. Across Australia, an influx of casual eateries – the kind that eschew tablecloths and stuffiness and excel in moderately priced wine lists – are serving up modern cuisine with a distinctive Indigenous flavour.
Take Etta, for example. Led by New Zealand-born chef Hayden McMillan and his business partner Hannah Green, the Brunswick East, Melbourne bistro acts as a gentle gateway to the possibilities of bush food.
“For me, it comes down to flavour,” explains McMillan. “At Etta, we want to give people something that they’ve never had before, but it’s really driven by flavour.” What he means by this is that the food isn’t designed to be challenging; it has none of the conceptual pomp you’d find at somewhere like Attica. Instead, Etta aims to please. With a menu reflecting the “melting pot of cultures” that make up the local neighbourhood, Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, Asian and Indigenous Australian influences all find their way into the bright, produce-driven fare.
McMillan deploys native Australian ingredients with flair, using them as unexpected accents to more familiar flavours. Wattleseed, a spice prized for its flavour profile that sits somewhere between coffee, chocolate and hazelnut, is made into a dukkah and served atop a dish of heirloom carrots and salted ricotta, or used as a spice rub in curing meat. Blue-grey leaves of saltbush are fried to a crisp and plated with golden roast potatoes or a tangle of green beans with sauce gribiche. Its appeal, says McMillan, is in its texture: “I’ll use saltbush if I want to add a layer of salt and crunch to something.”
Another standout ingredient is finger lime, a roughly cylindrical green-skinned fruit which, split open, reveals an inside full of luminous pearls resembling caviar. Its pulp is used at Etta across both savoury and sweet dishes – the zippy flavour pairing equally well with Ora King salmon as it does atop a perfectly balanced dessert of cheesecake, tart mandarin sorbet and ginger caramel.
“It adds so much surprise to the palate,” explains McMillan. “You can be eating something and then it’s like ‘pew pew pew’ –” here, he mimes a series of small explosions with his hands. “It’s easily my favourite indigenous ingredient.”
At Sunda, a modern, buzzy eatery in Melbourne’s CBD, the Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indonesian-influenced menu is similarly reflective of Australia’s multicultural make-up. Chef Khanh Nguyen learned his trade at Sydney’s Red Lantern, Bécasse and Mr Wong before landing an internship at René Redzepi’s Noma pop-up. It was there that he became interested in the possibilities of native, foraged foods.
“When I did the internship with René, I asked him why he uses native ingredients. He said that that’s just who he is,” says Nguyen. “He gave me the advice that if you just be yourself, you’ll be unique. I was born in Australia, but my parents are Vietnamese and so I took that on and did Southeast Asian flavours with native ingredients.”
Familiar dishes like congee, laksa, nasi ulam and roti are reimagined with a distinctly Australian twist – the laksa, for instance, uses the leaves and stalks of Geraldton wax in place of lemongrass, its slightly bitter, acidic flavour imparting a unique dimension to the broth. The nasi ulam is served with native herbs like aniseed myrtle rather than the traditional Malay ingredients. The congee gets a hit of earthiness from wattleseeds.
“Asian cooking is a lot about balance – sweet and sour, salty and spicy, bitterness and umami,” explains Nguyen. “Using native ingredients really helps to balance that out.” Instead of tamarind, he reaches for lemon myrtle or Geraldton wax. In the place of peanuts, he uses macadamias. Instead of conventional lime, he’ll opt for desert or finger lime. His masterful adaption of Southeast Asian flavours is perhaps best showcased in a dish involving tender slices of lamb served with a native curry jus made with lemon myrtle, aniseed myrtle, native pepperberry and dehydrated bush tomato powder. The resulting flavour is familiar, yet tantalisingly different to a traditional curry.
Perhaps ironically, the dish on Sunda’s menu that’s generated the most buzz involves a much more divisive Australian ingredient: a perfectly fried roti is served with a dollop of Vegemite-infused curry to soak up the flaky, golden shards.
Paperbark’s signature might be less controversial, but the hype is the same. Tucked away in the Sydney suburb of Waterloo, the restaurant has quickly gained a cult following for a dish of meaty Portobello mushrooms which are concertinaed onto eucalyptus twigs, smoked over paperbark, and served over a generous dash of macadamia cream with a scattering of finger lime pearls on top. Like everything on Paperbark’s menu, it’s entirely vegan.
For chef Joey Astorga, using native ingredients – especially those which can be foraged in the local vicinity – is an important part of his vision for Paperbark. It comes down to capturing a sense of place.
“In Sydney at the moment, riberries are growing wild so we’re foraging those –lemon myrtle as well. Those two are really iconic flavours to Sydney; you’ll see them all around the streets at the moment so it makes sense to use them in combination,” he says. “We’re trying to do something a little contemporary, something a little bit nicer than just your average bistro food.”
This contemporary ethos extends to Paperbark’s underplayed elegance, its airy interior anchored by a cool concrete floor and marble-topped bar. Dotted around the space are bunches of native foliage and flowers, while at the tables, guests are encouraged to share. “We don’t have tablecloths or anything,” says Astorga. “We have earthenware ceramics, stemless wineglasses – we try to keep it casual but in a nice setting.”
Much vegan food tends towards substitution, manipulating plant-based ingredients to approximate meat, milk, eggs and cheese; Paperbark, on the other hand, showcases exactly what can be done when vegetables are given the chance to shine. On a recent visit, earthy beetroots – roasted, marinated in an aromatic lemon myrtle broth, then dehydrated – were sliced into delicate rounds, plated with lemon aspen cream and topped with a melange of native coastal greens like ice plant and sea blite.
For Astorga, using Indigenous ingredients is as important as offering an entirely plant-based menu. “I think chefs should be conscious of the ingredients that they’re choosing and the repercussions of using those ingredients,” he says. Where possible, he tries to source from Indigenous-run businesses. “It’s about raising awareness, telling stories and keeping in touch with the land. It needs to be meaningful – it’s not just about cooking something just for the sake of it.”
Astorga’s attitude is echoed by Sharon Winsor, owner of Australian native food supplier Indigiearth. Winsor, a Ngemba Weilwan woman of western New South Wales, founded the company in 2010 with the goal of making bush food more accessible.
“For me, it keeps me in touch with my culture,” she says. “I’m very passionate about wanting to get bush food back into the everyday diet and lifestyle, especially in our own Aboriginal community.”
Winsor works with Indigenous communities right across Australia to source ingredients as varied as lemon myrtle, bush tomato, wattleseed, ice plant and edible green ants. Much of the food is wild harvested rather than cultivated. She’s dedicated to helping Indigenous communities develop their own sustainable bush food and harvesting businesses so that those communities can see both the financial and cultural rewards.
“Traditionally, [different] foods grow in all different areas, so we’ve all got foods that are traditional to our own tribal areas,” she explains. “A lot of our communities don’t know what’s happening in the commercial industry of bush food, so they don’t really know what the value is or that they could be making an income from it,” she says.
Winsor is in the minority: she estimates that only 1 per cent of native food growers and suppliers in Australian are Aboriginal-owned. She’s working to change that, passing her skills and knowledge along so that other Aboriginal people can move forward in the industry as well. Her ultimate goal though is to bring bush food back to the table: “We want everyone to enjoy native ingredients – it’s not just for Aboriginal people. We’d like to see people using these ingredients because it’s a way for us to educate people and help them have a better understanding of Aboriginal people and culture. I’d love to see bush food become a part of everyday life for everyone.”