Future bright for native Australian ingredients

Berries, fish, leafy greens, legumes, whole grains, and acai all have the moniker of being superfoods and claim to have a range of health benefits. They are said to be nutrient-rich and have the ability to enhance peoples’ diets.

The Australian Superfood Co was set up by dietitian Hayley Blieden in 2015. Blieden came up with the idea when she was working for the North Melbourne Football Club and had a few conversations with the indigenous players about their diets when they went home after the end of the season.

“They would come back and tell me about these foods and I was blown away. As a dietitian, I consider myself a food expert, yet I had never heard of these native foods,” said Blieden. “These foods have sustained Indigenous Australians for over 60,000 years in some of the harshest, unpredictable climates. We were importing ancient ‘superfoods’ from all over the world, yet we were unaware of the bounty in our own backyard.”

Blieden started looking into the health benefits and construction of the foods and found that they had a lot of nutritional properties. And it’s wasn’t just a case of Blieden taking the word of the Indigenous consumers, or trusting her own research. The federal government also carried out research onto a lot of the products. They have analysed the anti-oxidant properties, the vitamin C content and nutritional profiles. Also, how bio available they are and how they compare to other foods on the market, said Blieden.

“The native foods are some of the most nutritionally dense food on the planet,” she said. “For instance, the Kakadu plum has the world’s highest natural vitamin C content. As well as government data, we have done our own testing that is batch specific. For instance, on our packaging we state the vitamin C conent of our Kakadu plum so we get our products tested externally to verify this.”

The Australian Superfood Co was a finalist in the Ingredients category in the 2019 Food & Beverage Industry Awards. Flora that the company works with includes the aforementioned Kakadu plum, as well as the Davidson plum, quandong, riberry, finger lime, aniseed myrtle and wattleseed to name a few.

Blieden realised from the outset that it was important to work with Indigenous Australians, due to the rich cultural significance and their intrinsic link to the land and plants. The company also works with non-Indigenous hobby farmers, as well as larger enterprises, too.
“We work collaboratively with Indigenous Australians in remote communities. The geographical location and the fragmented nature of the industry makes the native food industry particularly difficult to navigate. We see ourselves as the intermediary between these communities and growers and multi-national food and beverage manufacturers who require stringent quality control, ongoing supply and a consistent product,” she said.

“However, we have the relationships with the communities as well as farmers, which means we are able to bring the produce together, and process it in a way that will keep supply stable. The fruits are only grown in Australia. The seasonality is really important because you can only source them at certain times of the year. It’s not like you can go to America and buy them when they are out of season in Australia.”

An important facet of the business is being able to supply produce all year around. The consistency has been an issue in the past, but Blieden and her team have been tenacious in making sure all-year round supply is possible. And while there are certain times of the year products are available, they are working on trying to make sure there is an annual supply not just seasonal.

In order to manage the limited supply issue, The Australian Superfood Co preserve large quantities of fruit when they are in season. The company offers natives in a freeze-dried powder format, or liquid extract of dehydrated fruit. By preserving natives the company is able to hold large inventory stores and work with its customers to forecast requirements.

In order to increase supply, Blieden recognises that, “it is about planting more trees and changing the current agricultural landscape in Australia.” The Australian Superfood Co is currently working with Indigenous communities and current suppliers to increase their harvest as well as getting farmers of traditional crops to diversify and repurpose land to native crops.

“We know that, the limited supply will be an issue. If we do not increase supply as demand increases, then the industry will experience the challenges it has in the past and may not have the confidence to continue in this direction.”

New Zealand’s kiwifruit started out as the Chinese Gooseberry before it was adopted by Kiwis in the 1940s and 50s. Supply issues aside, is Blieden worried that some of these plants genus’s might make their way overseas and end up being produced outside of Australia, similar to the kiwifruit?

“It is a concern and it would be so sad if it ever happened. It is a big worry that somebody might take saplings out of the country and try and grow them overseas,” she said. “That is exactly what happened to the macadamia nut. If you ask people where the macadamia nut originated from they will tell you Hawaii. There are laws being put in place to stop this. When we purchase our Kakadu plums from certain communities, we sign a document stating we won’t sell the seeds.

“We know the way the world works and what drives business. We just hope we are able to secure our seeds and make sure that doesn’t happen, but it could be very difficult.”

Already these ingredients are proving popular among chefs around Australia as well as some of the big food manufacturers. And while some of the products may be costly, the way they are processed means consumers can get a big bang for their buck in terms of value for money.

“Quite a few well known chefs are using the products like Matt Stone, Ben Shewry from Attica – almost all high-end restaurants in Australia are incorporating Australian natives, which is exciting,” said Blieden. Large multi-nationals are also adopting native ingredients with Peters Ice Cream launching a range of native-infused ice creams as part of the Connoisseur range.

“These ingredients offer unique nutritional properties and flavour profiles. Incorporating them makes them more expensive but in the freeze dried format they are all highly concentrated so you only need a small amount. It is almost a 10-1 ratio. You use 10 kilos of Davidson plums to get 1kg of powder. You only need a teeny amount to really get an intense flavour and colour.”

Overall, Blieden sees a rosy future for Australia’s natural ingredients place in the food chain. Her only issue is whether demand will eventually outrun supply.

“The demand is high at the moment,” she said. “We are forecasting several multiples of inventory for the next year. Supply meeting the current demand isn’t an issue either, but if demand increases at the current rate, then it will become one.

“It will take 12 months to five years to harvest new crops – depending on the crop – so we need to get onto it now. For the gums and the myrtles it’ll be 12 months, but for some of the fruits it will a number of years before we can start cultivating them.”

Bush tucker trials to explore a new agricultural industry

Some of Victoria’s oldest flavours will soon be accessible to dining tables across the world, due to s Victorian state government grant to expand the bush food industry on the Great South Coast.

Minister for Regional Development , Jaclyn Symes, has announced the $30,000 Food Source Victoria grant, which will allow WG Enterprises to start supply chain mapping, field trials and kitchen trials to expand the emerging industry.

WG Enterprises provides economic opportunities to Aboriginal people by assisting individuals into employment and creating sustainable, Aboriginal-operated commercial enterprises.

The demand for bush foods is currently exceeding supply, with several key crops being exported to overseas markets. The grant will identify where the opportunities lie for Great South Coast producers, processors, distributors and retailers, and demonstrate a model to commercialise the businesses.

The field trials will assess the capability of several species, with viable plants then taken to large scale production testing. With most bush food research currently focused on northern or central Australia, this work will break new ground and test species that have never been researched before.

The trials will test Apium Prostratum (sea celery), Tasmania Lanceolata (mountain pepper), Kunzea Pomifera (muntries), Prostranthera Rotundifolia (round leaf mint bush), Mentha Australias (river mint), Carpobrotus Rossii (pigface), Arthropodium Strictum (chocolate lily), Arthropodium Milleflorum (vanilla lily), Billardiera cymosa (sweet apple berry) and Trachymene Incisia (wild parsnip).

The Labor Government’s Food Source Victoria program supports producers and businesses working in partnership to develop products that take the state’s best produce to the world, creating new jobs and growing exports.

“We’re proud to support WG Enterprises to expand the emerging native bush foods industry and create more jobs for Aboriginal Victorians.” said Symes. “This exciting project has the potential to bring some of Australia’s oldest flavours to dining tables right across the world.”

Wattleseed latte – a bush tucker alternative to coffee

Kakadu Plum Co has announced its new Wattleseed latte as an alternative to the morning coffee routine.

Hidden away in the Australian outback is a little tree that sprouts a husk with seeds inside. Foraged and picked, roasted and then ground, the result is a beautiful and exquisite blend that tastes a little nutty and smells a little like chocolate. Now, this taste of Australia can be enjoyed as an alternative to coffee.

“We have some of the best foods and flavours grown in our own backyard. It is my vision to create a movement and greater appreciation for our Indigenous foods, culture and traditions,” said Kakadu Plum Co founder, Tahlia Mandie

Best enjoyed with soy or almond milk frothed with the wattleseed, each glass delivers a rich yet subtle chocolatey hazelnut flavour with a touch of cinnamon on top. The wattleseed latte allows vegan and non-coffee drinkers the opportunity to experience a refreshing and warming latte, all while enjoying a naturally invigorating boost of energy and nutrients from the wattleseed.

Since it’s beginning, Kakadu Plum Co. has committed itself to celebrating, honouring and acknowledging our traditional bush foods to be used in our everyday life. Indigenous Australians have traditionally ground wattleseed and use it as a type of flour in their bread and damper. Now, beyond the damper, it is the perfect true Australian caffeine free latte blend.

Building a native food industry in Australia

The University of Adelaide and The Orana Foundation, founded by chef Jock Zonfrillo, have announced a major new research partnership to support the development of an Australian native food industry.

The partnership will deliver a key pillar of The Orana Foundation’s aims to foster the research and cultivation of native Australian ingredients for the benefit of remote Indigenous communities.

“Jock Zonfrillo and his Orana restaurant in Adelaide, have set an innovative path with his use of native ingredients and, through The Orana Foundation, Jock is seeking to preserve and evolve Australian food culture into sustainable industry that makes the most of Indigenous traditional knowledge and benefits Indigenous communities,” says Professor Andy Lowe, Director, Food Innovation at the University of Adelaide.

“The University of Adelaide has extensive research capability in food-related areas and we look forward to working with The Orana Foundation to understand more about the food ingredients that exist, their nutritional profile, their potential use in foods, and how they can best be cultivated and produced for commercial use.”

Jock Zonfrillo, founder and Chair of The Orana Foundation says: “The Orana Foundation was inspired by the first Australians’ unique relationship with the land, and sophisticated knowledge of traditional food culture.

“It is critically important for the success of this project that as a result of this scientific research and analysis, Indigenous communities are able to gain significant benefits from sharing their knowledge, through direct involvement in future cultivation, harvesting and supply of native ingredients.”

The research partnership is funded as part of a $1.25 million South Australian Government grant to The Orana Foundation.

“I’m so excited to see this project come to life,” says Jock Zonfrillo. “It’s been a long-term dream of mine to expand the work of Orana restaurant into a Foundation that brings recognition to Australian native wild ingredients, and the traditional food culture practice of the first Australian communities.

“For the past 15 years I have personally been privileged to work with remote Indigenous communities to learn something of this incredible culture. To create the first ever comprehensive database building on past and current knowledge from a wide range of sources will, I hope, allow many more people to access and share these rich food sources of Australia.”


Parrot pie and possum curry – how colonial Australians embraced native food

The relationship between European settlers and native Australian foodstuffs during the 19th century was a complex one. While the taste for native ingredients waxed and waned for the first century of European settlement, there’s ample evidence to demonstrate that local ingredients were no strangers to colonials’ kitchens or pots.

British settlers needed to engage with the edible flora and fauna of the continent almost immediately upon arrival. The journals of First Fleet officers record not only their reliance on native food, but the relish with which they enjoyed it. For example, First Fleet surgeon George Worgan noted in his diary a feast held to celebrate the King’s birthday:

We sat down to a very good Entertainment, considering how far we are from Leaden-Hall Market, it consisted of Mutton, Pork, Ducks, Fowls, Fish, Kanguroo, Sallads, Pies & preserved Fruits.

S. T. Gill’s sketch of a ‘Butcher’s Shamble’ from 1869.
State Library of Victoria

But despite the colonists’ reliance on native ingredients to supplement their diet, they were regarded with deep suspicion. Cooks – mainly women – relied on traditional British methods to transform these raw materials into something that they deemed culturally recognisable and appropriate.

Journals and other written accounts record these efforts. Kathleen Kirkland, a migrant who settled in Australia in the 19th century, wrote about the kangaroo soup, bush turkey and parrot pie she prepared for New Year’s Day 1841. She also praised the wild mushrooms from which she made a ketchup.

A contemporary of Kirkland, Louisa Meredith, describes eating kangaroo, wattle bird and echidna, although admitting that her tastes were not shared by all. But at least enough agreed with her that Phillis Clark, who was born in Tasmania in 1836, could compile a manuscript cookbook of recipes copied from other books and newspaper clippings. This personal collection contained a number of dishes featuring native ingredients like kangaroo, as well as detailed instructions for butchering the animal.

Kangaroo steamers

These examples notwithstanding, the settlers went to considerable trouble to maintain British food habits, in order to maintain a British identity.

Mrs Allan Macpherson, who settled in northern New South Wales in 1856, recounted that a dish of rock wallaby had a “very close resemblance to the hare” specially when cooked the same way and eaten with currant jelly. This application of European cooking techniques made it impossible to “distinguish them apart”.

Frontispiece of The English and Australian cookery book : cookery for the many, as well as for the upper ten thousand, by an Australian aristologist.
National Library of Victoria

Suspicion extended to traditional Aboriginal food practices such as using cooking vessels made from from bark or tree gnarls and wrapping food in leaves. They were disdained entirely, even if the ingredients used by Indigenous Australians were not.

It is in this manner that native ingredients appear in Australia’s first cookbook, The English and Australian Cookery Book, written by Tasmanian politician Edward Abbott and published in 1864.

In a section dedicated to game meats, Abbott featured recipes for kangaroo, emu, wombat and other native fauna. There were a number of recipes for “kangaroo steamer”, a dish that had been popular for at least almost half a century across the colonies.

Kangaroo steamer was a colonial adaptation of the traditional British dish of jugged hare and involved slowly cooking kangaroo meat with bacon and other seasonings. The dish would be cooked in a glass jar or earthenware vessel and sealed so it could be stored for an extended period.

Engaging with Indigenous food methods

One of the few cookbook writers to fully engage with Aboriginal people and their food methods was Wilhelmina Rawson. Born in Sydney, Rawson spent long portions of her life in northern and central Queensland.

State Library of NSW

It was here that she began gathering the recipes that would appear in her first cookbook, Mrs Lance Rawson’s cookery book and household hints, first published in 1878.

This book holds the distinction of being the first cookbook written by a woman in Australia. From the outset, Rawson noted the abundance of edible native ingredients that her readers could rely on such as kangaroos, bush turkeys and bandicoots. She urged her readers not to think of these foods as ingredients of last resort but rather, to consider them as a “sumptuous repast” not far from their kitchen.

Rawson’s adventurous palate extended beyond fauna and included such things as wild mushrooms and the young shoots of the rough leaved, fig tree which had been pointed out to her by Aboriginal informants.

In her 1895 book The Antipodean Cookery Book, Rawson noted that “I am beholden to the blacks for nearly all my knowledge of the edible ground game” and that “whatever the blacks eat the whites may safely try”.

Rawson’s relationship with Aboriginal people was complex and nuanced. Demonstrating an understanding of the dispossession of land occurring in Queensland at the time, she wrote sympathetically of

The lessons white men should learn from the blacks before the work of extermination which is so rapidly going on has swept all the blacks who possess this wonderful bush lore off the face of the earth.

Here she was voicing common sentiments about the predicted demise of the Aboriginal race. Rawson’s long periods of living in remote rural locations throughout Queensland had most likely placed her in closer contact with Aboriginal people than cookbook writers who lived in towns or cities.

British settlers, especially those living away from metropolitan centres, consumed native ingredients both out of choice and out of necessity for most of the 19th century.

However, this consumption was mediated by deeply held cultural prejudices. The transformation of native ingredients into recognisable British dishes can be regarded as part of the broader colonising process taking place.

The Conversation

Blake Singley, Curator, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Top Image: Tea and Damper by A . M. Ebsworth. From Digital Collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Can we be Australian without eating indigenous food?

American food historian Waverley Root once wrote:

food is a function of the soil, for which reason every country has the food naturally fit for it.

Every country, that is, except Australia.

By Australian food we mean the plants, fruits and animals that have grown here and sustained the indigenous people of the land for over 50,000 years. If we eat only the food brought by the first settlers and all those who followed, can we call ourselves Australian?

The British who colonised – or invaded – Australia arrived with an intact culture, which included their cusine. They brought with them the fruit, vegetables and livestock from their home. From the outset, they imposed that food and food culture on their new land and, to their detriment, its original inhabitants.

They ignored the intricate environmental management of indigenous peoples, a management that heavily informed their world view. Historian Bill Gammage argued in The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) that for the original inhabitants “theology is fused with ecology”. The colonists overlaid an alien system of agriculture which began the process of ecological imbalance in which the continent now finds itself and began exporting back to Europe the European foodstuffs they planted and raised. And, for around 150 years, we adhered to the diet of the first settlers.

In short, European Australians lived on, not in, this continent. This culinary determinism is the most material evidence of the disjunction between where we are, and what we eat.

The successive waves of migrant arrivals since 1945 also bought their cultures and foods with them. And what did Anglo Australia do? Ate them up. Embraced the food of migrants more than just about any country in the world.

The result is that Australia is not just multicultural, it’s multiculinary. Australians will go to a Thai restaurant – any kind of restaurant – and have no fear. They’ll happily eat boat noodle soup with beef blood stirred through it or stinking tofu: but not witchetty grubs or quandongs or akudjura (bush tomatoes). As the television scientist Julius Sumner Miller would have asked, “why is it so?

To answer that question we must first acknowledge that food is far more than a material substance that is ingested and excreted. It distinguishes and defines us to ourselves and to our fellows.

It can be a primary cultural marker of our clan, tribe, religion, region, province, personal sensibilities and country of origin. Based on that understanding of the complexity of food, we’d like to suggest three interlocked answers to this question.

Firstly, cultural determinism, which basically means you stick with what you grew up with. It made sense for the First Fleet to bring its own food to this distant and unknown land. But not, perhaps, to ignore the local foods for almost 250 years.

Secondly, neophilia, the fear of new foods, a concept introduced by psychologist Paul Rozin. And new they were. Giant marsupials that bounded across the landscape; limes shaped like fingers; flour – nardoo – made from a fern. Large white tree grubs. Strange grub indeed.

(As an aside, misunderstanding the food of the land really can be deadly. Burke and Wills may have starved to death from eating too much nardoo, which is full of an enzyme that’s lethal in high quantities. If they’d asked the local Indigenous people how to prepare the nardoo spores, they would have survived.)

Finally, the dark, underlying reasons for the long rejection of our native foods. What we – and others – have called “food racism”. The association of these foods with the original inhabitants.

This is a very hard charge to prove, but in writing about this topic, over time, I have recorded several examples of anecdotal evidence. Perhaps the most powerful was relayed to me by Raymond Kersh, chef at the Edna’s Table series of restaurants.

When he began using Australian native produce ingredients in his dishes at the first Edna’s Table, Kersh didn’t list them on the menu. But when the restaurant moved in 1993, he began listing the native ingredients used in the dishes on the menu.

A good customer who had eaten Kersh’s food in the first Edna’s Table came to the new restaurant, read the menu and asked the chef: “What are you using this Abo shit for?” This was not an isolated instance. It certainly reinforces the power of food beyond its ability to satisfy hunger.

What can we do about this reluctance to eat the foods native to this country without which, we contend, we cannot truly call ourselves Australians?

Perhaps Australia Day should be celebrated with a meal of Australian and introduced food, shared by all Australians. The meal would give thanks to the Indigenous inhabitants for caring for country for over 50,000 years, and – admittedly belatedly – showing us the foods of the land.

It would be an act of culinary reconciliation. We might even agree to change the name. At the end of his book, Bill Gammage writes:

We have a continent to learn. If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.

One way of achieving this may well be to sit down as brothers and sisters and share a meal of native foods.


John Newton is author, The Oldest Foods on Earth, University of Technology Sydney

Paul Ashton is Professor of Public History, University of Technology Sydney

This article first appeared on The Conversation. Read the original here.

Image: AGFC