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Australia’s first program focused on native bushfoods has launched with a cohort of 12 early stage native food and agriculture businesses selected from more than 50 applicants across the country.
This program, called Ideas2Business, has been designed specifically to support the next generation of Australia’s Indigenous food producers. The 12-week initiative will help native food and agriculture entrepreneurs test their business ideas and build capability to develop and launch a wide range of new native foods and products into the market.
This native ag and food accelerator, the first of its type in Australia, is the brainchild of Food Futures Company, an Australian-based agriculture and food innovation design firm that works with entrepreneurs, SMEs, start-ups, researchers, corporates and investors around the world to accelerate the development of innovative agri-food technologies, products and services.
Co-Founder and CEO of Food Futures Company, Dr Christine Pitt, said the accelerator has been designed to help early stage Australian food-focused companies fast-track their growth and build a healthier and more sustainable future.
“Australia’s native ag and food sector has great potential to become a successful world class industry, and we are working closely with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses to help achieve this,” she said.
“The program is designed to develop their business ideas into offerings that will deliver economic, social, cultural, environmental and health benefits to First Nations people, other businesses in the sector with appropriate benefit-sharing, and the wider Australian community. This sector offers significant commercial potential, and we’re dedicated to helping increase efficiencies and traceability, improve decision support and value chain innovation, and innovate their business models,” Pitt said.
Each start-up will undertake a tailored three-month program to help tackle their biggest individual challenges to growth, whether that’s branding, product development, market intelligence, sales or supply chain. The program, delivered in partnership with ThincLab (The University of Adelaide), includes access to a panel of expert mentors and advisors.
Indigenous fusion food
Niyoka Bundle, one of the 12 participants in the Ideas2Business accelerator, is co-founder of Melbourne-based Pawa Catering. Ms Bundle founded Pawa with her husband and head chef, Vincent Manning. Together they create Indigenous fusions of native foods and western foods, drawing inspiration and ideas from everyday foods that people love.
“I have loved to cook from an early age, so starting a catering business seemed a great way to do what I love,” Bundle said. “My mother is from the Gundijtmara people in Warrnambool Victoria and my father is from the Yuin people of Bega in NSW, and whenever possible I like to use Indigenous foods from my family’s countries.
“We had been catering for large corporate functions, events and festivals, and 2020 was going to be our growth year, but COVID-19 put an end to that. Our biggest success currently is a new fusion pizza kit, and this is the business opportunity we’re focussing on in the accelerator. We’re looking to expand the product nationally, and then internationally when that’s possible.
“One of the most valuable parts of the accelerator is time spent with mentors to help us develop our plans. They are opening our eyes to things we might otherwise have missed, or could have done better. We’re now looking to diversify the fusion pizza kit into other offerings like a curry kit and some vegan options, which are both areas for growth,” Bundle said.
Dominic Smith, a Yuin man, has been operating his Pundi Produce aquaponics business at Monash in South Australia, near the NSW border, since 2014. He produces seasonal herbs and vegetables as well as natives like warrigal, rivermint, saltbush, sea parsley, sea celery and wattleseed.
“I’ve developed some good knowledge about growing native products, but after experimenting with my aquaponics system, I use even less water, land and labour than traditional agriculture,” Smith said. “In fact, it works so well I don’t have to use chemical fertilisers or pesticides. I’m a strong believer in using all-natural products which are more sustainable and produce a better food product.
“The accelerator is helping me to learn how customers choose what they buy and what motivates them, which all helps me when I’m working out what produce to grow and which markets to sell into,” he said.
With his proud heritage, Dominic wants to create more opportunities for Indigenous people to become involved in the native food sector, through employment and potentially owning their own farms. There are currently opportunities for corporate partners, investors and funders to assist with the accelerator program, including direct sponsorship for the 12 inaugural projects in the Ideas2Business accelerator, or future program extensions.
Participants in the Ideas2Business Ag and Food Accelerator (Further details at Food Futures):
● Dominic Smith & Andrew Fielke
● Eddy Nye & Scott Triana
● Araluen Hagen
● Cory Robertson
● Tracey & Doug Goebel
● Hayden Marks
● Rachel McMillan & Sarah Drew
● Jesse Gurugirr
● Jida Gulpilil
● Leeanne Barlow
● Niyoka Bundle
● Susan Crocett
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Top Image: Tea and Damper by A . M. Ebsworth. From Digital Collection of the State Library of Victoria.
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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