Viewpoints from Aussie Cuisine

  • There is an increasing mindfulness from chefs about where their ingredients come from. That helps to develop and promote a greater awareness about our country’s original cuisine
  • Chefs are getting more passionate about the origin of the produce they use and often get involved in growing their own produce.
  • On the website of the Outback Spirit Foundation they claim that increased awareness about native ingredients can “nourish greater cultural understanding and respect within the Australian community”. This idea is called “edible reconciliation” and is a significant evolution in creating indigenous awareness.
  • Is foraging another craze that will fade away in time? Or will they become a larger part of our everyday cuisine? Further analysis is needed to determine it’s direction.
 by Erin Ogilvie

Not so long ago, foraging was not yet a culinary buzzword.  Practiced by only a few hunter-gatherer chefs, scornful customers imagined kitchen hands scrounging the restaurant’s back lane for edible weeds, having run out of rocket and parsley. 

Today, the practice is gaining traction within Australia’s restaurant scene, most recently (and perhaps publically) thanks to Rene Redzepi’s Sydney pop up.  Redzepi hired “professional forager” Elijah Holland, travelled the country with his team to discover Australia’s best native ingredients right at their source, and was so impressed by Indigenous tour leader Josh Whiteland that he invited him to present at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen.  A lot has been said about how it took a foreigner to bring native food to the forefront of conversation, but the trend is part of an increasing mindfulness by chefs and home cooks about where their ingredients come from.  It helps promote greater awareness about our country’s original cuisine and the environmental impact of our culinary choices.

Ask any farmer and they will confirm that the changing climate provides continual challenges to sustainably grow and harvest commercial crops.  A select group of forward-thinking growers have turned to native plants, which can survive the dry conditions or sandy soil without the additional environmental impact that comes from extensive conditioning and fertilising for non-Indigenous plants.  In mid-June, Landline ran a story on Geoff Woodall’s farm in the Arthur River district in WA, where he has discovered his sandy soil is ideal for growing the youlk (bush carrot).  Broadsheet Sydney has also written an article about the practicality and sustainability in growing native crops.

“Edible reconciliation”

Juleigh and Ian Robins from Robins Foods are considered to be pioneers of the native food industry, having established Outback Spirit Provenance in the late 1990s.  They create native food products such as Bush Tomato Sauce, Outback Tomato Chutney, and Wild Lime Chilli Ginger Sauce, which are sold in supermarkets across Australia.  Both Juleigh and Ian are incredibly passionate about the depth of flavour offered by native ingredients; Juleigh has written three native food cookbooks over the past 20 years.  Her integration of Indigenous food into non-Indigenous recipes aims to normalise the use of ingredients that are both environmentally friendly and authentically Australian.

In the early 2000s, they began working more closely with remote Indigenous communities to establish new commercial crops, grown and cultivated by the Aboriginal people, on land unsuitable for non-Indigenous plants.  Their goal was not only to provide employment opportunities for the communities but also to learn from their suppliers’ innate connection to the land.  “The cultivation of native food plants in remote areas of Australia seemed to be the most logical step we could encourage and facilitate as native food manufacturers,” Juleigh says.  “It not only provides opportunities for Aboriginal people to participate in the broader economy by way of their orchards and crops, but could provide a viable alternative to traditional crops perhaps better suited to gentler climates.”

In 2008, Robins Foods founded the Outback Spirit Foundation, an independent Public Benevolent Institution that is managed by a board of trustees.  The Robins are a major contributor to the Foundation, which leverages “the Outback Spirit brand to make a practical economic and cultural contribution to Indigenous Australia”.  Juleigh tells us that, aside from creating job opportunities,  “It was the right moral and ethical path for us to take if we were going to continue making products that featured native foods.  It is very important that we pass value back through the chain to these wonderfully generous people who share their ancient knowledge of native plants with us.”  The Foundation also receives funding through their partnership with Coles and the Coles Indigenous Food Fund.

On the Foundation website, they state that increased awareness about native ingredients can “nourish greater cultural understanding and respect within the Australian community”.  They’re calling it “edible reconciliation”.  In our constantly evolving climate, they believe Indigenous Australia’s unique relationship with native flora and fauna, and their inherent respect for the land, can inspire us to make more sustainable choices.  In Juleigh’s words, they see it as “an opportunity for Australia to utilise these vast undeveloped regions in a holistic way with the people who, due to a profound understanding of their environment, have survived in these regions for centuries.”

Australia’s maturing palate

SBS Food reports that, until the 1990s, macadamias were the only Australian native grown commercially.  It was around this time that kangaroo began popping up on menus.  After trying the Australian delicacy for the first time, journalist John Newton wrote his book Oldest Foods on Earth that examined why we value cultural diversity while shunning our nutritionally rich native foods.  Now, nearly 25 years later, most large supermarkets stock kangaroo meat on their shelves.

Like most movements, food trends start in the professional kitchens then permeate down through pop culture; last year Masterchef contestants ‘plated up’ bush tomato and quandong during a mystery box challenge.  However, the biggest question remains: like nitrogen-frozen foods and macarons, is foraging and the use of native ingredients just another craze that will fade away in time?  Or will they become a larger part of our everyday cuisine? Let us know your thoughts below…