Bush foods have had a poor image in white Australia. The usual responses to indigenous foods appear to range from intrigue with their exotic appeal to horror at the idea of eating our national emblems. The urban population has little knowledge of the methods of finding or cooking bush foods. Until recently indigenous foods were not cultivated commercially in Australia. Even the macadamia nut, which originated in Queensland, was previously transported for cultivation to Hawaii. Where indigenous foods are used at all by white Australians, it is usually as a substitute for, or supplement to, the traditional white Australian diet.
Yet there appears to be a wealth of untapped folklore regarding the use of bush foods in Australia’s country areas. Nineteenth-century settlers incorporated small amounts of bush foods in their diets. In 1878 Mina Ramson’s Queensland Cooking Book included recipes for wallaby soup, bandicoot, pigweed salad and boiled thistle. It is only in the past five to ten years, however, that we have have seen the cultivation and marketing of a range of indigenous foods in Australia. Crocodiles are now being farmed, and sold at gourmet delicatessens. Indigenous nuts and seeds are being produced both for domestic consumption and export. Today, ‘bush tucker’ or ‘bush foods’ are often cited as the latest food fad and are predicted to become the foods of the future in Australia. There has been a groundswell of interest in indigenous foods since 1982, when they had international exposure in the Wall Street Journal. There seems to be an attempt to find an authentically Australian cuisine. The rising interest also reflects worldwide trends toward increasing environmental awareness. Indigenous plants and animals are popular partly because they have the potential to provide environmentally safe food sources.
Articles about indigenous foods can now be found in popular magazines and newspapers. As yet, most feature indigenous foods as unusual or exotic. Nevertheless some recent articles suggest that indigenous foods are being appropriated by mainstream culture. The epicurean magazine Plenty in 1989 featured a beautifully illustrated section on bush foods. The cuisine presented was in the traditional Aboriginal form with suggestions for adapting bush foods for mainstream tastes.
Witchetty grubs collected from decaying stumps and logs are far removed from the indelicate image of fly blown maggots. Their edible texture ranges from woody or pulpy to delicately succulent reminiscent of the creamiest brains. Aficionados note seasonal variations; storage in the freezer makes consistent supply problems surmountable. (Procuring them in your local Woolies is still years away, it seems.) Witchetty grubs are merely rolled in hot ash and eaten ‘au naturel’ or complemented with a side dish of sweetened native fruit preserves or jam. Using the backyard barbecue plate is a practical — and very palatable — alternative to the red-hot ash.
Sales of cookbooks also suggest that tastes have changed, with a growing demand for bush cooking information. Specialized food stores such as David Jones or Robins of Toorak stock a selection of indigenous foods. Exclusive restaurants serve indigenous foods, refined and presented in a classically European framework. In Melbourne, the Windsor Hotel has on occasions served farmed crocodile, which is similar in appearance and taste to chicken meat, accompanied by a French-style sauce. Stephanie’s Restaurant serves wattleseed blini with cream cheese, caviar, limes and smoked Tasmanian salmon.
The demand for indigenous foods exceeds supply, but indigenous foods are at the forefront of horticultural development and agricultural farming experimentation. Species of fruit and nuts are being cultivated commercially. Peter Hardwick has established Wilderness Foods, a company that supplies nurseries and provides a consultancy service for farmers. He has identified sixty varieties of bush foods that have commercial potential. The CSlRO’s Horticultural Division has been experimenting with quandong production. They have 600 different genotypes on access and are trying to select a number of different ways to use and market quandongs. Bell Trees Nursery at Dural in New South Wales specializes in bush food plants, providing information about plants and ways to eat the fruit. US food processors and scientists are now investigating the commercial feasibility of producing Australian honey ants and the commercialization of Australian insect foods is being investigated in Asia. Vic Cherikoff’s Sydney company, Bush Tucker Supplies, is in keen competition with another company to become the first to introduce insect foods to the Australian market. Cherikoff has developed a network of suppliers, but he has had to decline orders for the export of thousands of insects to Japan due to lack of supply.
The Western Australian government reclassified emu as available for human consumption in June 1989. The company Emutech has set up a farm south of Perth, and is developing a breeding programme to supply emu steaks to restaurants as far afield as Sydney and Adelaide. The meat has a wide market locally and overseas. Arthur Marshall, the manager of Emutech, is hoping to head off competition in America, where emu is farmed using artificial insemination. The Western Australian Department of Agriculture has investigated a wide range of emu products, including feathers, eggs, meat, skin, oil, and even toenails, which are used as jewellery.
Many of those within the industry, however, are guarded about the pace of development they would like to see. There are many who believe that the white Australian practice of basing commercial farming and pastoralism on raising a single species in monoculture is intrinsically destructive, whether the species in question is exotic or indigenous. Vic Cherikoff stresses the irresponsibility of monoculture, and advocates the more creative approach of using a diversity of food-bearing plants for bush enrichment and rehabilitation. Bill Hardwick of Wilderness Foods has two mixed farming orchards. John McCarthy, the chief propagator at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, also acknowledges that the growing interest in environmentalism and bush foods provides people with the opportunity to broaden their knowledge of indigenous food sources and develop a more ecologically sound approach to methods of food production. He has collected 600 plant species and plans to develop a bush food walk and rainforest.
There is considerable debate over the passive farming of kangaroos. The status of kangaroo for human consumption varies from State to State. In New South Wales kangaroo is legal but must not be stored with other meats. In Queensland and Victoria it is illegal. In the Northern Territory, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory it is legal and consumption is flourishing. In Tasmania it is part of the State’s enormous game industry. A few years ago Beverly Sutherland, a well-known cookery writer, flew to Adelaide to obtain kangaroo meat to try out recipes for a book she was writing. Her experiments with kangaroo were most successful, but the book was published in 1987 without the recipes; after demonstrations against serving kangaroo at restaurants overseas had received widespread publicity, it was feared that the recipes might be too controversial. Currently interest in kangaroo farming is widening, and drawing more support from some conservationists who see the benefit of running kangaroos instead of sheep on semi-arid grazing land.
Cherikoff asserts that the bush food industry needs to be developed along commercial lines to be viable. Harvesting directly from the bush will deplete Aboriginal communities’ food supply and certainly will not be adequate for the growing demand. He is supplied by traditional farmers who have converted some of their land for the cultivation of bush foods. Cherikoff and others in the industry view the farming of bush foods as the ecological remedy for the environmental degradation currently facing so many farmers. Cherikoff also notes that there is increasing interest in growing plants and foods around cities. Last year he was able to harvest $10,000 worth of foods from suburban streets. Currently all bush foods need to be hand-harvested, which contributes to their high cost to the general public.
There is a growing fascination in Australia for the spiritual and ecological knowledge of Aboriginal cultures. The rediscovery of indigenous food is part of this process. The exotic image, rarity and cost of bush food give it prestige. Prices give an indication of its exclusive quality. In 1989 crocodile sausages cost $70 a kilo, bogong moths $100 a kilo, and emu oil $100 wholesale per litre. Interestingly, there has been a drop in the cost of these foods in 1990: raw crocodile meat is now available for about $40 a kilo, and emu oil is priced at $60 a litre.
Indigenous foods are undergoing a process of gourmetization. They are being marketed through speciality shops, health food shops, exclusive restaurants and the speciality catering industry. Bill Hardwick gives an indication of the process of marketing new and unusual foods in his proposal to cultivate nooli fruit, which he maintains has a delicious taste, similar to strawberries and kiwi fruit. His marketing strategy directs sales initially to exclusive restaurants, later to grocery stores and eventually as a standard fresh fruit.
The promotion of bush foods has been accelerated by the amazing success of ABC television’s ‘Bush Tucker Man’, Les Hiddins, whose show has been sold to fifteen countries. The image of bush foods created by the likes of Hiddins embodies a Crocodile Dundee stereotype. Hiddins represents the amicable bronzed white Aussie, with a deep knowledge of bush survival skills. He typifies the culturally acceptable advocate through whom bush foods can become attractive to a white audience. Hiddins’ emphasis is on bush survival skills rather than on promoting indigenous foods, which he describes in derogatory terms. ‘I am not talking about the Army eating this shit right across the country.’ This is further highlighted in his comments about barramundi. ‘I don’t like eating them much; my favourite food is really wiener schnitzel and a good red.’
In 1989 Hiddins was engaged to help market the Northern Territory for tourism. Part of the campaign invited tourists to visit the ‘world’s largest health food store’. This advertisement was illustrated with a few bush foods that have exotic names: quandong, sacred lotus, emu berries, desert raisin, panaduncy nuts, long yams. Fascination for the Australian bush and its exotic appeal as the ‘last frontier’ led to an upsurge in tourism during the late 1980s, as promoters moved in to capitalize on the success of Crocodile Dundee. So Bill King, a promoter for Northern Territory tourism, describes the Territory as a place ‘where a man is not just a cypher in the system; out there, nature remains the protagonist in the battle for survival’. Intrinsic to this image is Australia’s Aboriginal identity, aspects of which have become a marketable commodity.
The current propensity for bush foods is inextricably bound up with the Aboriginalization of white Australians’ sense of identity. It is as though Aboriginal culture is being laid out as a smorgasbord for mainstream appraisal. This implies a genuine curiosity about Aboriginal spirituality and environmental wisdom. However, it also exhibits a chauvinistic tendency to exploit the spiritual knowledge being offered by Aboriginals. The recent enthusiasm for bush foods incorporates both responses.
Hiddins’ television programme is a most accessible medium through which a white Australian audience can admire and appreciate Aboriginal bush abilities in a non-political and non-challenging way. It is selective in its portrayal of Aboriginal culture, concentrating on what is least disturbing. It certainly does not allow for an understanding of the totality of the Aboriginal situation.
The gathering and preparation of food play a central role in Aboriginal culture. In his 1925 study of totemism, Geza Roheini captured some of the integral relationship between Aboriginal culture and the environment:
When a man is out hunting he will not kill his totemic animal or plant, no matter what opportunity he may have of doing so. It is believed that by thus allowing the animal to escape or by leaving the plant implanted, he will augment the supply and increase the fruitfulness of the game or vegetable.
Aboriginal knowledge systems also incorporate a wealth of diverse information about finding and preparing food. Many bush foods are difficult for the untrained eye to locate. About 80 per cent of the Aboriginal diet consisted of foods that needed to be dug out, climbed for or specially treated, and therefore would have been unrecognizable to white settlers.
In some ways this is probably fortunate. The lack of appropriate sleuthing skills within today’s tourist community should provide some protection for indigenous flora and fauna. The real danger to the environment lies in the influx of buses and four-wheel-drive vehicles. ‘Tourism is changing everything around us. Ten years ago you might have seen five cars a day, now buses arrive by the hundred.’ Betty Meehan, Jennifer Isaac and other experts on Aboriginal food have cautioned against ‘taking bush food out of an ecological context’. According to Meehan, Arnhem Land Aboriginals, while eager to share their culture and food tradition, are uneasy about any possibility of indiscriminate harvesting of food sources.
Furthermore, once indigenous foods have become marketable items it is virtually impossible for Aboriginal people to regulate the uses that are made of them. Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory were recently approached by a large hotel chain to harvest witchetty grubs. They refused when they were informed of the proposed cooking methods, which were not according to the traditional practice of roasting the grubs across hot coals. Commercial interests, however, found a way around this; they developed a new technique for breeding the grubs in beds of sawdust.
As Aboriginal foods are becoming acculturated into white Australian culture they are being altered and refined to satisfy the palates of urban diners. The foods being served in exclusive restaurants are far removed from the sacred and traditional practices of Aboriginal society. Chefs now present bush foods in an individualistic manner influenced by other styles. Hence delicacies such as seed pikelets, quandong stuffing for duck, the use of waterlily stems as a lettuce substitute, or wattleseed truffles and ice-cream. There are many other examples. Bunya nuts, sliced and fried, are used as a potato substitute in casseroles or are added to quiches, cakes and biscuits. These nuts can be made into a ‘bunya nut herb butter’ and served as a topping for scallops, or as a topping to racks of lamb accompanied by lilly-pilly glaze. They are often used as a side accompaniment for soup or made into soup. Canned witchetty grub and bunya nut soup is marketed at $11.50 a can. Witchetty grub soup is made with a chicken and vegetable stock in which the grubs are simmered for ten minutes before being pureed through a sieve. Wattleseed is used in pikelets, cakes, ice-cream and truffles, or as a hot beverage brewed in the same manner as coffee. Wattleseeds are the most readily available bush food. Native flours include kurrajong (the ground and roasted seed from the kurrajong tree) and burrawang (a coarse, camel-coloured flour often used for crêpes and damper). Jam is made from the rosella pod. Warrigul (native spinach) is made into warrigul soufflé or timbales and served with a tomato and basil sauce. Native plums, including the green plum, Illawarra plum and lilly-pillies, are used for sauces, jams and glazes. Clove lilly-pilly can be used to make ice-cream, sorbet, mousse and bavarois.
In the bush food industry, according to Cherikoff, Aboriginal involvement is stronger than white. Yet the most likely medium through which it is marketed, popularized and advertised is white. Through such media Aboriginal food has become accessible at the price of utter decontextualization. While bush foods remain exotic and expensive, two false impressions are created. The great social disparities between Aboriginal and white culture are ignored, and the image of emotional well-being within Aboriginal communities is reinforced despite, for example, the unconscionable number of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
The popularity of Aboriginal culture is, however, bringing some positive benefits to Aboriginal communities who have achieved land rights and self-determination. Cherikoff, a stalwart in bush foods promotion, maintains that the industry needs to be established by Aboriginal communities. The largest developments are occurring in South Australia and the Northern Territory, where he suggests the industry was worth tens of thousands of dollars in its first year of harvest. In the Northern Territory some thirty outstations have mobilized to collect, plant and cultivate bush foods such as quandong, wattleseed, and bunya nuts.
In the Northern Territory, permanent tourist camps are operated by Aboriginals on Aboriginal land. Members of the community act as hosts and guides for tourists, who are shown traditional Aboriginal food, hunting, gathering and cooking techniques. A Northern Territory travel brochure advertises Wigram Island in Arnhem Land as follows:
Terry Yumbulu will gather bush fruit and edible roots and show you how Aboriginal people live off the land. We will travel by boat to other islands and the world of his ancestors where few whites have ever been. Galleries of ancient cave paintings, sea caves and breeding lakes for all manner of sea creatures including turtles and crocodiles are visited. Time is available to learn to spear fish in the traditional way, explore or just relax.
This is a prime example of an Aboriginal initiative that demonstrates the vital significance of land rights to Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal owned and operated tourist camps are very successful because they are developed on Aboriginal terms. The knowledge being offered to visitors is mediated through Aboriginal people who can provide an authentic and whole interpretation of Aboriginality.
Some of the impetus for the popularization of Aboriginal culture as a distinct group comes from the Aboriginal communities themselves. Many Aboriginal people acknowledge the need for a greater emphasis on the cultural and historical understanding of Aboriginal culture if Aboriginal people are to be given self esteem within the broader community. As yet large sections of the white Australian population remain ignorant and unaware of the Aboriginal way of life. Certainly within the bush food industry there are genuine hopes that the community acceptance and enthusiasm for indigenous foods will result in greater pride in and understanding of traditional Aboriginal culture.
Of all Australian citizens, however, Aboriginals are the most impoverished, least likely to live after birth, earliest to die, most likely to be jailed, to be blind, to be deaf and to be unemployed. Neville Bonner has maintained that ‘The natural environment, habitat, untold and unseen flora and fauna is gone forever. This desecration of the land went hand in hand with a psychological desecration of the black people.’ The current optimism surrounding the bush food phenomenon must be related to a recognition of Australia’s desecration. The knowledge of land, flora and fauna being offered by Aboriginals to white Australia is complex. This knowledge embodies the spirituality and sacred beliefs of Aboriginal culture. Inherent in those beliefs is a strong imperative for economic independence and self-sufficiency. Gary Foley articulated the connection between Aboriginal knowledge and modern society when he stated that:
ultimately, when white Australians see the way in which we reconstruct and rebuild our society, they are going to realize a lot of things about their own society. When people realize how terrible white society is, they will come to us, and we will teach them how to live a better way.
Annette Hamilton suggests that ‘By involving whites in their secret life, Aborigines are attempting to tie them to the country.’ She describes the rationale as being to give whites an understanding of their obligations to Aboriginal people.
She also gives a thought-provoking discussion of Aboriginal attempts to assimilate whites into their society and the expectations of reciprocity these imply. The spiritual knowledge being so generously offered is the ultimate possession of Aboriginal people. If it is simply accepted, used and exploited as a commodity in the typically Western way, the sense of betrayal for Aboriginal people will be even greater than before.
If Aboriginal or bush food is glamourized and decontextualized without consideration of the social injustices suffered by many Aboriginal communities, bush food will become as removed from Australia’s Aboriginality as pavlova. Terry Durack captured the paradox:
In Alice Springs … local Aboriginals congregate at Woolworths to gather supplies of baked beans, cornflakes and packaged cheese. In Toorak … locals congregate to gather supplies of bunya bunya nuts, wattleseeds and witchetty grubs.’
 Michael Symons, One Continuous Picnic. A history of eating in Australia (Penguin, 1984).
 Jane Adams, ‘Black and Bountiful’, Bulletin, 22 November 1989.
 Vic Cherikoff, interview, 6 June 1989.
 Robert Carmack, ‘Native Staples’, Plenty, 3, May 1989.
 Readings Bookshop, interview, 7 March 1989.
 ABC Food Program, 9 April 1989.
 Helen Moody, ‘Bush Foods: trendy new taste or industry?’, Australian Horticulture March 1989, p. 46.
 Moody, p. 49.
 A.Marshall, radio interview, 11 July 1989.
 Graham Duncan, ‘What has six toes, gets ferocious and may cure rheumatism?’. Age, 11 April 1990.
 Moody, p. 49.
 Leif Young and Geoff Maslen, ‘Should we chew on kangaroo?’. Age 26 September 1989.
 ABC Food Program, 9 April 1989.
 Rosalind Reines, ‘Picnic Pizzazz’, Panorama, September 1988.
 Marshall interview.
 Moody, p. 48.
 Phil Jarratt, ‘Gourmet of the great outdoors’. Bulletin, 4 April 1989.
 Heather Brown, ‘BYO among the crocodiles’, Australian Magazine, 27—28 May 1989.
 Northern Territory Holdings Catalogue, 1989-90.
 Geza Roheini, Australian Totemism — a psychoanalytic study in anthropology (Allen & Unwin, London, 1925).
 R. Watts, interview, 14 April 1989.
 Susan Duncan, ‘Roughing it with the Bush Tucker Man’, Australian Women’s Weekly, August 1989.
 Adams, op. cit.
 A. and T. Sawenko, interview, 18 May 1989.
 Heather Britton, ‘Bush tucker goes haute cuisine’. Age, Melbourne, 26 September 1989.
 Terry Durack, ‘Bush tucker shop’. Herald, Melbourne, 9 August 1989.
 Northern Territory Tour Brochure no. 9, 1989.
 Bridging the Gap — School and the Aboriginal Community (Aboriginal Training and Culture Institute, 1983).
 Betty Meehan, ‘The upstart cuisine revisited’, in B. Santich et al. (ed.). Proceedings, Second Symposium of Australian Gastronomy (Adelaide, 1985).
 Neville Bonner, ‘Eureka stand: an Aboriginal point of view’, Lalor Address on Community Relations (Australian Human Rights Commission, Canberra, 1983).
 Gary Foley, ‘Teaching Whites a Lesson’, in Verity Burgmann and Jenny Lee (eds), A People’s History of Australia, vol.4, Staining the Wattle (McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Melbourne, 1988), p. 207.
 Annette Hamilton, ‘Blacks and Whites: the relationship of change’. Arena 30, 1972.
 Durack, op. cit.
Image credit: Jim Bendon