x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Australia goes native for nutrition

As bush tucker becomes more popular, indigenous people are taking advantage of the trade, while recapturing their culture.

DARWIN, Australia // Culinary experts in Australia are predicting prosperous times ahead for the bush tucker industry, where delights include witchetty grub sushi, Italian-style kangaroo tail and snotty gobble berry cake. Native foods, known colloquially as tucker, are often highly nutritious and a fledgling trade in wild harvested plants has the potential to boost the incomes of poorer Aboriginal communities as well as reigniting cultural pride.

At the end of another searing day in the tropical city of Darwin, Lorraine Williams, a local indigenous woman, with daughters Karina, 14, and Stephanie, seven, scoured a patch of woodland perched on red cliffs that rise sharply from the rocks and sand of Mindil Beach as the fading sun slipped towards the horizon. The monsoon thicket is a rich source of fruits, vegetables, leaves and seeds that go unseen by the untrained eye, while mullet and crabs inhabit nearby a creek.

"Collecting bush tucker is not just about eating the food, it's learning about country; it's the holistic view of keeping yourself healthy and sharing the food," Mrs Williams explained as she moved through the foliage gently plucking pods of bush peanuts, known to Aborigines as duindil, from a large tree. Australia's original inhabitants have deep spiritual connections to the land, where the secrets of nature's bounty were unlocked long ago and passed down through the generations.

"It's fantastic. There are thousands of years of knowledge. Our old people were out collecting all this bush food, sustaining their lives and using plants for medicines," Mrs Williams said. "One thing we really want to do is get young people eating those bush foods. Because they are in mainstream schools, they are losing that knowledge and connection to those plants and country." In Palmerston, a satellite town a short drive from the coast, Mrs Williams and a group of women from the Larrakia Aboriginal nation have established a small native food company on an industrial estate. On a recent visit, a picnic table was laden with brightly coloured produce, most of which was picked within a five-minute walk of the factory.

One of the free-range gems in this part of Australia's Northern Territory is the billy goat plum, or damiumba, which is loaded with nutrition. "It is one of most important plants in Australia in that it's got the highest content of vitamin C of any plant in the world. It's not the best tasting bush tucker [and] it has an acquired taste, so that's why we use it in chutneys and jams," Mrs Williams said.

Further south, in the central desert hub of Alice Springs, a different range of native foods is harvested in a far drier climate. "You couldn't walk the indigenous ladies in this town a metre without identifying some kind of a food," said Raylene Brown, an Aboriginal chef and businesswoman. Local treats include the witchetty grub, the larvae of the cossid moth, which grows to about 7cm in length and is mainly white in colour with a brown head, along with the bush tomato - a type of tangy raisin - and sweet-tasting insects.

"Honey ants are stunning. If you ever have one, you want to go back for more, but they are very hard to get, so it's a delicacy," she added. Other local offerings are equally exotic. "The bush coconuts have a relationship with a wasp that lays larva inside the shell. There is a sac that the larva feeds off and if you pick the coconut at the right time and crack it open there's this beautiful, watery sac that has a coconut flavour. You tip it into your mouth, so you're eating the larva plus the sac," Mrs Brown said.

Eating the wrong type of outback food can, however, cause severe stomach aches, blindness and even death. Then there is an image problem that indigenous produce has had to overcome. "People tend to have a negative association with native foods that they are too dry or not very tasty, but some [top-end] restaurants are serving native foods and changing people's opinion about how it can be presented and tasted," said Maarten Ryder, a former Australian government researcher who now works as a private consultant.

"Scientific research has shown that quite a number of the Australian native foods that are being developed in a small way at the moment are quite high in things like antioxidants, folate and vitamin C, so they are not only tasty but nutritious as well," he added. Increasing demand for these unique flora and fauna presents problems for an emerging industry where wild harvests can be unreliable and inconsistent. One solution could see the development of large plantations where a hybrid production system would fuse together traditional Aboriginal harvesting methods with western-style cropping.

"I really do feel this has a great future for economic development and employment opportunities both in the hospitality and tourism," Mrs Brown said. "With all the environmental stuff happening around the world, it's a great opportunity to be looking in your own area using local products and learning a lot more about them." Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae