Learn About the Amazing Foods that the Australian Bush has to Offer

Recently on the blog we have been featuring lots of information about bush medicine particularly in relation to our wonderful new partner brands Bush Medijina, Dilkara, Juddarnje and Bush Balm. There are many crossovers in bush medicine and bush tucker with numerous foods also being used for medicinal purposes. Today we explore traditional and contemporary uses of some of the amazing native foods Australia has to offer.

‘Wira’, a wooden bowl used for collecting small fruits. Courtesy of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, 2021.

For thousands of years First Nations people lived off bush foods that the land provided. Hunting wildlife and gathering fruits, seeds, roots, herbs and insects. The bush foods they would gather are rich in nutrients - combined with meat they created a very healthy and balanced diet. Traditionally it was the women's role to gather and prepare the foods and there were a number of tools they would use to do so. This of course varies depending on the tribe and the area. For the Anangu people of the country surrounding Uluru these tools included wooden bowls (wira), digging sticks (wana) and head rings (manguri). The head rings would be used to carry heavy loads such as a bowl of water on the head (Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, 2021). In a documentary ‘The Men of Fifth World’ (2014) Clan Elder Yakar Garimala, from Bickerton Island in eastern Arnhem Land, provides insight into their traditional gathering practices:

“Gathering has always been very important for us: fruits, berries, medicinal herbs, roots and tubers, have long formed the basis of our diet. The women have always worked in the forest, carrying out these tasks. No one knows nature like they do. Depending on how flexible the lianas, and the stems of the plants are, they know whether or not the roots are big enough, or tasty enough to be cooked. They collect yams, which grow wild in the humid areas. Their work is very dangerous. They disturb the vegetation, and you have to be careful how you treat nature because before long she will get angry and attack you in one way or another. They often come across the king brown, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, its bite is always fatal.” - Yakar Garimala, 2014

There are many traditional bush foods that are now slowly also being incorporated into modern Australian cuisine. Here’s some of the most common ones with their traditional and contemporary uses.

Bunya nuts and Bunya nut flour. Courtesy of Byron Shire News, 2018.

Bunya Nut - Bunya nuts come from the Bunya Pine, a subtropical rainforest tree that grows in Southern QLD and Northern NSW. The large cones from the tree can contain up to 100 nuts. They have a dry, crunchy texture and taste similar to a chestnut. They have been a part of Indigenous culture for tens of thousands of years, and are a food source that has always brought Indigenous people together. Every year tribes from all over QLD and NSW would come together at Bunya Gatherings to talk lore, marriage and ceremony and of course feast on the Bunya nut. Today people still love to gather this high nutrient food source. Bunya nuts are perfect for a huge variety of recipes. You can roast them on the fire, create a flour to use in cakes or boil them and blend them up into dips such as pesto.

Lemon Myrtle - Lemon Myrtle is a beautiful native shrub, naturally occurring in the wetter coastal areas of northern NSW and southern QLD. It grows up to three metres high and has graceful hanging branches of soft green leaves. The leaves can be used fresh or cool dried (to prevent the loss of essential oils) and ground for later use. Lemon Myrtle is one of Australia’s most popular native herbs. It can be used in a whole range of recipes from savory fish dishes to sweet, creamy cheesecakes (Black Olive, 2021).

Finger Lime - Finger limes (Citrus Australasica) have been an essential food source for Indigenous Australians for thousands of years, but lately they have begun to appear in some of Australia’s top restaurants. They are a subtropical rainforest shrub that grows in the coastal border region of QLD and NSW. This incredible fruit contains ‘citrus pearls’ that somewhat resemble caviar. The fruit is excellent in summer drinks, deserts, jams, marmalades and chutneys. The juice and the pulp can also be a great accompaniment for savory dishes such as fresh oysters, fish and calamari (Tucker Bush, 2020).

Finger Limes. Courtesy of Nature & Garden, 2021.

Davidson Plum - The Davidsons Plum (Davidsonia) can be found in tropical rainforests in QLD and northern NSW. The fruit grows in a very interesting way, they grow in clusters straight from the trunk of the tree. The plums are extremely tart making them ideal for jam, in a range of sweet and savory dishes as a sauce, as a compote or in cakes. They can also be dried and used in recipes such as granola (The Australian SuperFood Co, 2021).

Pandanus - The Pandanus Tectorius, is one of the most useful, versatile plants in the tropical north of the Northern Territory. The ‘pineapple’ looking fruit is sweet and full of segments which fall off the trees onto the ground. When they are a dark red-orange colour they are ready to eat. In each segment there is a nut which is difficult to break open, but well worth it as they are packed with protein. Traditionally the pandanus fruit would be used to make a sweet drink by crushing the ends of the segment to squeeze out the juice which would be steeped in hot water for 5mins. In contemporary times the fruit pulp can be used in deserts, sweet sauces, jams and chutneys (Daleys Fruit, 2021).

Wattle Seed - Wattle (Acacia Victoriae) is found in all mainland states across Australia. It is well known for its distinctive fluffy, yellow followers and unique seeds. Traditionally women would collect the seed pods from the trees when they were ripe and would separate the seeds. The seeds were then parched by fire and ground into a flour to make Damper. The damper dough would be cooked in an oven made from a hole in the ground, hot coals and rocks. Wattle Seed when roasted has a nutty, mild coffee flavour and can be used to flavour cakes and other sweets (Bush Food Australia, 2009).

Wattleseed. Courtesy of Garden Clinic, 2021.

Saltbush - Saltbush (Atriplex nummularia) is a familiar sight over large areas of the dry inland of Australia. Traditionally Indigenous people would collect the tiny saltbush seeds to roast and create damper. Today the large fresh or blanched saltbush leaves are often utilized. They can be used as a wrap around meat or fish or in salads. The leaves can also be dried to use in bread or a part of seasoning for grills, pasta or dukkah (Black Olive, 2021).

There are many professional chefs that are now using bush foods as an important part of their restaurants and recipes. Bundjalung chef Mark Olive features bush tucker on his NITV show ‘On Country Kitchen’. For over 30 years he has worked hard at making Indigenous food a part of everyday cuisine. In an interview with Fine Dining Lovers (2015) he says:

“Australian people still do not use the typical ingredients of our land and this is a great pity: what I try to do is to teach them how to use our rich natural resources and how to cook more healthily by fully exploiting the flavour of wild herbs and plants.” - Mark Olive, 2015

Mark Olive. Courtesy of The Canberra Times, 2019.

Another well known chef who features bush tucker through their cooking is Jock Zonfrillo at his Adelaide restaurant, Orana. Here you can find a whole range of interesting dishes including chicken liver parfait with wattle seeds or wattle seed cream with their whipped chocolate dessert. Zonfrillo set up The Orana Foundation, a non-for-profit that works with Indigenous communities to rediscover some of Australia’s native ingredients. Orana explores and showcases this incredible food culture that’s much older and more diverse than most Australians realise (Govender-Ypma, 2017).

We hope that all Australians can continue to learn more about the incredible bush tucker this beautiful country has to offer and can embrace these foods as a part of our everyday cuisine. All of these herbs, plants and fruits are incredibly healthy, being full of antioxidants and other nutrients. Here at Yarn we are passionate about supporting the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities. Eating bush tucker is an incredible way of staying healthy and connecting with country.

We encourage everyone to learn about the native foods in your area. SBS features some excellent articles about bush tucker recipes, including delicious recipes. Check them out here.