Preserving Tradition Through Food

Indigenous Cuisine of South Australia Preserving Tradition Through Food

Aboriginal foods are starting to appear on more menus across Australia. Bush tomatoes (intensely flavored pea-sized fruits), wattle seeds (from the acacia tree with a chocolate-like taste) and quandongs (wild peaches) are among them.

Taste these indigenous delights on a tour of South Australia’s meandering coast, crimson desert and craggy mountains with Intrepid.

Plant Foods

What’s sometimes referred to as bush food – the term used to describe all native flora and fauna that Indigenous Australians use for sustenance, whether edible or not – is now taking center stage at some of Australia’s most innovative restaurants. A new generation of chefs is marrying traditional Aboriginal knowledge with classical techniques to showcase an array of indigenous ingredients formerly considered too exotic, or even unpalatable, to mainstream diners.

The result is a range of Indigenous cuisines that are just as impressive as any from anywhere else in the world. The defining ingredient of many of these is not meat, but rather plant foods and herbs.

A great example is a small family farm in Neales Flat, about 90 minutes north of Adelaide. Owned by the amiable Peter and Linda Hoffman, Footeside Farm is growing a wide variety of native plants such as quandongs (wild peaches), kutjera (wild rhubarb), lemon myrtle and warrigal greens, all with the goal of reducing their impact on the environment and providing locals with nutritious plant foods.

For example, Footeside is working with a team from the University of South Australia to breed a strain of native pear that will withstand arid climates and be suitable for commercial cultivation. This will help make a popular Australian fruit that is currently imported from Asia available locally in future years, and potentially reduce its environmental impact.

Moreover, the farm is also exploring ways to reduce the long-term impact of their farming methods on the soil through the introduction of acacia trees and shrubs that provide natural nutrient support and water retention. This will not only benefit the local ecosystem, but also make farming less expensive for farmers.

It’s this kind of innovation that is bringing native foods into the mainstream and proving that they have as much a role to play in Australia’s national cuisine as lamb, crayfish or a good quality iceberg lettuce. Orana, for instance, is a restaurant that has made it its mission to prove that point, thanks to Scottish expat chef Jock Zonfrillo’s passion for indigenous ingredients.

Animal Foods

A major reason why Australia’s indigenous ingredients have not taken a larger role in the country’s cuisine can be traced back to attitudes of early European colonists. They viewed Aboriginal people and their food as primitive and inferior. Thus they ignored or rejected the foods that had sustained the original inhabitants for millennia. This included bush vegetables, fruits, seeds, gums and leafy greens as well as the fish, crustaceans and shellfish that are found in oceans, rivers and lakes.

In some instances, Europeans were willing to experiment with animal foods such as kangaroo and emu. They also accepted a number of bush fruits despite their strangeness. This was mainly because they offered meat, the most highly prized element of a nineteenth-century meal. This willingness contrasted with a wariness of experimenting with indigenous plant foods. The miniscule fruit of many plants was seen as a distraction from the important leaves and roots that provided the bulk of indigenous diets. Nevertheless, some hardy pioneers made the effort to try selected native fruits. They prepared and preserved a variety of berries. Mrs Rawson, for example, gathered native currants (Solanum americanum) to make tarts and jams that were as good as those made from more familiar wild berries in Europe.

Generally, the women of Aboriginal communities were responsible for gathering and preparing food. This was especially true in desert regions like Central Australia. In these areas women planted gardens, gathered bush foods and hunted game animals. Aboriginal beliefs held that the spirits of the Dreaming created these foods. These spirits could be linked to certain foods and these foods were considered sacred and could not be eaten except in special ceremonies.

Today, restaurants in South Australia are embracing indigenous ingredients. Some such as Orana in Adelaide have built a reputation for their innovative use of these ingredients and for the high quality of their food. Head chef and founder Jock Zonfrillo believes that Aboriginal food should be given the same status as Italian and Thai foods. Orana’s intertwining of haute techniques with native foods won the restaurant a top gong at the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food awards in 2019.

Fish & Shellfish

The bountiful shorelines, crimson deserts, and craggy ranges of South Australia are home to a wealth of indigenous flora and fauna that have long served as the source for bush foods. The region’s top restaurants are renowned for embracing and reimagining traditional ingredients, as well as for their cultural and social impact.

The restaurant Orana, helmed by Scottish chef Jock Zonfrillo, is a leading light in the effort to normalise native ingredients, and has earned top gongs at Australia’s Good Food awards. Its menu is a beautiful confluence of indigenous produce and classical technique, and features everything from cream cheese made with Bunya nuts to damper with lamb fat in place of butter. The dishes evoke a peoples’ deep respect for, and connection to, the bountiful landscape that surrounds them.

Zonfrillo has a long history of working closely with Aboriginal communities and demonstrating the importance of their food culture. He and his team forage for indigenous ingredients, often working with traditional land owners to ensure the products are sustainable, ethically harvested, and respectfully prepared. The results are awe-inspiring: dishes include kangaroo tail and loin with Davidson plum chutney, and a risotto of abalone, mat rush, ant, bunya nuts, and saltbush.

A quintessential Australian native fruit, quandong (also called acacia) is a staple at many of the country’s top eateries, from scrumptious cheesecakes and pies at Sydney’s Quandong Cafe to the wallaby with fermented quandong and kutjera dish at Uluru’s indulgent dining experience Tali Wiru. The fruit is high in immune-boosting vitamin C and its astringent seeds are roasted for a nutty flavor that is incorporated into chutneys, jams, and drinks.

Adelaide is a hotspot for Indigenous-led culinary innovation, with chefs such as Melbourne’s Ben Shewry, who grew up in New Zealand and learned Maori cooking, making a name for himself cooking with indigenous ingredients. You can sample pepper leaf gnocchi and eucalyptus smoked pumpkin at Something Wild, or try a wattle seed pavlova with macadamia and Davidson plum sorbet at Red Ochre Barrel + Grill as you soak up the Torrens River views.

Fruits & Vegetables

As indigenous Australians have adapted to the Australian environment, so has their cuisine. Native plants have played a significant role in their survival and wellbeing, and are still of high importance for Aboriginal people. Many traditional plant foods are now cultivated and used as ingredients by non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous fruits and vegetables are also an important part of the diet. They are often consumed raw, in salads, with meat, in soups and curries or infused into spirits and teas.

Aboriginal Australia is home to an abundance of unique edible and medicinal plants, with most growing in the country’s arid regions. These indigenous foods are highly nutritious and are rich in vitamins and minerals, and offer a wide range of health benefits.

Many modern restaurants are now using indigenous food on their menus. Ben Shewry, head chef of Melbourne’s Attica, is a big supporter of indigenous culture and uses kangaroo, bush tomato, quandongs and eucalyptus smoked pumpkin in his dishes. He even has a “tasting room” in his restaurant where guests can try these native foods for themselves.

Red Ochre Barrel + Grill in Adelaide is another restaurant with a strong commitment to indigenous culture and features local Aboriginal produce on its menu. The venue overlooks the Torrens River and serves up everything from pepper leaf gnocchi to a rolled wattle seed pavlova.

The Kakadu plum or billygoat plum is a rare and unique edible fruit found in Kakadu National Park and across northern Australia. It is a tasty alternative to oranges and has one of the highest levels of vitamin C in any citrus fruit. Lemon myrtle leaves, a rainforest tree, have a refreshing citrus-lemon aroma and are used in many different ways in cooking and in beverages such as teas and cocktails.

In the past, Indigenous Australians have been using native fruits and vegetables in their traditional meals to ensure food self-sufficiency. The Indigenous community has a wealth of knowledge about the cultivation and preparation of traditional Australian foods. The knowledge has been retained for thousands of years, and it is time this was shared with the broader Australian community.