Courtesy of Botanic Gardens Restaurant

Dishes like kangaroo pho, lamb tartare with native South Australian karkalla and crocodile broth are popping up at restaurants around the country, thanks to the efforts of Aboriginal chefs encouraging the use and appreciation of native ingredients 

Hillary Eaton
November 03, 2017

If there is one dish that best exemplifies Australia’s native ingredients movement’s most current evolution, it just might be a piping hot bowl of kangaroo pho. “I encourage people to try the different plants before adding them to the broth,” Rebecca Sullivan explains as she places an array of indigenous plants and herbs upon our table. She points to succulent sprigs of coorong seablite, leaves of lemon and anise myrtle, shimmering bunches of iceplant and pods of finger limes spilling out tart green pearls. “I like to squeeze them just straight into the broth,” she says, pointing to the chubby citrus bombs.  

This is Warndu, a pop-up restaurant and well-being brand from Adelaide, Australia brought to life by Sullivan and her partner, Damien Coulthard. Named for the word “good” in the Adnyamathanha language—the language of Coulthard’s Aboriginal heritage—Warndu is aiming to bring native Australian ingredients to consumers through dinners that educate and inspire, as well as selling a line of packaged foods (like kangaroo broth and native teas) to cook at home, with the goal of helping to build up sustainable farming and foraging systems within Aboriginal communities for economic growth.

“Indigenous food is food that’s grown in Australia, comes from Australia and that Aboriginal people ate and utilised during their time on the land,” renowned Aboriginal chef Mark Olive told the Daily Telegraph this year. “When people start using these foods with these flavours they’re blown away. Chefs around the world are embracing it and are so curious about it.”

With over 24,000 different documented species of plants, Australia is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, but while this flora situation may seem like a chef’s foraging paradise, much of Australian mainstream cooking has yet to embrace some of the delicious, healing, uniquely Australian native ingredients of the land. But thanks to a new generation of chefs, these native Australian ingredients, ranging from the caramel-y akudjura bush tomato to the wonderfully nutty wattleseed, are finally getting the mainstream attention they deserve—and, in the process, completely revolutionizing Australia’s food scene.

The use of indigenous ingredients in Australia has been steadily on the decline ever since mass immigration to the island nation during the late 1700s brought with it, for the first time, non-native species to the country's Aboriginal people. The introduction, resulting in indigenous native ingredients being abandoned and, in some cases, the plants themselves being completely forgotten. Unfortunately, it’s a story all too familiar in colonized nations, the world over.

As Australia has begun to look back at its native culinary heritage, there have been multiple waves of the indigenous food movement starting in the 1990s, but ultimately these movements haven’t been as successful as hoped, largely due to a lack of understanding of the ingredients (lemon myrtle can be as medicinal and unpleasant as a large swig of cough syrup when used improperly) and the perception of indigenous foods as something separate and novel, as opposed to something that could be eaten and integrated regularly into preexisting Australian dishes—until now. Over the past decade, chefs and educators like Sullivan, Coulthard, Olive and their peers and predecessors have set out to change that, abandoning phrases like “indigenous food” and shifting focus on an inclusive food movement to create a truly “Australian” cuisine with the inclusion of native ingredients.

Courtesy of Botanic Gardens Restaurant

Take South Australia’s Jock Zonfrillo, the Marco Pierre White-trained chef who fell in love with native ingredients and has spent the better part of nearly two decades studying, exploring and documenting them with his Adelaide fine dining concept, Restaurant Orana, and more casual, Bistro Blackwood. Taking home the title of best restaurant in Australia this year, indigenous ingredients at Orana take shape in the form of an 18-course tasting menu of dishes like a complex distillation of crocodile broth, bush bread known as "damper" cooked over smoldering coals at your table, prawns with dehydrated Davidson plum or a light-as-air, bone-white puffed kangaroo tendon. “At Restaurant Orana and Bistro Blackwood, we are cooking with 50 or 60 [native Australian] ingredients everyday,” Zonfillo says. “Whilst drawing from the knowledge which has been shared with us through visiting communities and spending time with Indigenous people.”

But while foraging has become something of a fine-dining norm nearly expected by guests thanks to the René Redzepi effect, Zonfrillo believes that foraging for native ingredients, just for foraging's sake, is somewhat of a cop-out. “Every young chef wants to 'own' foraging,” Zonfillo told The Australian. “But what’s the point without context? Put some chickweed on a plate for the sake of it, what the fuck is that, and nasturtium…it doesn’t even taste that great. I’ve banned it from the kitchen.”

Instead, Zonfrillo’s motivation with uncovering these ingredients goes much deeper than trends. “There is a danger of losing this knowledge forever as [Aboriginal] elders pass on. No comprehensive database of native ingredients exists.” But thanks to Zonfrillo’s Orana Foundation, launched in 2016 to document and preserve the amazing food culture and practices of Australia’s Indigenous people, that’s all about to change. “That will be the bedrock of our work. We want to make these ingredients accessible to all so that native foods can be integrated into a truly Australian cuisine,” he says.

At the moment that means the start of the Orana Foundation’s fully accredited R&D arm in partnership with the University of Adelaide. A food lab and experimental kitchen that will select, identify, test and analyze an extensive range of indigenous ingredients for cooking, health and other uses. “In our first 18 months, we will document up to 1,000 ingredients,” he says.

But while an arsenal of over 1,000 ingredients will surely have some esoteric, hard-to-find items, much of the allure of indigenous ingredients to Australian chefs is that while they may be unknown, they can actually be used in relatively common ways.

“I think the biggest misconception is that Australian native ingredients are just bush tucker food and wouldn't be something you can commonly eat,” chef Paul Baker of Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens Restaurant. “It's not all witchety grubs and kangaroo. We have some pretty amazing ingredients which will become common place in the not too distant future.”

Baker, who recently took over the previously nondescript restaurant surrounded by Adelaide’s 52-hectare botanical garden chock full of everything from Davidson plum trees to native violets and saltbush, has quickly put Botanic Gardens Restaurant on the map with his use of native Australian ingredients. Creating dishes like a deep-red lamb tartare with native South Australian karkalla or the 40-hour braised short rib with potato and saltbush sarladaise, Baker's food finds familiarity while giving diners an experience of something they’ve never had before.

“I try to use them in a way I think people might not have tried but are not scared to give it a go,” he says. “They generally can't believe how good they actually are. The food seems somewhat familiar but we use ingredients people haven't heard of or in combinations they may not have tried before.”

Clayton Donovan, one of Australia's most recognizable Indigenous chefs, grew up on Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung land on the mid-north coast of New South Wales. He sees the native ingredients movement as something that can actually become profitable on a large scale for both farmers and indigenous people as the movement grows. It's not just a restaurant trend. “As more ingredients are talked about and utilized on menus and the demand increases for the growers, it becomes a profitable business,” he says. “Some native ingredients have become more recognizable, and that will just clear the way for the huge pantry that Australia has to offer the native food movement."

As more and more government agencies get involved in the cultivation, promotion and research into these ingredients, the more likely these foods will actually penetrate the modern Australian mainstream beyond restaurants. As Donovan explains: “Investigation by the CSIRO into the medicinal and nutritional benefits of these foods has opened the consumers' eyes to what is on offer, and now they seem to want to know more and how to access these ingredients and plants.”

While the Australian native foods movement continues to grow nationwide, South Australia has pushed itself forward as a hub for the movement thanks to their easy access to native ingredients. “It's our access to the ingredients that most other states don't have. Our coastline and the Adelaide Hills are only a short drive from the CBD and are full of wild foragable ingredients.” Baker explains. “Plus, we have Outback Pride in Reedy Creek, South Australia who cultivate a lot of native plants you find in a lot of Australia’s best restaurants.”

This abundance of native Australian ingredients in Southern Australia has begun to make them more commonplace at restaurants, from the Barossa Valley’s Appelation at The Louise, where native Wattleseed gets the dessert treatment with bitter chocolate and macadamia to Adelaide Hills Distillery and Something Wild Beverages’ foray into bug gin made with native green ants to Adelaide Central Market’s Something Wild native ingredients stall where home cooks can buy everything from witchety grubs to palm nuts.

At Warndu, these native ingredients are used in ways that speaks to the future of the Australian native food movement overall. The pho, a staple Australian comfort food thanks to the country’s large Vietnamese population, takes on new dimension and life when made with kangaroo and native. Elements and flavors of Australia’s vast immigrant cultures and native ingredients meld together to create a mezze plate that represents the nation's culinary influences and produce. Fresh sourdough served with cultured butter covered with a layer of lime-colored, citrusy green ants and kangaroo salami sits alongside seedy dukkah and bright, grassy olive oil and native saltbush gets fried up like chips before getting doused in a powdering of the countries unofficial, British-influenced, favorite flavor: salt and vinegar.

It’s a veritable cornucopia of Australia’s many culinary influences together in one dish. The forgotten, past and present Australia together on a plate, pointing to a modern Australian cuisine of the future.