“I think we're on the brink of something happening in Australia. We're going to have a conversation. That conversation has been impossible until now.” – Bruce Pascoe
Wander the streets of Paris and you will find French food, it may not be the most refined, but it will be undeniably French. Do likewise in Australia and the only thing you won’t find is “Australian”. Open the Good Food Guide and you will find that they have gone so far as to actually remove the “modern Australian” genre from their book. With food and nationhood so closely entwined this is unusual.
Similarly to language, our taste is acquired through a slow process of acculturation, nurtured by the culture around us as much as it is formed naturally.
So, what is a taste of Australia? We all know it is not a “shrimp” on the barbie. Perhaps we are still bound by the straight jacket of British colonialism, an era of meat and three veg? Or is it the taste of China, arriving with the discovery of gold and leaving behind a legacy - a local Chinese restaurant in almost every small country town? It is likely our kitchens were most influenced by the mass immigration that followed WWII, bringing with it spaghetti Bolognese, schnitzels and kebabs (among many more refined delicacies).
These large waves of immigration painted broad culinary brushstrokes. Their influences (and many more in between) have shaped our cooking, making Australia one of the most open-minded, adventurous and diverse culinary nations on the globe.
But while food is a vitally important ingredient in forging a national identity, it can also be a potent source of xenophobia. Looking at the food culture we have created it is very apparent what it isn’t – natural.
It has only been relatively recently we have seen this veil lift. Chefs, albeit predominantly foreign chefs, are placing the emphasis on our native ingredients, learning their stories and understanding the virtues hidden in what remains a very foreign landscape for far too many.
Ben Shewry of Attica, one of Australia’s most lauded restaurants, is one such chef. A New Zealander, Shewry has built his restaurant on innovation and understanding of the local environment. Alongside his large gardens at Ripponlea, Melbourne, Shewry’s team are often found foraging for local ingredients along our shores. Dishes such as wattleseed bread, salted red kangaroo with bunya bunya and goolwa pippies are testament to this.
Scottish chef Jock Zonfrillo, of Orana in Adelaide, has taken this a step (or is it a giant leap) further, by spending weeks at a time visiting remote regions of Australia to learn from Australia’s indigenous people. The lessons he is bringing back into his kitchen are fascinating. This has been his approach from the beginning:
“I was told in the mid 90s, when I first arrived in Australia, there wasn’t much to investigate with regards to ‘Australian Food,’” explains Zonfrillo, “I thought it impossible that there was 50,000 years of some kind of food culture and ingredients that were not worth looking at.”
Of course Zonfrillo was right. “I took myself down to Circular Quay and sat down next to an Aboriginal fella who was busking with a Didgeridoo, introduced myself and asked if I could talk about food and culture with him … We had conversations that day about catching a particular fish and ONLY using a specific wood to cook that fish, how hot the coals had to be, the aroma of the fish as it cooked over the coals and how the plant within weeped its citric juices through the fish from the inside out…. I could have been talking to a highly trained chef.”
Our soil is some of the oldest in the world. It is unique and very delicate. And yet, all the crops and animals we put in it and over it, all the fresh produce in our supermarkets and our farmers markets, are foreign species only introduced over the past two centuries.
In Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu he presents a compelling argument for pre-colonial agriculture in Australia, citing examples of complex aquaculture systems, grain crops and indeed silos, and seasonal planning. While the book serves to throw off the hunter-gatherer label of indigenous Australia, it also serves to open up the question as to what else has been missed.
For example, many Aboriginal nations worked to a six season cycle for the year. This was not prescribed across the whole country, with different Aboriginal nations working to different timetables depending on the earth, the migratory patterns of the local animals and the weather (with the wind as much a factor as the rains). Why did we ever think a cookie-cutter idea of seasonal variation would be the most applicable to our wide, brown land?
The flavours of our native ingredients are also an amazing untapped resource. Just like our soils, these indigenous ingredients have not been tampered with, they are almost exactly as they were 20,000 years ago. Working with our native ingredients is an opportunity to cook with history - heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds of the utmost purity.
Of course, working with Australia’s native ingredients is not without its difficulties. They have not been bred to sit on supermarket shelves, they have not been cross-pollinated to withstand hours, if not days, on trucks traversing the country, like modern-day tomatoes and carrots.
Vic Cherikoff, author of Wild Foods, looks to the quandong to illustrate this point: “… it’s a fruit that can be picked over a five or six week period off the same tree, requiring at least three or four visits to complete the harvest. They will be over-ripe in a matter of days, with the blue quandang it’s over-ripe in a matter of hours.”
Most of these native ingredients are not commercially grown. Furthermore, many of these ingredients thrive in parts of arid Australia that have been largely ignored by modern industry, meaning transport in and out is difficult and costs are high. Thus, most of these ingredients are only available frozen, dehydrated or in powdered form.
Cherikoff, who has been working with native ingredients for decades, has actually made this the central component of his business. He now works with powders and spices to make a powdered supplement rather than try to promote the individual ingredients.
“Unfortunately native ingredients suffered some major negativity back in the ’80s and ’90s so without question that has had an impact,” says Zonfrillo. “Secondly the prices we are seeing … make it impossible for many kitchens to use them, let alone someone at home, and finally supply is pretty scarce across the board. New directions and directives need to be taken within the native foods industry in Australia in order to make Australian ingredients accessible, affordable and a wanted commodity.”
Not all the roadblocks are natural, in fact many are bureaucratic. It was only 30-odd years ago that kangaroo meat was first made available for commercial sale. It is now the exception and the rule. Government legislation stipulates that emu, for example, can not be taken from the wild, but must be farmed, making the fledgling industry almost impossible to get off the ground.
Valuing these ingredients is a big part of the problem. For many years, while we were sowing wheat, herding sheep and crushing grapes, there was only one Australian native under cultivation – the macadamia nut. Even then, we exported the trees to Hawaii, a country that now produces 95% of the world’s macadamia needs.
We spend billions every year on research and development for the wheat and cattle industries of Australia (among many other foreign food items), and leave our native produce to flounder.
Zonfrillo has his own plan for this, setting up the Orana Foundation. “Over the years we have been able to assist communities in setting up micro businesses mainly in wild harvest, wild food is a commodity which we are not only happy to trade in but also to understand and tell our customers the story of an ingredient, its history, traditional uses and its cultural significance to the land from which it came,” explains Zonfrillo.
“The Foundation will continue this work on a much larger scale touching more communities, more people, more opportunities while ensuring we collate and document as much of the historic information together … We have many projects awaiting funding from both government, state & philanthropists which will commence this year, enabling us to do the most important part…. to give back.”
It is money that will be well spent. Culinary identity as tourist driver is a familiar concept. The arrival of Rene Redzepi and the Noma team to our shores, a collaboration between Tourism Australia, Lendlease and the Noma team, has required significant government investment.
Their mission was to cook with indiginenous ingredients. “We couldn’t have created Noma Australia if we had not travelled this vast country,” says Redzepi. “You need to meet the people who are harvesting, growing, catching, foraging your food. Once you meet them, and you understand their work, you start planning what flavours you want.”
“On my many trips around Australia I’ve seen a larder that is so foreign to me. Foraging for abalone, eating fresh muntries, nibbling on pepper berries and cracking open a bunya nut – these experiences are so wild compared to what we’re used to in Europe. Spending time with indigenous communities in places like Arnhem Land, have left the biggest impact on me and the Noma team,” notes Redzepi.
It will be interesting to see the impact of this Noma Australia, and another foreign chef, on our local palates. It would not be a wild leap to suggest many of these ingredients are as foreign to Australians as they have been to the Danes.
Redzepi’s restaurant in Copenhagen is widely considered the best in the world. However, it was his vision for the restaurant that is particularly interesting. Redzepi is almost solely responsible for turning Copenhagen's culinary glance inwards, a move that eventually led to the world glancing (glaring) in their direction. Alex Atala of D.O.M. in Brazil has done likewise, while Magnus Nilsson of Favikan has literally written the book on it for Sweden. Their focus on local ingredients has meant more than the success of their restaurants, it has resulted in an interest in their country’s cuisine (and culture) from all corners of the globe.
This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1600’s the French began to fear their economic dependence on the spice route. Seeking a way to tackle this they made a decision to turn their cuisine inwards, promoting the ingredients from their own backyard over the foreign spices. The result was not just to loosen the grip of the spice trade, but to create an identity that became France, a symbol of French nationhood that endured for centuries to follow. We can, in part, thank the spice trade for the ubiquitous French restaurant.
This could be the revolution we are seeing in Australia now. It’s a big deal, not just because it will bring tourists, but because it has the potential to put a positive spotlight on the culinary culture of indigenous Australia. It is an opportunity to celebrate knowledge and build respect; an opportunity to build a culinary identity for Australia that includes all Australians. It’s about time.