Last night in my sleep I created a Punch cartoon. It was of a teenage robot that had cleverly made its maker and its maker’s family into its servants. I woke up thinking, “I need to write about Australian food some more.”
I’m certain my brain works rationally, but at moments like this I’m not at all certain how.
So… Australian food. Today I want to talk about bush tucker (Australian native plants and animals of the edible varieties). I often talk about bush tucker. It not only provides me with great ingredients for cooking (salt bush and bush tomato and lemon myrtle are three of my favourites) but it provides unlimited discussion.
I bought some sachets of local herbs and spices to take with me to Ireland for those who need them and I can’t get the whimsy of bush tucker out of my brain. If that teenage robot could eat, this is what he’d eat.
Australia has a vast number of plants the rest of the world lacks. This is for the same reason we have kangaroos and numbats. We are a continent as no other.
Australia also has a strong (and violent and racist) colonial past. This strong (and violent and racist) colonial past carries with it a preference for ingredients used in European cooking, Some things (tea is the most obvious) we will important via Great Britain (or at least via British firms) even though the plants themselves grow here or near here. One of the great sources of species historically for Western Europe is Indonesia and we are Indonesia’s neighbour, yet we use cloves and cardamom in cooking because of our links with Europe.
It makes cultural sense. It doesn’t make living-on-a-continent sense. Why is mint our most famous herb and not saltbush? Because of the colonialist mentality.
Until recently, bush tucker was the food other people ate. It was impossible to buy commercially and those people who knew about it and how to wild harvest and how to cook were either Indigenous or specialist. They would make lillypilly jam while the rest of us looked at big trees carrying petty pink fruit and exclaim “It’s such a shame it’s not edible.” (I don’t actually like lillypilly jam. Give me quandong jam any day.)
Foodstuff from the American continent joined European foodstuffs in feeding Australian foodways. We eat corn, and we eat tamarillos. Corn is every day; tamarillos are less so: this is the nature of that influence. It is, again, controlled by where our majority culture comes from. We eat pork rather than kangaroo. Me, I don’t eat pork, but I would eat emu if I could. Emu is of the best meats on the planet and emus are the second meanest bird on the planet and one of the most delicious things around is a piece of good emu prosciutto wrapped around a dried fig.
Some years ago, change began. There was a popular TV series called “Bush Tucker Man” and it taught Australians that local plants might be edible. This is ironic, for we’re the country that gave the world macadamia nuts.
The TV show It worked for a while. Health food shops started stocking local ingredients.
Some remained in our vicinity and lemon myrtle (which has the best lemon flavour of any herb I’ve encountered) is still easy to find. Other plants are slowly appearing on supermarket shelves and in specialist shops.
This second or third or fiftieth coming of bushfood is giving us more choices than the previous ones. You have to know what you’re doing this time round, and where to find those plants, but this time, there are twenty or so herbs available, and frozen fruit, and bark for cooking in.
I buy most of my herbs and spices from an online shop. I have two favourites for these things: one sells a wider variety of herbs and one has little pots of jam and chutney that are really good in hampers. This year I bought herb packets to take for friends overseas and for panels I’m on in Dublin and Belfast this week and next.
How are Australian native herbs and species different to the ones we all know? Some have more complex flavours. Some less. This means they make different foods. Saltbush is wonderful in rubs and I almost always have some. Bush tomato is hard to get, but when I have it then I make baked potatoes for it makes the most amazing baked potatoes. Every few years I will buy a jar of rosella flowers that have been drowned in sugar syrup. One of these at the bottom of a glass of champagne is terribly easy to celebrate with.
Excuse me while I dream about those sachets of herbs I bought for Dublin and Belfast. I won’t get to cook with them, but the people I meet will. This week in your time. And it will suddenly not be winter. All the good things.