Indigenous Australian Foods: Bush Tucker

The continent of Australia, being remote as it is, evolved along different pathways from the rest of the world. The indigenous peoples here survived some 60,000 years without interference from European or other civilizations. These people survived on the meager resources of this continent, in perfect harmony with nature, using the natural resources without destroying them.

Native Australians survived in the bush without such things as pots and pans, and did not usually boil water. They didn’t brew teas and make coffee. They drank water from rivers and streams, or the dew from grass. The natives used foods from their area, and did not trade foods with other groups.

Recently the media has made fun of some of the more interesting dietary items of the indigenous people of Australia, such as the witchety grub. This is just one example of the diversity of herbs, fungi, fruits, flowers, vegetables, animals, birds, insects, fish, and reptiles known as ‘bush tucker’ down under.

The Witchety Grub is a primary food source for desert dwellers. Witchety grubs grow in the roots of Acacia bushes, and ten of them per day can keep you alive. Roasting them in the coals of a fire, and rolling them in ashes are a favorite way of preparing them. The Bogong Moth, Agrotis infusa, found in the mountains of southern New South Wales is eaten roasted, or ground into a paste and dried into a flour. These moths were highly prized as a food source by the native Australians. Honeypot Ants, stingless native bees (Trigona sp.), Bush cockroach, Green tree ant, Lerp insect, Processionary caterpillar, Termites and others round out the list of insects to eat here.

Apart from their fascinating use of insects as food, the indigenous peoples also enjoyed a variety of fruits, seeds, and nuts in their diet.

The Santalum Acuminatum or the Quandong is a truly native species dating back 40 million years on the Australian continent. This small red fruit grows on a parasitic tree, that uses another trees root system for water. An important food source with a high Vitamin C content, the trees grow throughout Australia. The dried fruit lasts for years without a loss in flavor. The wood was often burned by natives in ceremonies and is known as the Wild Peach, Desert Peach, or Native Peach by Australians.

The Macadamia nut is another native Australian species, domesticated in Hawaii, but enjoyed locally as well. Bunya Nuts (Araucaria bidwillii), produce huge 3 kilo cones which are chock filled with nuts, every three years. They can be eaten raw, roasted or ground into a nut flour. Candle Nuts, poisonous if eaten raw, can be roasted and eaten. The intrinsically high cyanide content of Candle Nuts makes them upsetting to your stomach if you eat more than just a few. Early settlers used them as candles, because of the high fat content they burned nicely.

The Cedar Bay Cherry, or Beach Cherry is one of Australia’s best fruits, and found along almost all its coasts. The Davidson’s Plum is used to make jams and wine, as a food coloring, and as flavor for sauces, desserts, and drinks. The Midyim is a small bluish fruit that is eaten raw, and it grows well in the arid sandy soils of Australia. Native Ginger produces a small blue fruit that is lemony in flavor. The young root tips are edible, and the leaves are used in a layer underneath meats roasting in an oven.

The native Lemon Aspen tree is neither a lemon, nor an aspen, but an Australian bushfood plant and not an herb at all. Growing as a tall tree up to 20m high, it has deep-green leaves, and clusters of scented white flowers. The small lime-green fruits are harvested in autumn and winter for their unique flavor, a strong citrus tang with undertones of eucalyptus and menthol. This makes for a delightful, if unusual wine. You can read about more wines made in Australia from native fruits here.

Wattles, or Acacias, are another food source, and some 47 varieties provide edible seeds in Australia. Indigenous people ground the seeds into a flour, and then made a flat bread. Coastal dwellers have been known to roast the pods in fire, and then eat the seeds. The current fad in upscale modern Australia is coffee flavored with ground roasted wattle seed.

Roots and tubers were a staple in the diet on this continent, as well as what animal meat that could be found. Kangaroos, possums, lizards, fish and shellfish, and insects were all important sources of protein. Along the southern coasts whale and seal meat would also make their way into the diet.

In the many areas of coastline blessed with Mangrove Lagoons, the natives would have a feast. From prawns and shrimps to mussels, clams, worms, to birds eggs and rare species of fruits and plants, the mangroves are a plentiful food source.

All of this sounds like a glamorously exotic diet, but survival was based on water as well. Natives found food and water in where many Europeans have perished. Here an Indigenous person could find enough food and water to survive for a lifetime. Natives knew where to look for water holes and soaks, how to collect water, how to conserve water, and how to clean it. These are survival skills for the locals.

Tribes would consist of small family groups, who camped together and shared in the daily search for food. Men hunted, and the women and children collected plants, insects, and made the food.

~by Martin Trip

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