Food & Culture

Marcia Langton: how I eat

The Indigenous leader and author on night-hunting, wild harvests and meeting HRH.

By Lee Tran Lam
Marcia Langton
Marcia Langton

What was in your lunchbox when you were growing up?
My family moved frequently, from Brisbane and from small town to small town in southern Queensland. I remember my packed lunch in year one at Inala State School: Vegemite sandwiches and an orange. On Tuesdays, I was given threepence to spend on a cream bun bought from the pastry truck that came to the school. I remember being horrified by Brussels sprouts and tasting Ovaltine in Stanthorpe, but little else.

Any other food memories from your childhood?
We sometimes went fishing, and I can remember an eel-catching trip by a river. Otherwise, our meals were the standard Australian fare. I can remember vividly the first time that I was excited by food. We were on the banks of a small river or channel near Bollon and had shot some pigeons. We plucked and gutted them and roasted them on the coals of our fire. My stepfather worked as a kangaroo shooter for a while and I learnt about night-hunting as a child.

Do you remember the first time you experienced bush tucker?
I ate bush tucker as a child – fish, eel, pigeon – but there are too many bush foods to say that I've tried them all. My favourite wild foods are fish, especially yellowbelly and Murray cod, although both are very rare. I have never forgotten my first taste of yellowbelly, a native fish of the western Queensland channel region. It's seasonal and before irrigation schemes changed these rivers it was possible to gather in groups and haul the fish out of the river as they came down with the big flows after heavy rainfall. I'm still discovering bush foods. In my adulthood, when I first travelled to the north, I was given dugong and turtle. These are very special food gifts and the taste is indescribable in both cases.

Describe some of your memorable eating and drinking experiences while researching your latest book, Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia.
One of my friends, Jessie Lloyd, is a great cook and writes down the recipes for our foods. Her recipes can be found on her Mipla Kitchen website. I use her recipes, and cooked her sop sop (vegetables cooked in coconut milk) and made her namas (pickled fish). There are so many influences on Aboriginal cuisines and her north Queensland dishes have the south-east Asian and Malay influence because of the ancient coastal trade across the north.

You write about Australians who showcase Indigenous food. Name a few lasting memories.
Eating wild foods is possible in only a few of Australia's restaurants. These are predominantly Indigenous restaurants, although Indigenous caterers are more common now. My standard wild-food favourite is grilled kangaroo. I didn't expect to find this in Victoria when I first moved here, but I was thrilled to find grilled kangaroo at my first encounter at Charcoal Lane in Fitzroy. It was fresh, perfectly grilled and reminded me of living on the riverbank in Queensland as a child. That's the magic of food.

What's another eatery you love?
Bushfoods Café, at the Brambuk Cultural Centre in Halls Gap, Victoria. I don't make it there as much as I used to, but they have wonderful muffins made with native herbs. Afternoon tea on the veranda is a special experience in the beautiful gorge setting, among the distinctive forest trees and grasses of this region.

How did you feel reading Bruce Pascoe's book Dark Emu, and his assertion that Indigenous Australians were the first people in the world to bake bread?
Dark Emu is a profound challenge to conventional thinking about Aboriginal life on this continent. He details the Aboriginal economy and analyses the historical data showing that our societies were not simple hunter-gatherer economies but sophisticated, with farming and irrigation practices. This is the most important book on Australia and should be read by every Australian.

There seems to be a greater appreciation for Aboriginal ingredients and cooking these days. How do you view this changing attitude?
It makes me happy that this is the case because it is now much easier to find Indigenous Australian foods in restaurants and shops. I can buy kangaroo for human consumption in supermarkets, and native herbs in many delicatessens.

You travelled to Asia for the first time in the 1970s. What influence did those cuisines have on you?
I learnt about the local food traditions in each place, and also occasionally learnt how to cook in the local tradition. I discovered soups, tofu, dumplings, pickles, noodle and rice dishes, grilled meat and the extraordinary range of seafood, raw and cooked, and quickly became accustomed to these traditions. Still today, my diet is predominantly Asian.

Why do you think Asian food is remarkable?
The heat of spices, especially chilli, the crunch of nuts, the tang of lime, lemon or vinegar, the sweetness of palm sugar, the salt of soy sauce; all of these elements make for a complicated cuisine with many elaborations. Hunting, fishing and harvesting wild foods are not possible in the vast urban conglomerations, but in the rural and coastal areas, these are traditions that remain very much alive, and fundamental to food security.

In 1999, you had an audience with the Queen – you were one of the first Indigenous Australians to visit Buckingham Palace since Bennelong. What was your visit like?
If you have watched The Crown on Netflix, you might get a sense of my cultural shock at encountering first-hand the traditions of meeting with the monarch at the Palace from which the idea of the global British empire and its practices emanated. Her Majesty The Queen is a remarkable woman, highly intelligent and observant, and obviously highly informed about the situation of Australian Indigenous people.

You're recognised for your work as an anthropologist. How important is food when understanding other societies and cultures?
Apart from correct etiquette and protocol, there is nothing more important than food tradition. This is not simply about eating, but ways of eating; what is eaten and when and by whom tell us a great deal about peoples and their cultures. Food underpins most social events and is a fundamental element of socialising.

Do you have a certain ritual for getting in the right frame of mind to think about work?
I drink coffee in the morning, but rarely eat until lunchtime. Lunch is very important, and must be treated as a daily ritual.

Was your latest book fuelled by tea or coffee – or very short lunch breaks in between proofing pages?
Coffee. Lots of coffee.

Marcia Langton's new book, Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia (Hardie Grant Travel, hbk, $39.99), is out now.