Did you know there is a fruit that has the highest recorded levels of vitamin C in the world – more than oranges or kiwifruit – and it grows natively in Australia? Gubinge, also known as Kakadu plum, is one of more than 6500 native plants that are edible and medicinal with a much longer lineage than the European botanicals and spices commonly found on our pantry shelves.
But we don't talk about them, says Warndu co-founder and cook Rebecca Sullivan. "Nothing bothers me more than people paying $30 a bag for goji berries, and they won't spend that kind of money on something like Davidson's plums that contain triple the amount of antioxidants," she says.
It's why she, alongside her partner Damien Coulthard, a teacher and director of the South Australian Native Title Board from Adnyamathanha country, created the free native substitution guide and e-book available on their website. "Instead of using thyme in a dish, use native thyme – we're not making it difficult for you, sub one ingredient in and one out." The guide shows you all the flavours and comparisons, along with recipes on the Warndu website that even the most amateur cook can master. Warndu also sells oils, teas and pantry packs all filled with native Australian plants. Some ingredients like strawberry-gum leaves, are ground fresh to order and sealed in bags, perfect to have on hand in your pantry.
The main focus moving forward, Sullivan says, is the need to grow these ingredients "respectfully and steadily, while making it the norm – we've seen it in the spirit industry, now no one blinks an eye at saltbush being incorporated in gin".
The most successful case of native plants in spirit production is Brendan and Laura Carter's Applewood Distillery in South Australia and their limited-release range of native botanical-inspired gins.
Carter explains: "We all want the normalisation of native ingredients, but farmers will only plant what's profitable. Spirit production uses the largest amount of raw material, doesn't go off and lasts a long time."
Through their development and relationships with farmers, they now have a steady supply of high-quality native ingredients. Their feature gins usually sell out in 48 hours, and once they're gone, they'll never be repeated. August saw the release of a finger lime gin, which displays the most beautiful lime and almost spicy ginger and black pepper characters. But this is only just the beginning says Carter. "We're just scratching the surface – most Aussies know barely anything about Indigenous ingredients. Food, booze and stories are cultural pillars that open the door to learning about them."
The education around these plants and their properties is high on the list of priorities for Australian Native Food and Botanicals (ANFAB), the peak national body that represents all interests in the rapidly growing native food and botanicals space.
ANFAB Chair, Suzanne Thompson, recognises the distinct lack of education and cultural connection to these foods by most people living in Australia. "We need to relearn and reawaken the practices of bush foods, integral agricultural knowledge – we need to start thinking long-term integration," says Thompson.
A way of achieving this would be permits and certification for the farmers and growers of these native plants, a collaboration with the Indigenous people whose knowledge of the land and native plants' properties comes from their bloodlines and family stories – bringing this ancient knowledge into the modern world. "We need to create cultural frameworks for the future survival of this information," she says.
Clinton Schultz from Sobah, an Aboriginal-owned brewery on Yugambeh country known as the Gold Coast, agrees with the need for legal recourse or a framework to protect this sacred plant knowledge. The native ingredients he uses for his hand-crafted non-alcoholic beers are sourced from all over the country, but the availability of the plants fluctuates in different areas due to the increase of people and companies using them. Larger companies having the ability to use up and take massive quantities is in conflict with the sustainable nature of native plants and botanicals.
"In some ways, it's a good problem to have, because that means the financial viability of planting more but natives are notoriously slow to grow to the fruiting stage (around seven years). Farmers that planted over a decade ago are just now starting to get good enough yields to sell," says Schultz.
Earlier this year, Sobah released a Davidson's plum gluten-free ale that frequently sold out due to its popularity. This created an opportunity for Schultz to secure a constant ongoing supply of Davidson's plums and support that farmer's community. "Our business is proof of the viability of natives – but we want to see a lot more assistance in Aboriginal communities to have a significant place in this space," he says.
The voices around Indigenous foods, particularly in restaurants, are still not coming from Aboriginal people, and this needs to be addressed and changed. Under Thompson's guidance, the board is balanced equally with First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians, with a focus and desire to build up Indigenous representation. Real leadership is a collaboration, and she recognises that we are "better together" – bringing that belief to ANFAB.
"It's taken quite a while to get these native agricultures to the forefront, but we're creating a shared space for natives in people's everyday lives and a respect for that space," says Thompson. It's this belief of integration and collaboration that could open the door to pilot programs for land restoration, tourism and education about native foods in schools.
However, before we can move forward, we need to acknowledge and recognise the past. An understanding of the cultural context is crucial for non-Indigenous people working in this native food space. Nothing is developed and created in a vacuum, and we need to address the tokenism and cultural appropriation that has been occurring for years in the native food space in our restaurants.
Ben Shewry, chef and owner of Melbourne's fine-dining restaurant, Attica, believes this stems from Australians not knowing their true history.
"To work with these foods as a non-Indigenous person, it is vital that I understand and continue to educate myself on this history."
First and foremost, the invading of Australia and the collective grief still felt by First Nations people who were stripped of their land and generational suppression of their rights and culture. Learning about this history helps you to understand whose foods these are and where we've taken them from.
"This enables you to work with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples in a way that's respectful and trustworthy," Shewry says.
For the future of native foods to survive, Shewry sees the importance of coming to terms with the fact that when we eat this food – it comes with a story and a culture. "How lucky are we that we have access to this depth of knowledge – I'm an example of someone whose life has been changed by these native foods." Shewry considers Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe essential reading for all Australians, and it was through his time On Country with Uncle Bruce Pascoe that the understanding of a cultural context around native Australian foods started to take shape.
Five years ago, Shewry was fishing in the river with Uncle Bruce, and the respect and reverence he had for the fish and the water were unlike anything he had seen or experienced. The next day, they went out again to find bimblas (also known as blood cockles) which are not commercially harvested, so Shewry had little experience with them. After returning to the restaurant, he softly steamed them the way you usually prepare mussels and cockles. To Shewry's horror, the bimblas verged on inedible both in texture and flavour and to this day he shudders at the thought of the experience of eating them. Fast-forward three years when he was On Country again with Uncle Noel Bulter, a Budawang Elder from the Yuin Nation who prepared bimblas the traditional way, on hot coals. Cooked until they were black and charred on the outside, they were some of the most magical things Shewry has ever eaten.
It was a humbling experience. "I had no idea how to cook these native plants and foods of the country I have been living in since 2002," says Shewry. This is why cultural context is vitally important when we talk about native foods, and Shewry acknowledges that it's the reason why Attica exists. "We all have to play our part, and we have a role to play in reconciliation."
We can't talk about food and especially native foods without acknowledging social issues. It's genuinely the safe space that lends itself to being open to these hard (but ultimately rewarding) discussions. We need to normalise not only eating these plants but having the conversations around them. This essence of land, culture and history is captured when sourcing these ingredients for any purpose whether that be cooking, distilling, or brewing.
Acknowledging First Nations people's connection to the land and the reconciliation that can come from the collaboration. We've had such a long history of denying these foods – and now we can use them as a way of coming together. Sullivan believes it's the healing power of food: "Food heals and is a safe space for people – there's a huge opportunity for cultural healing. I always call it reconciliation on a plate."