Every chef worth their saltbush is foraging these days, but Kylie Kwong knows her limits. "I couldn't go into the bush and forage because I'm not a trained botanist. I'd probably pick something and kill myself." She takes a box of warrigal greens from a high shelf in the cool-room of her Sydney restaurant, Billy Kwong.
"I can't do that. So I get in touch with people who are experts, and that's people like Mike and Gayle."
Mike and Gayle Quarmby run Outback Pride, near Kingston, South Australia, and Kwong's relationship with them has meant a whole new direction for her modern-Chinese diner. "Such beautiful produce," says Kwong. "The saltbush leaves Mike has developed, his amazing warrigal greens, the rosella flowers, the lemon aspens, the desert fruits, the finger limes. The flavours are unique. It really has made me re-assess the whole notion of what Australian-Chinese food is. I've found that many of these ingredients are naturally in harmony with the Chinese flavour profile."
In these recipes, then, you'll find pork belly simmered in the familiar soy, star anise and ginger of Chinese cooking, combined with native finger limes and lilly pillies. Or yabbies stir-fried with XO, sea parsley and samphire. "The flavours are amazing, the textures are incredible," says Kwong.
Her enthusiasm for bush tucker is shared by the likes of former GT Chef of the Year Ben Shewry, Circa's Paul Wilson and Quay's Peter Gilmore, among others. "For Chinese new year, Neil Perry came in for dinner and I sent him my stir-fried saltbush with ginger and shiro shoyu. He got up out of his seat, he came into the kitchen and he said, 'Kwongy! Where did you get that saltbush? I love it!' So I threw a bunch of saltbush at him and I sent him Mike and Gayle's contact details the next day. He recognised the quality, the flavour. Mark [chef Mark Best] did the same thing. And I'm always inspired by Ben [Shewry], who I adore and respect.
"It was the René Redzepi talk at the Sydney Opera House in October 2010 which first made so many of us chefs sit up and pay attention. I walked out of there and I thought, what are we doing? Why aren't more of us using our own native produce? Was it because we were so obsessed as a nation with all this stuff from overseas, all these exotic ingredients: the foie gras, the truffles?"
Saltbush and rosella flowers, though, are even more difficult to obtain than those imported ingredients, so what's a home cook to do? "There will be people who read this article and say, 'But I can't get that - what's the point?'," says Kwong. "Well, the point is opening people's eyes to the importance of using locally grown foods and native produce."
The Quarmbys established Outback Pride in part to provide employment and training opportunities in Aboriginal communities, and to benefit community health. "The Dalai Lama says one of the most important things in what people do is the motivation and the intention," says Kwong. "The very fact that more and more people are using this beautiful bush tucker is a very important statement in itself. We are saying, in my view, that we support and we respect the indigenous culture here. I mean, it's about time."
Billy Kwong, 1/28 MacLeay St, Potts Point NSW, (02) 9332 3300, kyliekwong.org