Bush tucker: Why you need native ingredients in your kitchen

From quandongs to Kakadu plums, indigenous ingredients are becoming easier to find, giving meals a flavoursome burst, nutritious boost and a connection to land.

You might have tried some of Australia’s native foods.

Crunchy, creamy macadamia nuts.

Finger limes with their piquant pulp.

Lemon myrtle in herbal tea, tickling the tastebuds with its citrusy tang.

There are around 6000 recorded types of native Australian foods.

But most of what we often call “bush tucker” has long been regarded as a novelty or restaurant luxury.

Now, however, that’s starting to change.

Plants and animals that have sustained Australia’s Indigenous people for tens of thousands of years are being more widely embraced, and not just for their unique, exciting flavours, but also their nutritional value and sustainability.

Native foods are naturally nutritious

Dietitian Natasha Schilling says research shows native Australian ingredients are “great sources of different vitamins and minerals”.

Some are particularly rich sources, such as the Kakadu plum, which has “100 times more vitamin C than an orange”, despite being much smaller.

The Dietitians Australia spokesperson was based in the Northern Territory for 16 years until recently.

It was there, from Alice Springs to the Tiwi Islands, that her eyes were opened to the traditional foods of her mostly Aboriginal clients and she experienced foraging for bush foods under the guidance of local women.

She notes a lot of bush foods are quite brightly coloured, from green Kakadu plums and orange bush passionfruit to red quandongs and the rosella plant.

She explains that with any fruits and vegetables, the brighter the colour, the more antioxidants and phytonutrients (plant nutrients) they have.

Other native foods Natasha singles out for praise include kangaroo meat – “it’s very lean and a really good source of iron” – and lemon myrtle, which has “strong anti-fungal properties”.

She also recommends lemon myrtle as a plant-based source of calcium and for lutein, “which is really important for eye health”.

Relishing the flavours of the bush

Championing the tastes of native flavours in everyday cooking is chef Nornie Bero, whose first cookbook, Mabu Mabu, is out now.

“I want to showcase what grows on this big, beautiful island of ours … and how to use it in everyday cooking, not just fancy restaurants,” Nornie says.

“Mabu mabu” means “help yourself” in Nornie’s homeland, the Torres Strait Islands, and is also the name of her Melbourne business, which includes two restaurants (Big Esso and Tuck Shop) and a range of pantry items.

Ingredients that Nornie grew up hunting and foraging for, and now uses liberally in her cooking, include sea succulents such as karkalla, samphire and sea spray.

Alongside another favourite, saltbush, they impart a natural salty flavour to dishes, “so you don’t have to add any salt”.

Some of Australia’s many native species of hibiscus flowers, which Nornie remembers adorning her nan’s hair, feature in her desserts and tea.

Another Mabu Mabu hero ingredient is warrigal greens, which Nornie likens to spinach.

The green, leafy vegetable is high in fibre, vitamin C and healthy antioxidants.

“It’s tasty and grows like wildfire, so why don’t we have it in supermarkets?” Nornie asks. “In cities, especially, you tend to get what you’re given … but it’s becoming more apparent people want to branch out and have things that naturally grow in their parts of Australia.”

Where to find native ingredients

If growing your own bush-tucker plants doesn’t appeal, seek out native ingredients at quality greengrocers, specialty food stores, online shops and supermarkets, where native produce and products with Australian ingredients are becoming more common.

“It’s getting a lot easier and more mainstream to include native ingredients as part of everyday life,” Natasha says.

The dietitian encourages shoppers to look for bush-food products from businesses that are owned by and employ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, because they “hold the traditional knowledge that will be passed down the generations”.

For more innovative and inspiring nutrition ideas, pick up your free copy of Wellness+ Sustainability edition from your local Chemist Warehouse.

Written by Patricia Maunder.