Wattle seeds, bush tomatoes, quandongs: Katie Roberts reckons not many people could describe the appearance of these foods, let alone their taste. But along with a walk around Uluru, one of the unique experiences of a trip to Central Australia should be a meal made with local bush foods.
Australia’s desert is a harsh and arid environment, but if you know where to look, food is all around. For indigenous Australians, it has been a source of sustenance and medicine for thousands of years, with detailed knowledge about climate, plants and habitats passed between generations.
Today, both Western and indigenous chefs cleverly incorporate and utilise bush ingredients – including everything from wattle seeds, lemon myrtle, bush tomato and quandongs to camel, emu and kangaroo – in Western-style dishes.
In fact, it’s fair to say that the niche industry of bush tucker is flourishing in Australia. A great place to sample it is Alice Springs, at the very bottom of the Northern Territory.
Rayleen Brown, is the owner and co-founder of Kungkas Can Cook, an Alice Springs-based catering company with a commitment to using locally sourced native foods. (In the local Pitjanjatjara language, kungka means young woman.) Rayleen believes it’s important that food is connected to people. Every season she buys the entire wild harvest of bush tomatoes from the local indigenous women who spend weeks collecting the small, red, berry-like fruits.
“I never know when they are coming,” says Rayleen. “I just wait for the phone call, and then I buy it all. The wild harvest is still happening after thousands of years; it’s a source of income for the women and it helps keep young people involved in traditions.”
As a child, Rayleen learnt to cook from her mother and father; the latter made “the most amazing satays” and passed on many of his recipes. Her great-grandfather was Chinese, a reflection of the mix of nationalities that has contributed to the cultural melting pot that is Darwin and the Northern Territory.
Rayleen’s popular Central Australian Tasting Platter is a mouth-watering spread of camel, kangaroo, feta with bush spices, dukkah, quondong jam and wattle-seed bread. It’s not just tasty: there are nutritional benefits, too – wattle seeds, for instance, have a low glycaemic index, making them suitable for diabetics.
A few kilometres down the road, the Olive Pink Botanic Garden is named after its founder, an anthropologist, botanical illustrator and activist for Aboriginal rights. See the plants for yourself on a self-guided walk, but don’t expect lush, bright green trees laden with fruit – the spindly shrubs have adapted to the low rainfall and heat of the harsh desert environment.
Here, bush food and medicinal plants sit side-by-side: bush tomato, bush banana, quandong, passionfruit, wattles, bush potato and native lemongrass. Interestingly many of these plants bear no resemblance to their namesakes! The on-site café serves Western-style food: try the excellent smoked kangaroo salad with native pepperberry, lemon-myrtle labne, rocket, beetroot, macadamia crumble and tender kangaroo fillet. After a coffee, burn off lunch with a gentle walk to the lookout and a view over Alice Springs, and the uninterrupted plains stretching hundreds of kilometres north, south, east and west.
If you’re self-catering, you’ll want to crank up the barbie once you see the beef rib-eye at local butcher, Milner Meats. Or take a walk on the wild side with some of their camel steaks, emu sausages, kangaroo and crocodile fillets, or camel-and-date sausages (a nod to the legacy of Afghans whose descendants are still here). And don’t miss the biggest, thickest, juiciest t-bones between here and Argentina.
Bob Taylor, a local cook, operates indigenous culinary experiences through his company RT Tours. Bob explains that for indigenous people, a season is characterised not just by rainfall and sunshine, but what plants or fruits are flowering, which animals are on the move and which are best to eat. Just a few kilometres out of Alice Springs, feast on a meal cooked over the campfire, with the Milky Way above and a vista of the spectacular West MacDonnell Ranges. Bob describes his dinners as a blend of “food, culture and country”. Sounds like a recipe for a great night.
Only visiting the Top End?
Experience east-meets-west fare in Darwin from May to October, at suburban weekend markets in Parap, Nightcliff and Rapid Creek; and at Mindil Beach on Thursday and Sunday nights. Just out of Darwin, Kakadu hosts the annual Jabiru Mahbilil Festival in September. Locals cook magpie goose using their own recipes in a culinary competition, plus there’s live music and cultural performances. September and October is considered the best time to sample this bird, renowned for its gamey roast beef flavour.
Jetstar and Silk Air fly direct from Singapore to Darwin (flying time: 4 hours, 40 minutes). From Darwin, there are connecting flights to Alice Springs, or it’s approximately 17 hours by road.
Even more to do in the bush…
Alice Springs Desert Park
Learn about desert landscapes, flora, fauna, and hear local indigenous guides talk about bush foods and traditional medicines.
Olive Pink Botanic Garden
Cnr Barrett Drive and Tuncks Road
RT Tours (Bob Taylor)
An indigenous training café
6 South Terrace
Kungkas Can Cook
Shop 17 Diarama Village, Larapinta Drive
Alice Desert Festival
An annual arts, culture and food festival
Corner Milner Road and Gason Street