What I cooked:
There’s been a lot written about how the way we eat now is so far removed from the process of farming and growing, and how disastrous this has been for the environment. How mass production and factory farming destroys the land and causes incredible suffering to other people. Slowly, steadily, among middle class people who can afford it, there’s been a push-back, a move towards locally grown, sustainable produce.
But there’s one thing that’s been largely ignored: almost every single thing we eat in Australia is not meant to be here. Ever since Europeans invaded Australia we have wreaked havoc over lands that were once incredibly fertile with imported animals produce. Fertile lands being farmed by skilled agriculturalists in the indigenous population. The fact that when white people arrived in Australia the first people were already growing and farming grains, vegetables, berries, seafood and livestock, living in permanent dwellings, storing food – doing all the things that so called ‘civilized’ people do has been so largely, shamefully ignored, so European invaders could continue to subjugate a race they saw as less than themselves because of the colour of their skin.
And it continues. I had no idea the advanced agricultural, governmental and engineering practices of the first Australians – and I did indigenous studies at high school. I graduated in 2010. I had no idea until I idly picked up a book called The Oldest Foods on Earth, because NOMA chef Rene Redzepi’s interest in native foods had sparked my interest. Reading this book blew my tiny mind. The foods Newton talked about were so fantastic, so interesting and unique and nutritious that I knew I had to investigate more about why they were practically unused.
I turned to Bruce Pascoe’s Black Emu for more information, and found the answer was, as usual in this country, racial prejudice and white settlers refusal to recognise any of the agricultural work that the first Australians were doing, even as they themselves were dying of starvation, with crops shriveling and animals rotting all around them.
As self-righteous as I often am, I do not think that reading two books and doing a bit of internet research makes me an expert on Aboriginal agriculture and native cooking. I do not think that someone writing about this topic for their 150 follower blog is going to change anything. However, in Black Emu Pascoe is adamant that if more people knew about the advanced, thoughtful, skillful ways that indigenous Australians were using the land, we might go some way to creating more understanding and respect in a culture where Aboriginal people are still marginalized, victimized, and brutalized every day. While I was reading Black Emu I sat outside my house and looked out at my surroundings and thought about how for tens of thousands of years, up until very recently, the people who lived on it were ingenious caretakers who looked after the land and made it the best it could possibly be. And how much damage we have done in such a short amount of time. I felt in incredible amount of shame, and respect and sadness for the first people who have lived on this land for so long.
My emotions don’t matter, but actions do. If we start using more native ingredients, and, most importantly, ensure that the means of mass production are left in the hands of Indigenous people, we can go some way to restoring respect and dignity for the land and its first people. It will take a long time. It will take a lot of agricultural reform and changing the way we think about farming. But, with climate change drying out our country and making continued irrigation practices unfeasible, to my mind huge changes are the only thing that will enable the human race to survive. When we start growing things that are meant to be here, that can handle this climate, when we start farming animals that don’t make the soil unusable, and require huge amounts of grain to eat. When we finally stop enforcing colonial rule over the land and the people who were here so long before us. Maybe then there's some hope.
Many of the native ingredients I used in the recipes in this blog came from a nursery called Wijuti Grub Bushfood Nursery in Obi Obi on the Sunshine Coast.We also visited Dreamtime Kullilla Art in Redcliffe to buy some things we couldn’t grow in the timeframe and they were selling Dale Chapman’s terrific cookbook Coo-ee Cuisine, which has so many great ideas for inventive, interesting, but approachable recipes using native ingredients. I recommend it to anyone even vaguely interested in native foods.
We drove to the Sunshine coast in late winter, hot sun offset by cool wind and looming clouds that, of course, broke open as we were driving along the narrow dirt paths up the mountains into Witjuti nursery. We sat in the car in the rain in a field outside the lush green property, admiring the view but unsure what to do, for a while before I finally called owner Veronica, who came down with a giant multi colored umbrella to show us around.
Veronica was so incredibly kind and knowledgeable in helping us work out what the best things to buy and grow in our time frame would be. I knew I wanted to do the dinner party before the end of October, so we bought warrigal greens, a kind of native spinach, saltbush, native violets, and mint. Veronica also kindly gave me some frozen Davidson plums, riberries and bunya nuts. I let the ingredients, and a heavy dose of sentimentality guide the menu. For instance, I used the warrigal greens in pierogi, a kind of Polish dumpling, because I have a vaguely Polish background, though have never really cooked or eaten polish food.
There are a lot of ways we try to manufacture cultural connections. When I cook with native foods I can try and convince myself that I am doing something to help the land that I love so much, to try and add my voice behind the chorus demanding respect for Aboriginal culture. When I cook pierogi, I am trying to connect to my own personal history – my great grandfather was a polish Jew, and came to Australia after WWII with his English wife. I never met him, my nana - his daughter - born and raised in Australia by an English mother, never cooked Polish food. But still I say my background is slightly Polish, trying to grasp at a more interesting cultural connection than just ‘British’ or ‘white’ or ‘mayo af’. This is a small vanity I have allowed myself – to cook a polish dish for my friends and feel lightly sentimental about it.
For dessert I made a lemon tart because going on the little road trip out the Obi Obi with Sam and Josh brought back a strong sense-memory of long car trips and stopping at country bakeries for a lemon meringue pie when I was a kid. We had one at the Obi Obi bakery on our way and it was INSANE. Josh had the shiniest raspberry tart I’ve ever seen and I had a super tasty, creamy chicken pie as well. Would recommend, worth the 90 minute drive. Originally I was going to try and make the meringue for the top as well but as we were pushing 10pm by the time dinner was served something had to give. Also who the fuck owns a blowtorch?
I knew from the moment I heard about Davidson plums that I wanted to use them to make a plum sauce roasted chicken, and it turned out better than I could have hoped. The pleasant sourness of the Davidson plum, balanced out with, honestly, a lot of sugar, matched perfectly with clove, ginger and five spice Chinese flavours. I’ve been super interested in Chinese food recently – now that people are finally moving past perceptions of it just being cheap and easy to make, and recognizing the incredible skill of Chinese chefs, there’s more of a market and interest in traditional and authentic Chinese restaurants.
I always knew kangaroo had to be cooked very rare, and initially I wanted to do something like a rare beef pho with it. Though I soon realized cooking soup to share would be dumb and difficult. But the flavours – mint, chili, fish sauce, sprouts, would all work great in a salad. Kind of a hybrid thai salad thing. Simple but really really tasty.
The final, and probably tastiest, thing I made was bunya nut satay tofu. Originally this was going to be bunya nut satay crocodile, which would have been much more impressive. But ah, the butcher was closed on the day I tried to buy it. Stupidest reason to not follow through on something? Yup! But I am stupid. This sauce was incredible though, honestly. Mildly nutty flavor, crunchy and burnt caramel-y.
I’ve always been a gigantic satay fan – one of my best friends as a kid was Indonesian and her mum not only used to make great satay (and spring rolls, and curry puffs and curries, and…. Everything), but often took us to Jakarta Indonesian restaurant, which makes the best satay sauce I’ve ever had in my life. One of my favourite restaurants, cheap and BYO. If you’re in Brisbane and you haven’t been yet, run don’t walk.
As well as the native ingredients, the cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, and herbs also came from Sam George Allen’s garden. Since she started getting into gardening a bit over a year ago we’ve been cooking stuff from whatever comes out of her tough, wild garden out the back of that West End trash house and feeling pretty bloody pleased with ourselves for it. Using ingredients she grew was really special – also, kept costs down a bit.
I make no promises about any of the recipes attached being accurate – I make a lot of this off the top of the dome. I’d use them just as inspiration and a rough guide rather than following them to the letter (just saying, if you do and it fucks up you can’t blame me).