Australia was originally inhabited by Aboriginals for 40-60,000 years. In the late 18th century,
the British decided, hey, wouldn’t that really large island down under the equator make a lovely prison colony to send our criminals? Even though Aboriginals had used native foods to survive as hunter-gatherers for thousands of years, the British weren’t really having it. They brought their own food to grow and raise, and bush tucker (native Australian cuisine) was ignored for the better part of 200 years. Thankfully, Australians started slowly using more bush tucker animals and spices in restaurants and home cooking a few decades ago. It’s not quite ubiquitous, but it’s worth finding if you want to try unique flavors and a piece of Australian history.
Wattleseed comes from the Acacia plant, and is typically dried and roasted before being used. Once roasted, its flavor is a bit like coffee with notes of chocolate and hazelnut. Aboriginals used to grind them into a flour for damper, a flatbread that was a major staple of Aboriginal cuisine pre-European settlement. Today, wattleseed is used to flavor baked goods like muffins and breads and desserts like pavlova and ice cream, as well as in spice rubs for meat and a caffeine-free version of coffee.
Bush tomatoes come from the same family as regular tomatoes, and grow in the desert regions of Australia. The berries (also called desert raisins) produced by the plant are the size of a pea, and are gathered once they have dried on the plant. The flavor is a mix of sun dried tomato and caramel, and it is used in chutneys, relishes and scones, and to flavor strong-flavored fish like salmon and meat.
A finger lime is a citrus fruit native to Australian rainforests in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. The name comes from its shape, which is similar to a finger and the size of a small pickle. Its skin comes in a rainbow of colors: yellow, green, red, purple and black. The coolest part is inside the fruit, tiny spheres of lime that look like green or red caviar. They burst on your tongue, filling your mouth with a strong mix of lemon, lime and herbal notes. Finger limes are used to flavor dishes as well as garnish. It’s a playful topping for raw oysters, works well with seafood like spot prawns and scallops, and can be found in marmalade, cupcakes and garnishing a pavlova.
Kangaroo is not only the national emblem of Australia, but there are so many of them (an estimated 30-50 million wild kangaroos), they are considered a pest. They were hunted by
Aborignals for thousands of years, but European Aussies were slow to eat Skippy (possibly
because it reminds them of a children’s show called Skippy the Kangaroo). Kangaroo can be found in modern restaurants that use Bush ingredients, as well as some Chinese restaurants and most local grocery stores. The Australian government promotes kangaroo meat over beef because it is better for the environment, producing less methane gas than cows and sheep. It’s a pretty lean red meat, with a flavor similar to venison, but a bit more gamey. Grilled kangaroo steak is a common dish at restaurants and barbecues, as is braised tail and ground kangaroo meat (used to make burgers, stews or sauces).
The leaves of a lemon myrtle plant are a popular flavoring in Australia, producing an aromatic
flavor similar to lemongrass, lemon and lime. It can be used fresh or dried and crushed as an
herb. Australians use it to flavor laksa, a spicy noodle dish their Asian immigrants (Peranakans — a mix of Chinese and Malay) brought over. They also roast it with chicken, and use it in sweets like ice cream, custard, cheesecake and cookies.
Quandong is a native fruit, often called a desert peach. Around the size of an apricot,
quandongs can be eaten fresh or dried, and have a tart, sweet flavor similar to apricots and
peaches. Its flavor means it works well in both savory and sweet dishes. It might be served as a chutney or relish with pork or chicken at a nice restaurant, while quandong pie or crumble might appear in a bakery or at home. You can also find it in jam, sorbet and infused into whipped cream to top a pavlova.
These large, flightless birds look similar to an ostrich, some towering as much as six feet tall.
Along with the kangaroo, it’s featured on Australia’s Commonwealth Coat of Arms. It’s considered a highly usable bird, because Aboriginals used their flesh as a source of meat, and their fat for medicine and a lubricant. Emus produce a lean, red meat packed with iron that tastes similar to lean beef. Look for emu steaks, kebabs and burgers, and since the meat is so lean, ask for it to be cooked on the rare side.
Warrigal greens are English spinach’s hardier, complex-flavored cousin. Their flavor is herby with a slightly bitter aftertaste. They are loaded with antioxidants, which is why captains like James Cook used to take the greens on ship voyages to prevent scurvy among the crew. Warrigal greens are used like spinach, only the leaves need to be blanched before eating to remove any oxalates, which can hurt you in high amounts. Look for it in pesto, stir-fry, or simply sautéed as a side dish on a plate of modern Australian food.
These small berries can be found on the southern coast of Australia, and are green with a hint of red when ripe. Their flavor is similar to a sweet, spicy apple, and they have up to four times the amount of antioxidants as blueberries. As a fruit, they are super versatile, appearing in everything from cake, jam and pie to salad, sauces and chutney.