Food Resolutions for 2014 part 6: Eat (and Cook) Indigenous Crops
For another installation in the reflections on Food Tank’s food resolutions for 2014, here are some thoughts on eating indigenous foods.
6. Eat (and Cook) Indigenous Crops
Food Tank advocate eating (and cooking) indigenous crops as a move toward protecting biological diversity. This is a great goal to have. In a way, promoting the cultivation and consumption of indigenous crops opens up the agricultural space to new varietals to be grown, perhaps challenging the dominance of mono-cultures. At the same time, there is some assurance that those which are grown will be suited to the climate and soil (given they would be naturally growing in the same place).
Of course, not all indigenous crops are suited to agricultural production at a commercial scale. Perhaps these crops are ‘untamed’ and not commodified simply because it’s not feasible to do so. This, however, doesn’t mean we cannot shift our kitchen- and ornamental-gardens toward indigenous edible crops for our own consumption and to share with neighbours and community.
Given it’s unlikely that all indigenous crops are unfeasible for agricultural production, why are there so few available? Well, an answer to that I would suggest is that often we do things for little reason other than because we have always done so. Agricultural innovators sometimes need not much more than the right cultural context and a good campaign to insert an ‘unusual’ food into the realm of the daily-staple food. What once was weird is now normal – but it might need risk-taking and thinking-outside-the-proverbial-box to get there.
But why would it be that we would need an innovator to bring into the market a crop that naturally grows in the region? Well, what we do, and have done in the recent past, is bounded within what we know. In Australia, the year 1788 marked the beginning of a long regime of dispossession of Australians due to foreign forces. Along with the physical forced removal of people from their homes and lands, there was the severance of generational lines, and with that, much verbal history and cultural knowledge was lost due to the invasion of colonisers. A truth of contemporary Australia is that the imported culture – that of the non-indigenous settler folk – is the dominant social force here now. This unjust and bloody history hurts my heart, but how we got to where we are now is complicated, and I’m not the right person to tell the story. (Glenn recommends the SBS series First Australians for learning about this history.)
So being a new world country, Australia’s agricultural profile is dominated by that which was brought over post-1788. This gives us the context for ‘what we have been doing’ and perhaps shows us the future of agricultural production if we were to assume a lack of future innovation and diversification. Fortunately there are plenty of great folks out there advocating for an expansion of the foodscape (in Australia and other old and new world countries), including those who provide the knowledge, skills, confidence, and of course the produce we need to start cooking and eating indigenous crops.
Because I’m in Australia, here are a few of my favourite indigenous Australian foods… but there are SO many beyond these four, and of course every place in the world has something to offer. Visit a nursery for native plants and you’ll see what I mean!
These lovely wee citrus fruits (oh I do love citrus fruit) are a small rainforest tree, and the fruits grow in strange little pods. Pop the pod open and you will be delighted by a bunch of juicy bubbles, kind of like the juicy bubbles you get when you meticulously peel away the white membrane around mandarin segments (we’ve all done it). I’ve only ever had the green finger limes, but they come in a bunch of colours. If you ever see them, do try some! I think they’d be lovely mixed gently through a fruit salad, or sprinkled on top of a cake with complementary flavours, tossed through roast veges in place of a squeeze of lime juice, or perhaps in a cocktail… I wish I had a photo to share, but we haven’t had any enter our kitchen for a couple of years now (sadly). Here’s some lovely photos of finger limes from Food52 (and here’s a kind of dry but informative resource on growing finger limes – look at all the colours!!).
Wattleseed, unsurprisingly is the seed of the wattle (acacia) plant. It is used as a spice and is complementary to chocolate and coffee. I first used wattleseed in a tasty cereal from Simon Bryant’s Vegies cookbook, though I’m also looking forward to making the macadamia (another edible native) and wattleseed shortbread from Brenda Fawdon’s Wholehearted Food. I just went and sniffed at my tin of Wattleseed (from Outback Spirit if you’re interested), and I can’t really work out how to describe the scent. The best I can come up with is that it carries a bite like that of cocoa or cacao, but has an earthiness a bit like a muted relative of cardamom. It’s not pungent, and you get the full scent a moment after breathing deeply. As well as pairing nicely with coffee and chocolate, I like the idea of adding a small amount of wattleseed to a soft and warm custard dessert, as you would nutmeg.
Mmm… when you hear the word ‘pigface’ don’t you just immediately think ‘delicious’. Perhaps some of the troubles with promoting indigenous crops in Australia is thanks to the intensely unappetising names. The first time I ate pigface was on a biology field trip (not all scientific exploration begins with eating something odd). We were studying dune vegetation, and pigface was ubiquitous as it’s an important species for dune stabilisation. The fruit are a bit like a salty strawberry – yes, unique, but tasty. The wonderful Milkwood wrote about foraging for pigface recently, so check out their pics and tips. Next time you’re at an east coast Australian beach, keep an eye out for pigface.
Now bunya nuts are pretty special! Coming from the massive bunya pines – which produce the nuts every year, though give a huge yield every few years – they were of significance to the traditional owners of the part of the world I call home (in fact I learned about the cultural significance of the bunya pine and their nuts during my undergraduate studies). During the years when the trees produced a large yield of nuts, there would be a gathering of folks from all around the region to celebrate and share the food. You can read about bunya nuts, including some remarks on their cultural relevance, here.
This summer was one of those years of the big yields. Cones the size of a human head formed across the bunya pines in the region, and from these the nuts were collected. We received a couple of lots of the nuts from Food Connect. Though to my knowledge I’ve never eaten a chestnut, I am assured they are quite similar in taste and texture. They are encased in a tough shell (after being taken out of the cone) which must be in some way removed. From my reading, boiling the nuts for around 30 minutes was the safest and most accessible way to do this. The tough skins are made malleable enough to pry off with the help of a knife or other sharp kitcheny thing. Our first meal of bunya nuts this big bunya season was very simple – we intently and carefully (actually by ‘we’ it was mostly Glenn) peeled the skin to get to the nuts within (which we gobbled alongside a spread of veges).
Much of the modern guidance on eating bunya nuts comes from trial and error, adapted from the rich and environmentally-attuned knowledge of the folks who lived here for tens of thousands of years pre-1788. Given the reported similarities to chestnuts, I’m hoping to extend out some of the chestnut recipes to be replaced by bunya nuts so that this food can make its way into my life when the bunya pines decide to give us their bunya nuts. But… more on this to come.
Thanks for reading and I hope you have some lovely and delicious adventures with indigenous foods ahead.