‘NAIDOC in the City’ and Indigenous Australian Cuisine

On Monday July 3, Hyde Park is transformed. It is colourful and bright, with the air full of cooking smells and music. People from near and far cluster about, eager to learn and try new things. It is NAIDOC in the City.

Gathering on Gadigal Country, NAIDOC in the City celebrates the world’s oldest living cultures in the heart of Sydney. Originally a day of mourning, NAIDOC Week has since come to be known as a week-long celebration of the ‘history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ each July. The activities and events are all-inclusive, aimed at engaging all Australians through Indigenous communities, government agencies, schools, local councils and workplaces. Showcasing songs, dance, language and art; as well as market stalls and library, university and zoo affiliations; NAIDOC in the City encompasses a colourful spectrum of culture. Naturally, I was there for the food.

I was incredibly excited to experience some of the foods that have fed our first peoples for over 50,000 years. Even more so to watch celebrated chef Mark Olive combine these native and indigenous ingredients with contemporary cuisine in his cooking demonstrations. I have to admit, watching him rub olive oil onto paperbark was a revelation. And that was before he wrapped it around a barramundi that he then baked on a makeshift stove. This was the bush fused with contemporary cooking like I had never seen. And I had grown up surrounded by that bush with white-tailed spiders in the laundry and blue-tongued lizards in the backyard; and had gone to a school dotted with those same paperbark trees not having known that they could be used in cooking. Not having known what was and wasn’t edible around where I had lived.

So why must these methods of cooking be so surprising? Why are native and indigenous Australian ingredients not front-and-centre all the time, being mixed with ingredients from other countries? And why don’t we know more about these foodstuffs, that grow freely beneath our feet and yet are not as readily available as internationally imported foods that cost the economy and the environment?

Walking around the hubbub of the food stalls, there were crocodile puffs, emu pies and lilli pilli muffins on offer. I had kangaroo skewers which I washed down with a delightful lemon myrtle cordial from Koori Kinnections. And then, upon browsing the markets, I came upon bush tomato chutney, rosella jam and finger limes for the first time. Finger limes! I had never encountered such a fruit and yet here was a whole basketful. I was told that they can be used in place of any other citrus, and was intrigued by the way the fruit pops in your mouth, a texture similar to pomegranate seeds without the crunch. I bought a handful straightaway.

That night, I had lemon myrtle in my tea and made Mexican-spiced beans topped with finger lime caviar. It was a hit, with the flavours working brilliantly together. This fusion of native and indigenous ingredients – no, cuisine – with more contemporary cooking styles wasn’t difficult. But it did make me think about how little I know. Native and indigenous foods should be relevant to all Australians, no matter their cultural background. These foods are delicious, they are exciting, and yet they need not be exotic. And if ingredient identifying and cooking could be taught at a young age, our culture and our palette would be all the richer.

For more information (and a little inspiration) have a look at Mark Olive’s Native Herb Index.

Naidoc in the City

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