Aboriginal Bush Food: Sustainability, Survival, and Connection to Country

Image: Aboriginal Bush Food Experience – supplied.

I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people as the traditional owners and caretakers of this land and pay respect to Elders past and present; their sovereignty was never ceded.

I came to the Aboriginal Bush Food Experience in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens eager to learn about food and culture, and how to encourage others to do the same. Emerging four hours later, I left with a full stomach, a palate full of colourful flavours, and a certain weariness. How can you reduce a 60,000 year old tradition and its foods to a concise and engaging feature? How can you celebrate and educate about said cultural ways of being and eating in an easy-to-read 700-odd word essay? You can’t. Which is probably just as well, because the story isn’t mine to tell.

In the first half, when we were lead around the Gardens with various indigenous and introduced plants, trees, and foodstuffs all pointed out to us, we weren’t just learning about plant properties and ingredients, we were learning about sustainability, care, and being nurtured by the land. Outside in the eucalyptus air, we weren’t being taught to forage for and make use of ingredients as I had so naïvely presupposed, we were being invited into a passing insight of shared history, turmoil, and ways of knowing that go back tens of thousands of years. Beneath the paperbark trees, our guide and instructor Etta, a Kuku Yalanji woman from far-North Queensland, told us of the need to connect to country, and that ‘we’re all connected somehow.’

While we were being cooked a delectable repertoire of foods featuring fusions of native and western ingredients, we were learning about this country’s history and traditional ways of life. We were offered just a taste of bush – lashings of lemon and aniseed myrtle within the more arresting scent of potato fried in butter and garlic; a lick of salty Davidsonia Plum and finings of macadamia encased in sweet toffee. I quickly learned that one cannot discuss Aboriginal culture and way of life without first discussing Dispossession; even food is codified and fraught with meaning. Over plates of pizza piled high with fragrant kangaroo and prosciutto, Jody, our chef and a Ualarai/Barkandji woman from Brewarrina, explains its significance to me.

‘When we were Dispossessed, through the Arrival, we were given white man’s food; and rations; and mutton; lamb; flour; sugar; milk; beef; which is totally different to our traditional diet. In our traditional lifestyle we had to exercise, we had to hunt and gather, we were very healthy people. Fishing, making tools and weapons for survival, nurturing each day. There was a system. When all of those things were lost, we weren’t pushed off; we were killed off.’

‘And that Dispossession, that contact story, that fight for survival story, the historical and traditional lifestyle just keeps going on for us as Aboriginal people. We still live it in contemporary society. We always will. People are fascinated because they still put us in ancient terms, like people say ‘long ago’, or, ‘how do you know that?’ Well, it never left us. Because it’s just how it is. And it’s not lost – culture is not lost in any way. Language was lost but culture is not lost. It will never be lost.’ She also adds that, while it is positive to share these cultures and food now, we still have a long way to go.

It is from these words that I take away the most of my learning from this Aboriginal Bush Food Experience. This course wasn’t simply about food and cooking. It was about survival.

Even after class, the cooking smells continue to permeate my consciousness. I can still taste and feel the garlic swirling in my periphery, and there are sticky marks from pizza sauce and fizzy finger lime cordial splashed on my notebook. Amidst the food, the smells and the reverential company, I feel determined. How can non-indigenous Australians better educate ourselves on these issues? How can we be better, as people? The best way to do so, according to Jody, is to be mindful. ‘All I say is to acknowledge where you are…You want to respect cultural knowledge and you want to respect country, first and foremost. And then celebrate that Aboriginal culture wherever you are – through food, through experience, through engaging community.’

Warrigal Greens

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