You can’t talk about First Nations food without talking about First Nations culture.
Five Indigenous Voices on Native Australian Produce, and How You Can Ethically Support the Industry
Sustenance. Medicine. Culture. For more than 60,000 years, native ingredients have helped connect First Nations people to country. As interest in these ancient foods grows both locally and abroad, five First Nations experts and business owners reflect on the past, present and future of this precious resource.
And you can’t talk about First Nations culture without talking to First Nations people.
So it stands to reason that any meaningful conversation about First Nations food has to involve First Nations voices. And yet. In centuries since colonisation began on this land, First Nations voices have largely been excluded, overlooked and ignored in such discussions.
Little wonder, then, that despite being the custodians of more than 60 millennia of knowledge, Indigenous people make up just a tiny segment of Australia’s bush-food industry. (A survey by native food collective Bushfood Sensations puts Indigenous representation within the industry at less than one per cent.) Or that First Nations representatives, having been burnt and taken advantage of in the past, are understandably wary of newcomers. Or that bush tucker remains scarcely more than a footnote in the Australian food narrative.
This has to change, and it’s going to require every link in the food chain to pull together. From chefs to customers, farmers to foragers, the media to the marketplace, each of us has a part to play in changing the culture. And it starts with listening to First Nations people.
This land is home to many songlines and languages, and its Indigenous food stories are just as diverse. We spoke with five First Nations experts and business owners about the issues in Australia’s burgeoning bush-food industry that most concern them. Broadsheet hopes these words will inspire you to seek out and celebrate local First Nations culture and foods in your area.
“Warndu aims to connect Aboriginal people back to Country.” – Damien Coulthard, Warndu
“Aboriginal Australia is diverse and dynamic. This is exemplified by the 250 Indigenous language groups and 800 dialects practised across Australia and the Torres Strait. What this translates to is an abundance of unique stories related to Country, place, kinship and food. When you are welcomed to Country by a traditional owner, it’s not just a free passage of safety and good health to that building or park – you’re being welcomed to their Country, their home. While on that Country, it’s your responsibility to interact respectfully with all living environments aligned with that group’s cultural protocols.
Ultimately, we need to change our understanding about Aboriginal culture by first acknowledging Country as a place, as our mother. It’s where we come from, where our language is from, it’s where cultural immersion and expressions are respectfully practised, shared and taught.
The way this connects with the native-food industry is that, when native foods are being wild-harvested or when native-food products are being sourced and purchased, we must ensure that we’re developing authentic relationships with traditional owners. We must also ensure adequate recognition and protection is applied of the native food or products, cultural expressions and intellectual property of First Nations individuals and communities.
What Warndu aims to do is connect Aboriginal people back to Country and strengthen community identities, as well as collaborate with Aboriginal communities with established wild-harvesting practices and businesses. We buy first through Aboriginal businesses that are supporting their direct communities. Collaboration is very important to the growth of the industry, and therefore buying from non-Indigenous businesses that support and work respectfully with Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal business is an integral part of strengthening a sustainable supply chain.
These relationships and these principles are most important to Warndu. Outside of that is working with businesses and people who have the same ethos and values as us and who want to support Aboriginal communities to ensure restoration of culture and improve those areas that, unfortunately, hurt our communities – social determinants such as health, employment and education. We’ve been in this space for almost six years and we’ve always based our business on being upfront and honest and forming authentic relationships. If you’re someone who’s perhaps just wanting to make some quick cash, you’re not going to be in the industry for long as word spreads and reputation is key. The industry is growing, but ultimately, as a business working in this space, what we need to do is support Indigenous people, Indigenous communities and Indigenous businesses to grow and develop by working in collaboration with each other. It’s all about being respectful and collaborating. Until we get this right, the industry is unlikely to be sustainable.”
Damien Coulthard is an Adnyamathanha and Dieri man and co-founder of Warndu (“good” in the Adnyamathanha language), a business in South Australia’s Clare Valley that produces goods made with Australian native ingredients.
“Foraging is a spiritual practice.”
– Arabella Douglas, Currie Country
“In Australian and international legislation, the harvesting of native and medicinal foods is part of your Indigenous or native-title rights. If I couldn’t, for example, forage food from my own country, there may be a time that the government in the future would say, ‘You’re not continuing your culture because you haven’t foraged that ingredient for 22 years’. If we don’t do that, there’s a risk that the rights to forage would no longer be available, the land would no longer be available, and compensation should follow. Foraging is a spiritual practise. If I can’t forage, it means that part of my ceremonial practise has been interrupted.
As traditional owners who know where food is and where it’s available and what it can do, there’s always a fork in the road as to who you share it with and in what capacity. I encourage chefs to get stuff from the wild, but I ask them to partner with the First Nations people of their area and to be led in the foraging. To be a person who just goes and forages in someone else’s land is to interrupt a right that I genuinely think they would wholeheartedly support if they understood it.
We assess chefs before we decide who we want to work with. If they tell me their fantasy life is to run a popular kitchen in London and be amazing, then they’re not a good fit for us because that’s ego-driven. All you’re doing is acquiescing to an establishment. But if you’re a chef who likes to create and give your energy through food, then you’re going to be very excited by learning more about Aboriginal systems and understanding. Aboriginality can be an incredible muse to your understanding about food and Earth.
I feel the Australian chef industry is interested in recreating itself. The only way you’re going to do that, if you choose Australia to be your home, is to bring in Aboriginal values and systems into the way you see yourself, because it’s extremely inclusive. Because you’re a human being and you’re part of a larger ecosystem. It’s an integrated experience. The people that I see interested in that are chefs who are saying they want to grow their own greens. They understand sustainability differently. They’re worried about impact and they’re looking at environmental concerns in a deeper way.”
“I truly believe we’re better together.”
– Dale Tilbrook, Maalinup
“If we want this industry to grow, we have to work together. There are some organisations out there that go on about being exclusively Aboriginal, but I wish they wouldn’t because I don’t think it’s helpful. There’s so much knowledge and goodwill out there among non-Indigenous people who have been in this sector for years. Maybe it’s because I’m of Aboriginal and English backgrounds and can flit between worlds, but I truly believe we’re better together. That’s what reconciliation is about.
People know that we’re an Aboriginal-owned and operated business and that they can ask us where things come from and I can tell them whether it’s an Aboriginal wild-harvested product, produced in partnership with Aboriginal people, or grown by non-Indigenous people. I’ll always be able to tell them where the stock comes from because we have that relationship with the people we buy from.
If you want to make sure you’re dealing with people who have good ethics, you have to ask questions and investigate. I think starting on people’s websites is a good place, but you can’t always trust what’s on a website. Some people who have been in this bush-food space have been asked to change their websites because they’re implying things that simply are not true. Having a logo that looks a bit Aboriginal and having some photos of Aboriginal people that you visited once or twice doesn’t make you deeply connected with the Aboriginal community.”
Dale Tilbrook is a Wardandi and Bibbulmun woman and co-owner of Maalinup (“the place of the black swan” in Nyoongar), a retail store and art gallery in Western Australia’s Swan Valley that stocks Indigenous foods and products from Australia and overseas.
“The quicker we can return to using our native resources – our bush tuckers – rather than everything that’s been introduced, the better it’ll be for all of us who are living here and our country. Our foods that have been here forever are meant to be in this climate. They grow naturally and have survived every weather-pattern change across long periods of time, and they’re far more nutritious for us. The more accepting Australians become of these different bush tuckers, the more likely they are to go out and seek them, which is great. That will encourage people to start removing the detrimental produce we’ve had here for the last couple of centuries and start looking at a new industry that’s more beneficial to this place and us.
It’s really important for people to put some thought into where they’re getting their product from when it contains native produce. Has it been sourced from Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples? Or at least through a business that works effectively and ethically with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island peoples and communities? That can really be the key to us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities and businesses – having our foot in the door in this market or being shut out of it.
At the end of the day, we’re three per cent of the population. We don’t have the driving power, the critical mass behind us, to drive commercial markets. The other 97 per cent does. When they’re supportive of our cause and they put the time and effort into thinking about and choosing the products they’re consuming – and doing that in a way that’s supportive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities and businesses – then that’s great advocacy for us.”
“My business is more than just a financial support for me: it’s my connection to culture.” – Sharon Winsor, Indigiearth
“Mainstream media has a lot to offer [the bush-food industry]. By talking to Aboriginal people, growers and businesses, it can give us the space to speak up and give our people recognition in the industry. There are a lot of great celebrity chefs out there that are doing great things for bush foods, but they aren’t the experts, they aren’t the knowledge-holders. And yet, media keeps going to them for pieces about native foods or calling them experts in the native-food industry. That’s really insulting because some of those people have gone out to communities and gained knowledge from elders, which is where that knowledge base is coming from. It’s not that we’re saying that we don’t want chefs or other people to use our ingredients – we absolutely do – but we would like the respect and acknowledgement to go with it as well.
It’s a painful thing to hear that Aboriginal people only make up one per cent of the bush-food industry, and yet if you look at every business, every grower that’s doing something within the bush food or botanical space, they’re all using traditional knowledge to promote their product, brand or story. In some of them, I don’t see a connection with the local Aboriginal community where they are. Throwing money at community just because they’re using artwork is not a long-term benefit for community. It has to be more real and tangible than that.
We’ve struggled a lot in terms of being able to get out there. It’s not as if we haven’t tried, but if you don’t have a name behind your brand, then it seems to be an issue for media to … run with the story. I’ve struggled with getting my brand out there on a bigger scale, whereas a lot of non-Aboriginal businesses have the capacity to do it – that’s been my experience over the past 10 years in particular.
My business is more than just a financial support for me. It’s my connection to culture. It’s my connection to spirituality. It’s my connection to language, dreaming, songlines, identity. It’s my connection to Mother Earth. That’s what a lot of people don’t have in their business when they’re using native ingredients and they’re not of Aboriginal heritage: they’re missing that very important link. I’ve been through lots of trauma in my life. Bush food has been my healing and will forever be my healing.”
Where to find, and how to cook with, native ingredients
Although native ingredients often feature in fine dining, the success and sustainability of the bush-food industry hinges on bush foods being accepted by home cooks (Broadsheet’s guide to native food is a good primer). Coulthard and his partner Rebecca Sullivan have also published a useful guide on easy substitutions to help incorporate more Australian ingredients into your home cooking – the guide is sent as an e-book when you subscribe to the Warndu mailing list (look for the sign-up form at the bottom of the homepage). The process for using these foodstuffs is exactly the same as using any ingredient for the first time: look up recipes online or in cookbooks, experiment and continue to fine-tune. Repeat until ingredients such as finger lime, bush tomato and wattleseed become part of your repertoire.
Wondering where to shop online to stock your home pantry with native ingredients? Start with these Indigenous-owned businesses:
This article was updated on September 7, 2023 to reflect the closure of a business.