To get to the remote Western Australian town of Roebourne, you must board a plane from Perth bound 1500 km north for Karratha, which will get you to the country's fastest-growing mining town. There, you will most likely join a band of merry FIFO workers (fly-in-fly-out, the name given to the workers who come in for temporary stints rather than re-locating) sporting neon, downing meat pies, and pounding iced coffees as they make their way to mine their fortunes.
Arriving at Karratha airport feels like landing on the moon at the beginning of time. Trees are sparse and the earth is dry.Once there, you must drive an hour north to the Shire of Roebourne, home to around 1,200 people. If it's summertime, you'll be sweating the day away in average temperatures of 40° C/104° F.
Three years ago, illustrator Wah Kong left the food trucks, farmers markets, temperate climate, and other comforts of his east coast city dwellings to relocate to Roebourne for his job teaching local indigenous kids how to create computer games and interactive digital comics to tell their stories.
Wah is both an adventurous eater and a keen cook, so he made a point of becoming involved in the traditional local food scene— from snacking on kangaroo tail and camel sausages to sucking on tree sap, also known as gardangu."There's always people in the community I learn from by hanging out, sharing stories, chatting, observing and listening," says Wah, who has learned how to slaughter, gut, and prepare animals from death to dinner. "This gives perspective and appreciation to where food comes when eating meat, and I pretty much eat anything in moderation," he says.
Looking around Roebourne's vast plains of red pindan soil, craggy piles of rocks, and clusters ofpallid spinifex grass, it's hard believe the town is only 20 minutes from the ocean. There's 'roos, snakes, falcons, stray cattle and camels, plus plenty of scattered animal skeletons that serve as reminders of the harshness of the environment. The scenery lives up to the stereotype of the Australian outback.
For more than 30,000 years, the area has been home to the Ngarluma people, a group that originally subsisted on a hunter-gatherer diet. Men would hunt for land and marine animals while women gathered foods for everyday eating: plants, reptiles, honey. These days, there are a couple of small general stores in Roebourne, and larger supermarkets in neighbouring towns.Even so, fresh produce still isn't easy to come by. "It's highly depressing to have to get a majority of groceries at Woolworths or Coles," Wah says. On the bright side, there's plenty of local meat on offer, such as bush turkey and kangaroos, which are frequently hunted by locals.Fresh meat is usually gutted and cooked in a ground oven—a hole that's dug into the earth and filled with burning wood that heats until it reaches an amber color—where the animal is wrapped in leaves and a wet cloth or foil, then buried for cooking. If the kill is large—such as an emu or a large kangaroo—piping hot stones are placed inside the stomach to help facilitate even cooking.
Because the area is so close to the ocean, it has a large fishing culture with a wide variety of seafood.Wah enjoys heading out during low tide to collect sea snails that cling to the rocks, which he cooks with butter, garlic, a splash of white wine, and parsley. He serves it up with a nice baguette. "A friend recently caught quite a few white salmon and a shark, which we have been eating all week," he tells me.
Wah brings the flavours of his own Chinese heritage to the area too, teaching kids and their parents how to make dumplings and spring rolls by infusing meals with Asian herbs and spices, which often bring a mixed reaction from his diners."I cooked wonton noodle soup this one time for a father and her daughter, and I think the texture of the wonton wrappers was quite foreign to her, so she was playing with her food and didn't eat much," he recalls. A week later, her father went hunting and landed a kangaroo. He gave Wah the spinal section and some ribs, which Wah cooked up into a nice, hearty stew that the daughter loved. The ribs, roasted in five spice powder, were "finger licking good." According to Wah, the best part of a meal like this is the exchange of cultures, "especially when it's two very different cultures that are blending two distinct ingredients."
Wah's most memorable meals have involved hanging out with an elder named Uncle Bumba who lives "up Broome way," who picked fresh rock oysters 50 meters from his house and grilled them over a fire pit. "It was so sweet and juicy, we ate the night away while he joked and told us stories under the stars." Wah has also enjoyed eating sea turtle with rangers in the Djarindjin community. He's yet to try emu and goanna.When it comes to the essential bush tucker tool kit, Wah recommends a screwdriver, a lemon, and bottled water, which is a must in case you see juicy oysters to "eat on the spot."
Wah advises me that you can't forget quality knives, a gun—if you're hunting—salt, pepper, nice oil, a cast iron pan, a solid cutting board, and an "esky with ice, beverages, and a chair."More than anything, all good Aussies should make sure to have a good damper recipe on hand to live like kings in the Outback.This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2015.