Swedes have their meatballs and lingonberry sauce, Malaysians have nasi lemak, and Peruvians have ceviche. But ask Australians to stand behind a national dish and you've got a problem.
When tourists ask about our national cuisine, most of us don't have a coherent answer to give, so, with the weight of the tourism board on our shoulders, we instead cycle through a clichéd list of items—sausage rolls, meat pies, lamingtons—most of which we haven't eaten regularly since primary school.
It's hard to choose just one national dish when we hoover up many foods brought over by immigrants—curries, pastas, and dumplings—as well as the pulled pork burgers, quinoa, and hybrid desserts popular in the US and UK. But the greatest irony of our national diet is that we've ignored the food growing right in our own backyard.
Why have we never embraced bush tucker? Aboriginal Australians have eaten native fruits like finger limes, Illawarra plums, and quandongs along with wild animals for thousands of years, yet few chefs have used the ingredients until now. Somewhere in our immigrant nation, bloody colonial past, and longstanding disconnect with indigenous culture, we've come to suffer from an identity crisis no amount of flag-bearing idiots can resolve, we are missing a chance to develop a unique national culinary identity.
Our chefs have lacked a sense of our own identity. Foraging only became popular here recently because a Danish world-famous chef started foraging in Denmark.
To find out why Australians don't eat native Australian food, I called up Jennice Kersh, a former restaurant owner who ran the celebrated Edna's Table in Sydney with her brother Raymond between 1981 and 2005. The brother-sister duo championed the use of native produce in a fine dining setting and have long held the belief that serving native food will open the door to enriching Australian cuisine, as well as improve sustainable farming and reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians.
"The question of why we don't eat native food always tears at my heart a bit," Jennice tells me. "The reason it's taken so long [for native food to reach restaurants] is because our chefs are not embracing it."
Jennice refers to the snobbery endemic among chefs in Australia's culinary history, citing a cultural cringe for stymying the use of native ingredients in major restaurants. "Our chefs have lacked a sense of our own identity. Foraging [for bush food] only became popular here recently because a Danish world-famous chef started foraging in Denmark. I think that the interest in foraging now is wonderful and there should be more of it, but I would say it's a matter of exposure and time."
Jennice and her brother first discovered bush food in the 60s when they visited their other brother John in Balgo, a remote desert community in Western Australia. There, they were introduced to eating local birds, goannas, and bush tomatoes. "I was surrounded by all these ingredients, I just didn't know it," says Jennice. Their experience in Balgo continued to influence their menu long after they left the town. They became insistent on sourcing native ingredients, despite limited availability and high prices. "We were not making any money but we were making inroads," says Jennice. "We thought the important thing was that there would be some sustainable farming practices that would be initiated by growing these foods."
In a country routinely affected by drought, it still perplexes Jennice that so few farmers grow native foods capable of naturally withstanding arid conditions. But the market demand for these foods just isn't strong enough yet. Buying native Australian food now isn't just a matter of walking into a local supermarket. With a number of online suppliers available, buying native is less prohibitive than the era when the Jennice and her brothers were cooking.
Jennice acknowledges the barriers to getting mainstream Australia to accept native flavours: "I don't think the general public and chefs are going to use them as much until they're a little bit more refined," she says. "A lot of these native flavours are wild and very tart, but our dream is for farmers to get a hold on them, then grow them and cultivate them in a way that they'll become more edible, because they're so full of amazing flavours and nutrition."
For someone who has never tried native food before, Jennice recommends wallaby. 'It's not going to scare the shit out of Australians.'
In its lifetime, Edna's Table served modern Australian dishes using kangaroo, wallaby, emu, and crocodile, along with a host of native fruits and vegetables. But even with as much praise the restaurant received, it was a constant challenge to push customers into making adventurous dining choices. "It was about how clever you were with what you put on the menu. If you put an ingredient that people absolutely love, like barramundi, and you use native ingredients in the sauce, it would work," she says. "We were always contemplating on how we were going to seduce them to have it." It was a resistance that unfortunately persisted through the three decades the pair ran the restaurant. The perceived "ew factor" of native meats, such as crocodile or kangaroo, continues to fuel the belief that native food is unsophisticated.
The Kersh philosophy was never to use just native ingredients in isolation, but to work as much of them into modern Australian dishes as possible. Some of Jennice's favourite dishes include a fresh Pacific oyster with wasabi mayonnaise, a slice of pink ginger, and finely sliced cucumber, topped with a big dollop of finger limes. For someone who has never tried native food before, Jennice recommends wallaby. "I think that wallaby is good to try because it's quite subtle. It's not going to scare the shit out of Australians."
Jennice and Raymond remain optimistic that native food will find its place in Australia. Their hope is not necessarily to create a separate native Australian cuisine, but for existing cuisines to utilize and adopt native flavours into their dishes. "We are a very diverse country, so all we need to do is use native ingredients in every cuisine that we cook," says Jennice. "Now that Australians are becoming much more aware about indigenous people of this country and trying to understand them a lot more, I think it would help Australians to engage and taste these flavours, because food doesn't divide. By embracing food, you also embrace the culture of those people."