Australia, also known as the Land of Oz, is the original home of the world-famous Macadamia nut and also the source of a whole culture’s collection of ancient foods. At this point in time, over three dozen Australian ingredients have been commercialized, out of a resource that includes over 2,500 foods.
The use of Australian foods in restaurants in Oz and around the world during the last 25 years has proven that they are distinctively different, yet widely appealing in taste, allowing chefs to differentiate their creative offerings from those found anywhere else. For overseas outlets, a new world of possibilities is available, far beyond curious names on supposedly Australian menus. The opportunity is rising for authentic Australian restaurants to appear, capitalizing on the clean and green image of the Land Down Under and the unique flavors of a wide range of fruit products, seasonings, infused oils, sauces and syrups, and more.
Unique Australian Seasonings
However, while names such as lemon myrtle sprinkle, Wattleseed, fruit spice and Alpine pepper suggest their obvious applications, the nuances of these exotic ingredients evade all but the most experienced food professionals.
For example, lemon myrtle sprinkle has a taste of lemon, lime and lemongrass, with a citrusy tang and subtle menthol back-note. It cannot be cooked hard (as in a reduction), because the aromatics evaporate at 100°F.
Conversely, Wattleseed looks like ground coffee but needs to be boiled to extract the flavor (coffee should not be extracted at temperatures over 190°F). While sugar masks the flavor, milk or cream brings out the natural sweetness in roasted Wattleseed.
Wattleseed is the name given to the roasted seeds of certain species of Acacia shrubs and trees; artful roasting and milling unmasks a delicious coffee/chocolate/hazelnut character. Wattleseed makes an interesting, caffeine-free coffee substitute, but its real strength is in cream and ice cream, baked foods and savory sauces.
Fruit spice is fantastic as a natural fruit flavor enhancer, yet the presence of certain essential oil components also makes fruit spice an ideal ingredient for Indian and Asian curries, as it contributes subtle hints of caraway and cumin.
To round out the list, Alpine pepper can be used early in a dish but is also recommended as a finishing seasoning, as it introduces an interesting herbaceous note early, followed by a “zing” coming from the later infusion. It also is delicious baked into breads, scones and wraps.
Superfoods for Super Health
Wild foods have evolved with nature, a contrast to today’s contemporary foods that have been bred to suit our production and distribution chains. All of the more than 30 Australian foods commercialized to date could be called Superfoods. Typically, they are nutrient-dense and contain high (often record) levels of compounds known to be beneficial for human health.
Antioxidant Superfoods include pepperberry, various “plums” (Kakadu, Illawarra, Davidson), wild rosella, quandong, and several wild limes and related citrus-like fruits. Certain Australian herbs and spices contain bioactive compounds already known as cognition enhancers, phytoestrogens, adaptogens, restoratives, sedatives, stimulants and more.
For example, pepperberry has 20 times more polyphenolic antioxidant power than blueberries. Kakadu plum is the world’s highest fruit source of vitamin C and also contains folates and the potent anti-cancer agents, ellagic and gallic acids. Illawarra plums contain elevated levels of highly potent anthocyanins, some interesting aromatic compounds still awaiting research and a copious amount of soluble fiber. All the aromatic and pungent herbs and spices appear to play a part, due to their health-boosting phytonutrients. Many of these foods are being developed as new sources of existing nutraceuticals.
There is a significant number of wild foods that appear to exhibit a protective effect against diseases of civilization, such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular impairment and mental degeneration with aging. Recent studies on complex carbohydrates and satiety factors are suggesting that including wild foods in a mixed diet may be the natural way to curb appetite and maintain an ideal weight. The seeds of one particular variety of Acacia contain almost every sugar found in nature, along with a class of compounds that switch on the missing “use by” date of cancer cells, effectively killing them. It appears the interaction between proteins in the cancer cell walls and the sugars potentiates the activity of the killing switch compounds.
Other work on antioxidants is proving they reduce cellular insulin resistance and also turn on human internal antioxidant (glutathione) systems through cellular enzyme regulation. This suggests wild foods may have the ability to maintain the genetics of ideal human nutrition and even repair the genome, as it is attacked due to our poor lifestyle choices, or simply as people live, move, breathe and age.
Australian Wild Foods as Everyday Ingredients
Interestingly, many indigenous animals, although not commonly described as wild foods, are already well-established in the mainstream food industry. From the sea, shellfish, crustaceans, bony fish, stingray and shark commonly grace Australian tables. Among these, Coffin Bay scallops, Top End barramundi and Sydney rock oysters from various estuaries along the Australian eastern seaboard, regionalize a growing number of restaurant offerings. Field-shot kangaroo and wallaby (which are managed in order to keep exploding populations below environmentally unsustainable numbers) and farmed emu and crocodile meats are freely available nationally. Other meats, such as Cape Barren and magpie geese, mutton birds, possums and eels, are regionally popular.
There could be a push to further create and enshrine in culinary tradition an authentic Australian cuisine based upon wild ingredients, yet fully integrated into a multi-cultural food framework. It could include some Aboriginal cooking methods modified for the commercial and domestic kitchen. The tastes will reflect the vast Outback, dense woodlands, lush rainforests, sweeping coastlines, sophisticated cities and quaint rural communities. The flavors and even the names, such as Wattleseed, yakajirri, quandong, riberry, paperbark, roo, croc and emu, are as Australian as Aboriginal art or Crocodile Dundee’s, “That’s not a knife!” laconic humor.
Another possibility is that most impactful ingredients will simply be adopted into mainstream use--into all kinds of conventional foodstuffs--with or without attention given to their origins. Manufacturers are just beginning to use these ingredients to their advantage: Conventional products can be made extraordinary with a unique, innovative twist imparting a distinct marketing edge. Marketers may want to focus on these new ingredients, which will create the challenge of presenting to consumers unfamiliar names paired with Superfood status. Since many Australian foods have health benefits, it may mean that nutritional supplements lead the charge, before flavor and application are wholly understood. Additionally, there are the natural antimicrobial products made from these food extracts that are gaining market share in beverages, flavors (e.g., liquid stevia) and processed meats, and as dips against food poisoning organisms, to name a few applications.
The use of Australian wild foods also plays a significant social and ethical role. While the standard of living of Aborigines remains well behind that of other Australians, Aboriginal culture is recognized as the oldest living culture in the world. Aborigines themselves use their wild foods (and bush medicines) as nutritive, healing and tonic agents, and to reinforce their ties to the land. More and more Outback communities are beginning to manage existing wild foods, and some are planting mixed systems of local species as socially and ecologically appropriate Fair Trade cash crops. Traditional foods are being collected with a renewed vigor, and their nutritional contribution for remote communities is rising in importance.
This could be developed much further. Dining out may become an outdoor culinary experience in a tastefully themed, Aboriginal-run restaurant (several are already operating in Australia). Food could emerge from a ground oven, an ash bed or from under a mound of coals, as Aboriginal hosts share their local traditions in the same way as do the parochial family restaurants of rural Europe or the Maori communities of New Zealand. Imagine dining under the canopy of rainforest giants and enjoying dishes prepared using foods from the surrounding environment. This experience could be repeated in every environment offering regional specialities in order to make touring the land of Oz a gastronomic exploration to match the splendor of Australia’s natural vistas.
There are also the overseas restaurant opportunities, from basic quick service outlets to fine dining Australian cuisine. How about Alpine pepper tortillas filled with lemon myrtle sprinkle rice, or pulled roo drizzled in paperbark smoke oil served with a wild plum chili sauce? Perhaps diners will have some lemon aspen guacamole with that? Or burgers with a mountain pepper BBQ sauce and quandong confit served with a salad dressed with fruit-spiced fruit juice? In addition to being delicious, it is also a low-glycemic index food.
Wild Australian foods and flavors will certainly continue to be a growing part of the global food industry. Consumers will encounter more ingredients and recipes using them; culinary students in schools and trade colleges will keep learning to use the innovative ingredients; and more chefs will become familiar with their commercial range. As manufacturers seek new flavors and Australia continues to promote its uniqueness, its authentic foods will gain the benefits of expanding familiarity. Tomorrow’s flavors are here today, so go and “Taste Australia” soon!pf
Vic Cherikoff is regarded as a pioneer of the native Australian food industry and has 25 years of experience in commercializing wild food species and taking them from the wild, as bush tucker or bush foods, to developing them into sophisticated, versatile, authentic Australian foods, beverages and functional ingredients. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org, + 61 2 9554 9477 or visit his website at: www.cherikoff.net/cherikoff.
www.oldaussierecipes.com-- Many traditional Australian recipes; also gives fun facts on native foods and animals
http://australianfood.about.com/cs/r.htm-- Recipes from Australia and New Zealand, with both historical and nutritional facts