SYDNEY – Wild plants and meals of swamp wallaby, lizard, or wombat sustained Australia’s indigenous people for tens of thousands of years before British settlers brought a radical change of diet.
But so-called “bush tucker” — the local fruits, shoots and creatures that also include kangaroo and crocodile — are enjoying something of a renaissance on dining tables Down Under.
Beryl van Oploo, a self-proclaimed “foodie” from central Australia’s Gamilaroi people, has just opened Sydney’s first bush tucker cafe — offering a “rustic menu with a bush flavour” inspired by the knowledge of her elders.
There is a kangaroo pie with bush tomato sauce, native greens, and fruits and berries which most Australians would not even realize they were able to eat.
“We always knew that there was food on the land and that’s how we survived for many of thousands of years,” van Oploo said.
“The younger generation never took advantage of that, we just got caught up in whatever was given to us.”
Van Oploo was raised by her aunt in a household of 17 children where resources were scarce and “we always had to survive off the land, even in my time.”
“You went out and put a line into the river and caught a fish and cooked it on an open fire,” she said.
Local foods were a staple, not just to save money but for their central place in Aboriginal culture and beliefs.
“Bush tucker is very close to the culture because culture is the lore of the land and bush tucker is part of the land,” said Evan Yanna Muru, who leads cultural hikes or “walkabouts” in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, educating tourists about the local Darug clan.
“When the bush tucker’s in season somewhere, that’s where we are.”
According to cultural lore, The Darug, who get their name from the yams or sweet potatoes that grow in the region, were vegetarians until a terrible drought withered the mountains and their “sky god” Baiame gave permission for them to eat meat sparingly.
So began a great tradition of possum-hunting, both for the meat and the pelt which was used to make cloaks and blankets to shelter from the bitter, snowy winters.
“The women would dig with the yam sticks to get all them yams down on the river flats, and the men would climb the trees and smoke out them possums,” said Yanna Muru.
Their diet was rich in the vitamins and minerals of local plants and roots — a typical day would begin with water sweetened with banksia flower and a bread made from ground swordgrass seeds.
Between meals of possum or swamp wallaby, lizard, snake or wombat, the Darug ate tiny sour apples, sweet purple dianela berries and mambara, tiny lychee-tasting fruits squeezed out of a green skin.
Woodgrubs were highly prized, both for their flavor and unusually high fat content — 35 percent compared with 6 percent for a kangaroo.
Warrabura, what Yanna Muru calls “bush chewing gum” — was chewed throughout the day. High in vitamin C and with a licorice flavor, the dark green leaves were considered both bush tucker and bush medicine.
Aboriginal people lived in delicate balance with nature, moving with the seasons, and eating what the land offered.
“It gives you a rich connection to country, it gives you meaning in your life, understanding, interacting with nature,” Yanna Muru said of the connection between food and culture.
Van Oploo’s cafe is in central Sydney’s Victoria Park, traditionally a meeting place for the local Gadigal people. What was once a natural waterhole has been transformed into a lake populated by ducks and native birds.
She runs a hospitality school for indigenous students marrying modern skills with bush tucker knowledge as a new generation of Australians seeks to reconnect with traditions stretching back some 40,000 years.
Visitors to Sydney Tower, which boasts 360-degree vistas of the city from its upper levels, can feast on crocodile chipolatas or kangaroo rump.