As delicacies go, it isn’t the most appetising. The witchetty grub of central Australia is as unappealing as its name: fat and pale, its white skin stretched to bursting. Biting into one takes nerve; it’s something of a rite of passage for many young international backpackers and first-time visitors to the outback. Best attempt it after roasting – but be aware that any way you eat the thing, it isn’t going to taste like chicken.
Of course, aboriginal Australians consider witchetty grubs a treat, just as the Maoris of Stewart Island in the far south of New Zealand dine on tītī (muttonbird), the strong, oily flavour of which is seldom appreciated by tourists. Perhaps it’s these culinary encounters that put people off bush tucker. But Australia and New Zealand have some extraordinary native ingredients that deserve to be experienced.
Not convinced? Consider this: barramundi, macadamia nuts and manuka honey were once just bush tucker but are now mainstream pleasures.
The first Europeans consumed plenty of native ingredients. Captain Cook’s crew ate Warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonoides) to ward off scurvy; colonial settlers had no qualms about eating kangaroos, cockatoos and, in New Zealand, hapless ground-dwelling birds. But it was only from the mid-1980s that we began to rediscover native produce, thanks to an expanding group of diners with adventurous palates and a growing sense of pride in what makes Australian and New Zealand cuisines distinctive.
Now, bush tucker is firmly on restaurant menus: expect native spinach in your salad, mountain-pepper crust on your kangaroo fillet and lemon myrtle (from an oily-leafed rainforest plant) flavouring your fish. Some restaurants are renowned for their native focus: Tukka restaurant in Brisbane serves ’roo, possum and emu; Cairns’ Ochre restaurant offers salt-and-native-pepper crocodile; and at one of the early trailblazers, Adelaide’s Red Ochre Grill, there’s an entire tasting menu filled with native ingredients. Executive chef Ray Mauger says bush tomatoes are probably the most common and most favoured bush food, with native peppers and wild limes not far behind.
Such is the growing trend that ‘bush food’ is even appearing on supermarket shelves. rotorua-based chef Charles royal, a noted promoter of Maori ingredients, markets wild foods under his Kinaki brand and produces a range of sausages using native herbs and flavours. In Australia, Coles supermarkets carry bush tucker chutneys, salad dressings and seasonings.
If you’re near a botanic garden, ask whether it has a section devoted to indigenous edible plants. The royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, a short walk from the Best Western motel I visited, grows around 50 such plants, and runs weekly tours that introduce participants to Aboriginal food and culture.
Many tour companies around Australia and New Zealand offer guided tours with a native-food component, allowing you to taste the likes of quandong – a tart, vitamin-rich ‘desert peach’ common in South Australia – and ‘bush basil’, otherwise known as kawakawa leaf and used in new Zealand to season game (incidentally, it’s also a Maori remedy for toothache, stomach cramps and, topically applied, for bruising).
Other Maori ingredients you may encounter are greenlip mussels; peppery horopito leaves, with their citrus tang; a light, mustard-flavoured watercress called kowhitiwhiti; and puha, often considered a weed in gardens but now served as a leafy green, typically alongside pork. The most distinctive, however, is pikopiko: the curly unfolded tips of certain ferns, nicknamed ‘bush asparagus’. It’s also the national symbol of New Zealand, though nobody protests about eating it as some do about the national symbol across the tasman, the kangaroo.
In Australia, keep an eye out for lemony native ginger; wild limes; sprinklings of wattleseed; and mountain pepper, which is sensational in marinades or sprinkled on oysters. And who said bush tucker can’t be chic? It’s quite the thing to drop a rosella flower into your champagne – it imparts a sweet flavour and is a great look.
Many predict a fine future for bush tucker ingredients. Global warming, greater ecological awareness and the drought tolerance of many native plants is likely to mean more research will be directed towards solving the challenges of cultivating and harvesting such foods. Mountain pepper trees are already farmed in Victoria, quandongs and bush tomatoes in South Australia, and Manuka honey is commercially produced in New Zealand.
One of the joys of travel, of course, has always been experiencing the local food. Bush tucker is no exception, whether it’s the warming simplicity of a sweet potato pulled out of a Maori Hāngi (underground hot-stone oven) or a tempura moreton bay bug (actually a crustacean) with native pepper dip at a fancy restaurant. And while you mightn’t have the courage to eat witchetty grubs, don’t pass up the chance to pop a couple of honey ants into your mouth next time you’re in Western Australia: they’re surprisingly delicious.