For some 60,000 years, Indigenous Australians have eaten the native plant and animal foods of Australia – colloquially and affectionately referred to as ‘bush tucker’ – including regional staples such as witchetty grubs, bunya nuts, kangaroo meat and lemon myrtle.
However, the European colonisation of Australia from 1788 severely affected the traditional use of bush foods as native ingredients were deemed inferior. The introduction of non-native foods combined with the loss of traditional lands and habitats meant that native foods and resources became limited.
A renewed and widespread interest in Australia’s native bush foods emerged during and after the 1970s. The 1980s saw the legalisation of the consumption of kangaroo meat in South Australia, while native food crops like macadamia nuts reached commercial levels of cultivation. Today, previously overlooked native foods such as eucalyptus, tea tree and finger limes are popular and have made their way into many high-end kitchens around the world.
Here are some foods which are native to Australia and have been consumed by Indigenous Australians for millennia.
Meat and fish
Indigenous Australians have historically enjoyed a range of meat and fish in their diet. Land animals such as kangaroos and emus are diet staples, as are animals such as goannas (a large lizard) and crocodiles. Smaller animals consumed include carpet snakes, mussels, oysters, rats, turtles, wallabies, echidnas (a spiny anteater), eels and ducks.
The ocean, rivers and ponds offer mud crabs and barramundi (Asian sea bass), with mud crabs being easy to catch and delicious, while barramundi grow to a large size so feed more mouths.
Indigenous Australians quickly learned to hunt animals when they were at their fattest. Traditionally, meat is cooked over an open fire or steamed in pits, while fish is served on hot coals and wrapped in paperbark.
Fruit and vegetables
Red fruits, such as desert quandong, can be eaten raw or dried and have historically been made into chutneys or jams – including by early European settlers – and are prized for their ability to keep for up to eight years. Plums are similarly popular, as are native gooseberries, muntries (similar to blueberries), lady apples, wild oranges and passionfruit, finger limes and white elderberries.
Bush vegetables account for a large portion of Indigenous diets, with some of the most common including sweet potatoes, or kumara, yams, bush potatoes, sea celery and warrigal greens.
Indigenous Australians have historically used plants for both cuisine and medicine. One of the most popular is lemon myrtle, which has been used for some 40,000 years and is prized both for its flavour and antiseptic properties. Lemon myrtle leaves were historically crushed and inhaled to alleviate headaches.
Tasmanian pepperberry plants traditionally supplied pepper for use as a flavouring agent and were also used medicinally as part of a paste which could be applied to sore gums or used to treat toothaches and skin disorders. Early European settlers also used the plant to make tonics out of the bark, berries and leaves to treat scurvy.
Also popular are tea tree – which is now widely used across the world – and wattle, mistletoe and honeysuckle, which require expertise to prepare since only portions of the plants are safe to eat.
Insects and grubs
Arguably the most famous of all bush tucker is the witchetty grub, which is packed full of nutrients, has a nutty taste and can either be eaten raw or roasted over a fire or coals. Similarly, green ants are a popular choice and are said to taste like lemon, while the ants themselves and their eggs are sometimes made into a drink that relieves headaches.
Other insects such as river red gum grub, cicadas, Coolibah tree grub and tar vine caterpillars are frequently included and are protein-rich, portable and plentiful foods for those on the move.
Though the bush coconut sounds like a plant and a nut, it is actually also an animal product. It grows only on desert bloodwood eucalypt trees and is formed as a result of a symbiotic relationship between the tree and adult female scale insects. The insect grows a protective hard shell around it, which can be eaten like a nut.
Spices, nuts and seeds
Australia is home to a vast range of native spices such as mountain pepper, aniseed myrtle, native basil and ginger and blue-leaved mallee. All can be used in food or drink or as natural medicine. For instance, tree gums can be dissolved in water with honey to make sweets or used to make jelly. Lemon ironbark is often used in cooking or alternatively as a herbal ingredient to relieve cramps, fevers and headaches.
Nuts and seeds are also integral to traditional bush tucker cuisine. One of the most important is the bunya nut, which comes from a chestnut-like supersized pine cone that can weigh up to 18kg and contain 100 large kernels inside.
Bunya cones have historically been an important food source for Indigenous communities, who would own a group of bunya trees and pass them down through the generations, while harvest festivals would be held in the Bon-yi Mountains (Bunya Mountains) where people would gather and feast on the nuts. They can be eaten raw or cooked and are a popular ingredient in many Australian diets today.
Though some Indigenous communities believe fungi to possess bad qualities – for instance, the Arunta believe that mushrooms and toadstools are fallen stars, and look upon them as being endowed with arungquiltha (evil magic) – there are also certain fungi that are believed to be of ‘good magic’. The truffle-like fungus ‘Choiromyces aboriginum’ is a traditional food that can be eaten raw or cooked. Fungi are also a useful food as they contain water.