The flavour of Australia is complex; it’s zesty, earthy, salty, tart, and a little bit sweet. Just like the bountiful foods it has provided for its inhabitants for tens of thousands of years.
Imagine this. Instead of Italian parsley, Mediterranean thyme, European mint, or Thai basil, our gardens are filled with sea parsley, native thyme, river mint, bush basil, Warrigal greens and many other Australian native edible plants. And we cook with these delicious herbs and native ingredients every day.
That’s the dream of Mark Tucek, a horticulturalist, and Marissa Verma, a local Whadjuk custodian of the Noongar Nation in Western Australia. Together, they’re on a mission to educate people about the unique flavours and exceptional nutritional properties of Australian bush food.
Mark and Marissa would love to see Australian bush foods in the gardens and pantries of everyday people, not just used by chefs in fancy restaurants. “We need to bring it back from being a food trend,” Marissa explains. “Anyone can create a bush tucker garden and harvest their own produce to cook in their own kitchen.”
When Mark first started working in the wholesale native plant industry, there were only two or three varieties of Australian native edible plants available for sale. “Back then everyone was growing exotic fruit trees. Everyone had a lemon tree in their backyard. I thought they should have a finger lime in the backyard, and I wanted to learn more about native edible plants and bush tucker,” he says.
That’s when he found Marissa, managing director of Bindi Bindi Dreaming, who has been educating students and the general public about the unique Noongar culture for over 20 years. She conducts tours and cooking workshops where she shares her knowledge of bush foods.
“I show people how to use native ingredients in the simplest way,” she says. “I share what the medicinal properties are too because we don’t separate them. If we’re harvesting a quandong [native peach], it’s for food, it’s for medicine, it’s everything; and we eat it because it’s in season.”
Mark launched the Tucker Bush range of Australian native edibles in 2015, with six bush food species grown from seeds purchased from Mamabulanjin Aboriginal Corporation, with a dream to make the unique flavours of Australian plants accessible to everyone. Tucker Bush now supplies over 70 different varieties of herb, fruit, nut, seed, and vegetable bush tucker plants to Bunnings and garden centres around Australia.
There are plenty of good reasons to grow a bush tucker garden in our backyards, or in pots on the balcony. First Nations Peoples survived and thrived on these foods for tens of thousands of years and science is only just starting to catch up with what they’ve known all along – Australian bush foods are packed with antioxidants and nutrients.
The native Kakadu plum, for example, has the highest recorded levels of natural vitamin C content in the world. It leaves other so-called superfoods like blueberries in the shade.
And because bush foods have always grown here, they’re perfectly adapted to the Australian environment. Unlike introduced fruits and vegetables, they don’t need extra fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides to help them grow, which supports the health and biodiversity of the land.
Marissa says it’s important to buy bush food ingredients from reputable companies that have a direct connection to First Nations. According to the First Nations Bushfood & Botanical Alliance of Australia, First Peoples represent less than two percent of providers across the supply chain, but 98 percent of Aboriginal landowners would like to be involved in the native food industry.
“We have a spiritual connection to the plants and animals and the environment,” Marissa explains. She encourages people to join a local bush tucker tour in their area and learn what the particular native plants in their part of Australia mean to the local First Peoples. “Know and understand the seasons and treat the plants like they’re you or your family. Tend to them with love.”
As bush food becomes more mainstream, Marissa says she’s noticed a new generation becoming more curious about Australia’s First Peoples, their history and culture. “We can acknowledge the hurts of the past but then show positivity in the way we move forward all together, and invite people to come on the journey with us.”
Thanks to the shared knowledge of First Nations Peoples, there’s never been a better time to get out into the garden and start growing and experimenting with our unique native ingredients – it’s the true Australian cuisine, after all.