3 First Nations Voices Explain How Aussie Plates Can Change for the Better

Native rock oyster with Davidson plum sorbet and seablite from Karkalla, Byron Bay

The regeneration of Australia’s native produce offers a unique opportunity to care for our land and its people.

Most Australians have tried some of our country’s native ingredients: Davidson plum jam, wattleseed ice-cream or a cocktail spiked with the tart jewels of a finger lime. But when there’s about 6000 varieties of native produce growing in our soil and seas, why don’t we see more of it on restaurant menus? And why don’t we take pride in what grows here naturally, like they do in France and Japan?

“We’ve failed to open our eyes and really connect, not only with the country and the culture but with the incredible foods we have right on our doorstep,” says Mindy Woods, a Bundjalung woman of the Widjabul Wia-bul clan, who is both a chef and food activist.

Beyond demand and availability, the issue is complex and intersectional, tying in with industrialisation, land rights and, in many cases, lack of knowledge. Somewhere between 4 and 13 per cent of the general Australian population experiences food insecurity, which climbs to 22 to 32 per cent for First Nations people, so how could regenerating native crops and produce redress the disparity? And how can we hero these ingredients in a way that’s ethical and benefits the people who have nurtured them for millennia?

These three leading First Nations voices demonstrate that, with knowledge and generosity, Australian plates have a chance to change for the better – and for everyone.

The Chef: Mindy Woods
Owner and chef Karkalla, Byron Bay

Mindy Woods

“We come from a nation of travellers. We have this rite of passage where we travel all over the world, seeking out experiences and food and culture but what we fail to recognise is that we have the oldest thriving civilisation on earth right here,” says Mindy Woods. “Part of that is our rich and abundant food culture.” Why, she asks, do so many of us then seemingly ignore the delicious, nutritious and environmentally harmonious produce that’s all around us?

It’s a question she tries to answer at Karkalla, her 30-seat restaurant in Byron Bay (Cavanbah), where she serves modern interpretations of the foods that First Nations Australians have always eaten, such as Ooray (Davidson plum) Martinis, crispy saltbush and stir-fries made with seablite and samphire. Woods says she’s seen the transformative power of her food culture. Recently, she cooked a dish of native succulents for a guest, who tasted it and began to cry. “She said, ‘I can’t believe I haven’t tried this before. I can’t believe it hasn’t been on my radar.’”

This is the kind of excitement Woods would love to see all over the country. She wants to live in an Australia where everyone has native ingredients in their kitchens and grows them in their backyards or on their balconies. “Know what traditional Country you live on,” she advises as a starting point. “Know the names of the tribes or clans who live there. Connect with your native food landscapes and know what is endemic to where you are. And then start growing these beautiful plants. You will have access to these incredible native foods for your own kitchen and you will start a movement in your own community.”

The Producer: Caley Callope
Yumburra program manager, Black Duck Foods

Caley Callope

There’s a moment towards the end of The Dark Emu Story, the documentary about the controversy that surrounded Yuin man and author Bruce Pascoe’s bestselling 2014 book Dark Emu.

The rest of the program debates the semantics of whether Pascoe’s claims about Aboriginal Australians using “agricultural” techniques in the Western sense were accurate. But then we meet the team from Yumburra and Black Duck Foods, a social enterprise initiative started by Pascoe and run by First Nations people. Haggling over the minutiae of the past shifts to looking towards the future.

In 2018, Pascoe purchased Yumburra, a 56-hectare property on Yuin Country in East Gippsland, Victoria, with the aim of regenerating damaged land, preserving native produce and the stories behind it and, perhaps most importantly, making sure that the farm’s proceeds remain with Aboriginal communities.

Yumburra, Victoria

Currently the farm grows 40 native food species, including four native seed grasses that can be milled into flour. “Foods have a story and those stories belong to certain people,” says Caley Callope, a Badjala, Anguthimire woman with ties to Bindal and Wakka Wakka Country who works alongside farm manager Chris Harris to ensure the property respects cultural protocols. One of the farm’s grasses, for example, belongs to Gamilaroi people so the team asks permission to grow it and makes sure that the economic benefits flow back to its Traditional Owners.

Chris Harris

Black Duck Foods has good stores of flour made from Mitchell and button grasses, has supplied eateries, such as Melbourne finediner Attica, and is in talks with various cafés and restaurants about getting it onto plates. “The native foods industry is booming but currently only 2 per cent of its profits go back to Aboriginal communities,” says Callope of the importance of their work.

The Storyteller: Nakkiah Lui
Host and co-producer, First Eat podcast

Nakkiah Lui

Throughout Nakkiah Lui’s new podcast, First Eat, the Gamillaroi, Torres Strait Islander actor, writer and producer asks herself and her listeners a succinct question: “What would a plate of food look like if First Nations people still owned the land?”

Curiosity set Lui off on a storytelling journey that took her to all corners of the country and across the world, including New Zealand (Aotearoa) and California, to find out what food systems are like – or could be like – if they’re led by First Nations people. “We spoke to people who we don’t necessarily look to when speaking about food,” says Lui. “Talking to First Nations women led to so much knowledge, so many stories.”

It’s these First Nations women who are reviving, preserving and sharing the traditional ingredients of their ancestors, in ways that nourish both the people eating them and the land on which they grow. “Maybe it’s blue-sky thinking but wouldn’t it be incredible to have free community gardens everywhere with native fruits and vegetables that embrace First Nations knowledge?” asks Lui. “How much would that change a city?”

As she travelled, Lui had lightning-bolt moments and felt both grief and hope as she tackled questions of health, community, sovereignty and environmentalism. “I hope what I’ve made is friendly, intimate… and generous and kind in its provocations,” she says.

“It’s not about going, ‘Hey, I want more than you.’ It’s about thinking, how do we create a world in which we can all share a meal and no-one goes without? And maybe we don't know what that looks like yet. But isn’t it great if we talk about it?”

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