For those who love food culture – and especially those who love talking about food culture – Melbourne is a city catering to many tastes. From the iconic cookery competitions of the Royal Melbourne Show, to immensely popular markets and festivals, to restaurants like Attica and Vue de Monde holding their own amongst the world’s best, the endless variety is always underpinned by quality and a respect for authenticity.
And our appreciation is easy to understand. In a city built and enriched by migrants for two centuries, each culture brings with it unique dishes and techniques - where else would you search for authentic Greek, Vietnamese, or Ethiopian, except in the communities that brought them here? Even the Melbourne Immigration Museum has a regular rotation of food-based exhibitions and celebrations in recognition of our shared love.
Amongst all this enthusiasm for the international, however, there has been a home-grown cuisine and culture continually overlooked. Only recently has mainstream attention begun to focus on the fruits, nuts and vegetables of Australian ecosystems, growing out of a curiosity to explore yet more novel tastes and combinations. Of course, to First Australians, native foods aren’t novel at all.
Australia’s vegetation supported Aboriginal culture for tens of thousands of years. Recent research has shown how careful cultivation practices, with precise fire management and seed distribution, shaped a landscape of consistent abundance that still adapted to the changing seasons. This was helped by the immense array of native food plants to choose from - so much more than just macadamia nuts and wattleseed. In research for an upcoming book, botanist and Monash alumnus Claudia Green has documented almost two hundred plant species with confirmed or anecdotal use in diet: “There have been people living across this entire continent, that’s known. And they had borders and nations, that’s known too. Once you start looking, there’s so much evidence of a rich and diverse agriculture – it’s different to the rows and fields of a European monoculture system, but it was still definitely productive enough to support permanent habitation.”
Some plants have slid into the public notice already. The delightful lemon myrtle, Backhousia citriodora, has been grown in plantations for decades as a source of oil and leaf – its citral content has been measured as one of the highest in any plant. Australia’s iconic Eucalyptus trees created an international industry in the late 19th Century, after the traditional medicine was recognised as containing antibacterial and anti-inflammatory oils. The quandong, Santalum acuminatum, has had a tough road to recognition despite findings that its vitamin C content is much higher than most citrus – now it’s commonly available in jams and sauces.
One of the common objections to Australian food plants is the inherited belief that they just don’t taste all that nice. It’s a comment that has carried from English settlers right through to today, and the key point in this is that it’s a European perspective. In the Northern Hemisphere, centuries of intensive agriculture have produced apples, stone fruits, and grains that bear very little resemblance to their wild ancestors. By selecting for the sweetest, the juiciest, the largest of fruits and grains, the best of each generation gradually became the new average and our tastes adjusted. But while flavour and abundance have increased with these modifications, so have the requirements for a successful crop – meticulous regimes of fertilising, irrigating, and applying pesticides. Our native food plants, on the other hand, have been left largely unaltered thanks to the less intrusive ideology of First Australian cultivation.
It’s an important point to consider when thinking about the future challenges of growing domesticated foods. This past December, Melbourne has blanched under a heatwave that set records for overnight temperatures. Apart from this one of many notches in a series of new extremes, long-term weather modelling has predicted that south-eastern Australia will continue to receive less and less rain as the 21st Century continues - forecasts for our fruit-growing regions in the Goulburn Valley show a potential 10% loss in rainfall, along with perhaps the loss of over half the water in the Goulburn and Broken Rivers. Irrigation of current orchard species is already made difficult by water restrictions and a narrow growing season between late winter frosts and summer blasts.
A shift in production and a shift in attitudes toward native foods could help the country adapt. Seed from the Acacia genus has been grown both here and internationally as a protein source from trees that can survive long periods of dryness. Lilly-pilly trees, Syzygium smithii, are already grown as a drought-tolerant ornamental and are familiar to many people – the berries are edible. CSIRO has been conducting research into the commercial viability of Australian food plants for quite some time, with promising results.
With the variety of international foods here in Melbourne, and a willingness to explore and combine different ingredients, it’s no surprise that Australian native foods are gaining a hold. Exploring them further, as a serious enterprise rather than another flavour to incorporate, could stave off the worst consequences of future droughts while opening up new ways to feed our growing population.
Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.