It’s an oft-sprouted fact: there are more than 6,000 native ingredients. While talk of including indigenous produce on menus has reached fever-pitch, there’s still a long way to go in terms of what makes the cut and how chefs source and use native herbs and spices.
Hospitality speaks to Dale Chapman of My Dilly Bag and Sharon Windsor of Indigiearth and Warakirri café about current trends, the produce chefs are missing out on and how they’d like the industry to progress.
There are thousands of herbs and spices found across different custodial lands. Many have made it on to restaurant and café menus, but it there are two examples that have an outsized share of the market: lemon myrtle and wattleseed.
Yuwaalaraay and Kooma woman Dale Chapman and Ngemba Weilwan woman Sharon Windsor both list the ingredients as particularly popular among chefs. “[Lemon myrtle] is possibly the most well-known bushfood,” says Chapman, who runs My Dilly Bag on Kabi Kabi land in South-East Queensland.
“When crushed, the leaves have a distinctively pleasant lemon/lime aroma, and when added to dishes, it adds floral and citrus flavours with refreshing lemonade undertones. It’s popular because it resembles citrus and doesn’t overcomplicate a dish — we all know how to use lemon and limes. It’s easy to use and guests always react positively to its flavour.”
Lemon myrtle’s intense citrus flavour is more lemony than lemon, Windsor adds, saying the flavour has a clean and crisp citrus quality. “It has more citral than any other plant in the world,” she says. “It’s greater than 90 per cent.”
Wattleseed can be considered a sister to cacao and coffee, according to Chapman. “It has similar flavours and appearance, but with more nutty and slightly earthy undertones,” she says. “It also has a similar richness and density in terms of quality of flavour.”
The parallels could be what make it one of the most popular native spices to incorporate in modern cooking. “People know how to use coffee and cacao, so exploring an alternative, which has similar qualities, has seen a positive uptake,” says Chapman.
There’s more than one variety of wattleseed on the market, with different colours as well as flavour strengths available. “The most commonly used to date would be Acacia victoriae,” says Windsor, founder of Indigiearth and Warakirri café in Mudgee, New South Wales. “Wattleseed provides an amazing, nutty coffee/hazelnut flavour [and it is] also slightly bitter.”
Windsor suggests the reason behind the hype is that many people are familiar with both lemon myrtle and wattleseed. “They would be the most popular due to accessibility, but also their flavour and versatility,” she says. “They are both amazing ingredients that you can do so many things with and they can taste different in each application.”
From savoury to sweet, there’s plenty of opportunity to use lemon myrtle or wattleseed. “We use both on our [Warakirri] café menu as well as in our dining experience,” says Windsor. “Lemon myrtle with barramundi, cheesecakes and biscuits, wattleseed in cheesecakes, chocolate ganache tarts, cream and we also make our own wattleseed balsamic reduction to serve with emu meat.”
Chapman also makes the most of savoury and sweet pairings. When it comes to lemon myrtle: “If using leaves, strain [the mixture] before serving,” she says. “If using ground or in flakes, simply add the measurement as directed in a recipe and ensure it spreads evenly throughout.”
The herb pairs well with a range of proteins including fish and chicken and adds freshness to ice cream or sorbets. “It’s fabulous as a tea, great in cordials, adds a lovely high note to breads and biscuits and is wonderful in soups, laksas, curries and stocks,” she says. “Aboriginal people use it for toothaches and the tea can be very settling.”
Chapman also lists Tasmanian pepperberry as a popular ingredient. The spice has a warm peppery, sweet and delicate flavour with a hint of eucalyptus. “It’s very fragrant and has a good kick to it when used raw,” she says.
Similarly to lemon myrtle and wattleseed, it’s also easy to substitute. The spice will dissipate as it’s cooked, but Tasmanian pepperberry can be used in place of peppercorns or ground pepper. It also pairs well with savoury and sweet dishes. “It is wonderful in all meals from cheeses to sauces and in oils or just on avocado on sourdough,” says Chapman, who has created a salt and pepper mix available through My Dilly Bag. “It is a very special native botanical and one of the easiest-to-incorporate native Australian bushfoods into your everyday meals.”
As versatile as lemon myrtle, wattleseed and Tasmanian pepperberry are, they’re just three out of thousands of native herbs and spices. “I would like to see more variety used to showcase the diversity of native foods we have in this country,” says Windsor. “We have over 6,000 edible native species that grow and are traditional to many different parts of the country. Each ingredient has specific stories and a history of use that are unique to each tribal area/traditional people.”
So, where to next for a chef who’s ready to step up their game? “There are so many [options],” says Windsor. “Some of my favourite ingredients to use that some people are not aware of are native thyme and strawberry gum.” Rich in essential oils, the highly aromatic native thyme is traditionally used in medicine. The complex flavour includes hints of pepper, mint and earthy characteristics. At Warakirri café, the team adds native thyme to sautéed mushrooms.
Strawberry gum, which are the leaves of the Eucalyptus olida that grows in Northern New South Wales, has a rich berry flavour. “I love to use it in desserts such as cheesecake or in iced tea,” says Windsor. “We use it in Indigiearth’s Women’s Business tea blend. It can be dried and crushed into smaller leaves for teas, milled finely for cheesecakes and we also use it to make a strawberry gum syrup served over wattleseed pancakes.”
Chapman also endorses strawberry gum and its unique flavour which she contends is impossible to replicate. “The leaves are full of aroma and flavour — they combine strawberry and passionfruit tones with a hint of eucalyptus,” she says. “Strawberry gum leaves are sweet and slightly acidic, like balsamic vinegar, with fruity undertones that have shades of cinnamon, strawberry and passionfruit.”
A tea infusion can be turned into a number of derivatives such as sauce, compote or jam. “Strawberry gum leaves pair wonderfully with dairy — it’s perfect for desserts such as crème brûlée, pavlova, macarons, panna cotta and is fantastic with chocolate,” says Chapman. “It’s chewed by Aboriginal people for its sweet berry flavour.”
To native thyme and strawberry gum, Chapman adds two more suggestions: old man saltbush and cinnamon myrtle. “Old man saltbush is wonderfully subtle; it has a crisp taste and is best described as having a hint of rosemary, savoury, herby and salty flavours,” says Chapman.
“It can be used in various ways, but I like to add it like any other herb — directly to the dish. “Saltbush can be used to add complexity My Dilly Bag to spice blends for marinades and dukkah and is great in breads, pastas, guacamole, salsas and salad dressings. It is also delicious in fudge. It is used by Aboriginal people at ceremonies to flavour foods in ground ovens and the soft foliage is used as bedding.”
Saltbush should replace table salt, Chapman argues, while kitchens should do away with cinnamon bark and ground cinnamon in favour of cinnamon myrtle. “When crushed, the leaves impart a cinnamon-like fragrance,” says Chapman.
“It does, however, have a more subtle flavour than the cinnamon we all know and love. Its aroma has a more earthy and warm nature to it. You can use whole, ground or as flakes [and it] pairs well with pastries, sweets and both sweet or savoury spice blends; the leaves can also be steeped in hot water to make a lovely herbal tea.”
While the plethora of options might seem overwhelming, there are some simple ways to make sure sourcing is done right. “Have a yarn to your local mob,” says Chapman. “They’ll know what is growing in your region and be able to inform you on harvesting times and the best locations to forage. Ask where the product has come from and throw your support behind Aboriginal communities when you can. Many people rely on this income and will have smaller harvests than industrial agricultural specialists.”
Windsor agrees it’s crucial to seek out First Nations businesses, growers and wild harvesters first. “If purchasing from another supplier, ask where the ingredient comes from, what involvement Aboriginal people have in the process/business and how they are supporting First Nations peoples and community,” she says. “If they are using traditional knowledge to sell/promote the products and their own business — do they have permission to use traditional knowledge?”
My Dilly Bag works with Aboriginal communities and non-Indigenous farmers to supply chefs with sustainable rare and endangered ingredients — something Chapman has been doing for more than two decades.
“From a trade aspect, there have been a small number of bushfood specialists over the last 20 years and much of the supply chain was non-Indigenous,” she says. “Much of my life’s work has been to empower Aboriginal communities to benefit from this demand.
“At the same time, our industry’s collective educational work and campaigns right across Australia, coupled with the modernisation and uptake of food exploration since the ’90s, has compelled Australian chefs to incorporate bushfood ingredients into their food.”
The more knowledge, the better in Chapman’s opinion. “I strongly believe learning cultural knowledge is where Australia needs to shift collectively to be able to heal from the destructive past,” she says. “Chefs can use knowledge to tell stories about their food, and that is powerful in the journey and experience they want to provide their patrons.”
It’s something Windsor hopes to see evolve, too. “I would love to see chefs learn the traditional knowledge, uses, where the ingredient comes from, medicinal values and even the traditional names used,” she says. “For me and my staff, it gives much more respect to the dish being served. We are serving mother earth on a plate. We are serving 60,000 years of culture for everyone to enjoy.”
Combined with their unique flavour characteristics, what better reason is there to include native herbs and spices on menus?