9 Australian bush foods you should be eating for your health
Mention bush foods and most people’s thoughts go immediately to witchetty grubs. Yet we ignore native foods to our detriment. Science has proven they are bursting with essential nutrients and antioxidants, are low GI, low in kilojoules, contain antimicrobial compounds and even appear to have preservative qualities.
Many are easy to grow at home, too. They’re obviously suited to our climate, don’t require huge amounts of water, provide habitat for our local fauna and don’t seem to get the pests and diseases that afflict exotic species.
Russian plant explorers took our kangaroo apple to make the contraceptive pill, the Americans have made a massive industry out of macadamias and the biggest lemon myrtle plantations are in Malaysia.
On top of that, most native morsels are intensely flavoursome. This means a little goes a long way and they’re particularly useful as condiments or in sauces and syrups. If you’re buying bush foods online — the easiest way for most of us — they can be bought dried to use like any herb, spice or dried fruit in home cooking.
It’s bemusing that we Aussies ignore bush tucker; throughout history, other countries have valued our native edibles more than we have. Russian plant explorers took our kangaroo apple to make the contraceptive pill, the Americans have made a massive industry out of macadamias and the biggest lemon myrtle plantations are in Malaysia.
Currently, the Chinese are among many eyeing off our amazing Kakadu plum, which boasts extraordinary levels of antioxidants and vitamins and has a great deal of potential to be used in medicine. The latest studies have shown that it could even be useful as a preventive against Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and its high vitamin C content means it’s considered a valuable skincare ingredient.
Embracing more native foods would mean that we’d not only be doing ourselves good but we’d also be reducing food miles, improving food security and doing our country and the Indigenous community good as well.
There are about 2500 native foods available. Below, you’ll learn how and why to eat just a few of those delicacies that modern experts have managed to properly analyse.
Kakadu or Billygoat plum
This small, light-yellow or green plum is one of the most highly regarded superfoods in the world. Scientists from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) when analysing a range of native foods found it to be an “outstandingly” rich source of antioxidants, particularly vitamin C. It contains more than 7000mg per 100g, compared to around 93mg per 100g in an orange.
Healthfood companies are now manufacturing Kakadu plum into powders or capsules as it’s also high in folate, lutein and essential minerals magnesium, calcium and iron. It’s believed the plums’ traditionally harsh growing environment has contributed to their evolution into such nutritional powerhouses.
“Growing up in the Kimberley region, we used to eat these like nobody’s business,” says Samantha Martin, an Indigenous woman and author of Bush Tukka Guide. “They taste like a tangy dried apricot and, fresh, can be made into smoothies and fruit salads or stewed with meats.” Dried, the powder can also be sprinkled over breakfast muesli or blended into a smoothie.
“Growing up in the Kimberley region, we used to eat [Kakadu plums] like nobody’s business. … They taste like a tangy dried apricot and, fresh, can be made into smoothies and fruit salads or stewed with meats.”
“[The fruit] also have antibacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal properties,” adds Martin. “We put the crushed flesh on wounds to speed healing but it’s possible to buy Kakadu plum in soaps, skin lotions and ointments.”
Most exciting of all, recent research indicates the plums could be used in the treatment of the neurodegenerative disorders dementia and Alzheimer’s. It appears that the powerful antioxidants (seven times greater than the chemical compound in turmeric that’s currently in clinical trials as an Alzheimer’s treatment) can protect brain neurons from the toxic agent beta-amyloid, which kills brain cells. Researchers are calling for more Australian funding to conduct further tests before a clinical trial.
Martin, who also presents the SBS/NITV series Bush Tukka Woman, is pleased at the growing interest in bush foods for the promise it holds. “Growing up, we had no money but we ate straight off the land and were lean and healthy, with strong teeth, shiny hair and clear eyes,” she says. “Food isn’t just food; it’s medicine as well.”
According to environmental scientist and native food fan Julie Weatherhead, horticulturists have bred many fruits and vegetables to make them bigger and juicier. “The result is produce that is full of water with diluted nutritional value,” she says. Our native edibles haven’t been changed, though; so, although they’re still small, they’ve retained an incredibly high level of nutrition and flavour.
Bush tomatoes are an example of this. About the size of a small cherry tomato, they’re a good source of iron and selenium, according to the RIRDC. They also taste good, with an intense, citrusy, caramelised, sundried tomato flavour.
You can buy bush tommies dried and can easily use them in gravies, stocks, pasta sauces and casseroles or baked in scones or biscuits. Plus, because bush tomatoes don’t need the amount of water normal tomatoes need, they can be grown commercially in the desert, creating employment for Indigenous people.
Muntries or native cranberries
Muntries are berries that grow prolifically along coastal South Australia. “When ripe they smell of roasting apple and cinnamon and that’s what they taste like; when you poach them the flavour intensifies,” says Weatherhead, who runs native edible Taste, Try and Learn tours at her Peppermint Ridge Farm in Tynong, Victoria. She also sells products and plants, keen to encourage others to appreciate the culinary and medicinal properties of native plants.
Farmers are now growing muntries commercially and selling them online. You can substitute the berries anywhere you’d use apples or sultanas — they’re great in cakes or Bircher muesli. They’re small, about the size of your thumb, but you don’t need too many as the flavour is so intense. They contain around four times the antioxidants of blueberries, Weatherhead adds.
Lutein is a compound important for eye health and preventing macular. The RIRDC has found lemon myrtle to contain extremely high levels of this nutrient. It’s also rich in folate, vitamin E, zinc, magnesium and calcium — minerals required for the synthesis and self-repair of human DNA.
Best of all, it’s easy to include plenty of this delicious herb in your diet. It’s so useful that Weatherhead says it tops her list when it comes to recommending native plants to grow at home.
Lemon myrtle’s easy to make into a tea, for example. Put a leaf in hot water to release the minerals and you have a delicious tonic without tannins that’s four to six times higher in antioxidants than green tea. Weatherhead also adds fresh ginger as a cold remedy and it’s a good hot drink to have before bed as it contains no caffeine and is regarded as a calmative and sedative.
The leaves can also be used just like bay leaves; they have a strong citron flavour — like a blend of lemongrass, lime and lemon. Add to marinades, soups or casseroles. Lemon myrtle also imparts a wonderful taste and aroma when used with fish. Simply lay a couple of leaves on the flesh, wrap in foil and bake in the oven or add to a fish soup or risotto.
“Lemon myrtle is my hero of bush foods. It has anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties and tastes beautiful.”
It can be substituted for lemongrass in many dishes so is useful in Asian curries and excellent in a range of sweet dishes such as custards, cheesecake, biscuits, cakes, scones and ice-cream. It can be used to flavour liqueurs and oils and made into a syrup. During World War II, lemonade was even made from it.
“Everyone is used to having rosemary and thyme in the backyard, but if you can also have native spices and herbs, which are so much higher in nutrition, it seems a no-brainer,” Weatherhead observes.
Martin agrees. “Lemon myrtle is my hero of bush foods. It has anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties and tastes beautiful. I used to give it to aunties whose fingers were too swollen to remove their rings and after just three days the swelling would have gone down.”
According to the Australian Journal of Medical Herbalism, the oil can also be applied to cold sores and is useful for gut irritations. It’s TGA listed.
Lemon myrtle is useful for other purposes, too. Its antimicrobial and antifungal properties outweigh those of tea-tree, so it’s a great surface disinfectant — the oil is 16 times stronger than phenol. There’s evidence that lemon myrtle solutions can help protect other plants from pests and humans from insects and mosquitoes.
Wattleseed has high levels of calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron and selenium. In fact, it’s so nutritious yet grows so well in desert conditions that investigations are underway to use it as a famine-relief crop in Africa. “It’s unusual to find plant foods so high in iron,” observes Weatherhead. ”It would have been very important to Aboriginal people.”
According to the RIRDC, wattleseed has been a mainstay in the diet of Indigenous Australians for more than 40,000 years and was also an important source of protein and carbohydrates. The women would toast the seeds then grind them into a flour to make into cakes.
It has a beautiful fragrance and flavour, like coffee and hazelnuts with a hint of chocolate. “I like it crushed in damper,” says Martin. “If I add lemon myrtle as well, it’s gone in no time! It can also be made into a drink or used to flavour ice-creams, butters, yoghurts or sauces.”
You can also make a caffeine-free coffee substitute from the seeds.
We’re all guilty of paying $5 a punnet for blueberries while leaving lillypilly berries for the birds. That’s a waste, as some varieties, such as the riberry (Syzygium luehmannii), have the same antioxidant capacity, phytochemicals (which protect against oxidative stress) and essential minerals as blueberries.
The riberry is one of the few lillypilly berries that can be eaten fresh, says Weatherhead. “It has a delicious taste, like cloves and cinnamon, although a lot of other lillypillys are high in tannins and need to be boiled up into jellies and jams.”
“Aboriginal people commonly refer to the berries as ‘medicine berries’ because they keep their immune systems healthy,” adds Martin. “They’re long-lasting and keep for up to two weeks after being picked. I like to deseed them and put them into muffins with white chocolate. They’re a great replacement for raspberries or blueberries.”
Check with your nursery or go online to check that the variety in your backyard is edible, she advises.
You’ve probably heard the buzz around anthocyanins, the purple compound that gives purple carrots and the newly developed Queen Garnett plums their superfood status. Studies with rats have found the flavonoid can reverse the damage done by a junk-food diet, including lowering blood pressure and reducing anything from non-alcoholic fatty liver to cardiovascular disease.
Wattleseed has been a mainstay in the diet of Indigenous Australians for more than 40,000 years and was also an important source of protein and carbohydrates.
While they taste very tart and work best in jams, chutneys and sauces, Davidson plums are also exceptionally high in anthocyanin. They also contain more antioxidants than blueberries and are a good source of potassium, lutein, vitamin E, folate, zinc, magnesium and calcium, says the RIRDC.
Further studies are investigating the plum’s antimicrobial properties, which could reduce the amount of preservatives, such as sulphides, used in some processed foods. When tested on kangaroo meat, a product made from Davidson plum extended the shelf life for 21 days in chilled conditions.
Kangaroo apple offers a prime example of a frustration that Julie Weatherhead expresses: we let early plant explorers take our native plants to make billions of dollars from them overseas while ignoring them ourselves.
“[Its] leaves contain progesterone; Aboriginal women used them as a contraceptive and the Russians have developed it into a contraceptive pill, which we buy back,” she says. “The fruit looks like a tree tomato — it should only be eaten very ripe — but is high in oestrogen.” She’s watching closely to see if anyone’s smart enough to investigate the species as a remedy to help menopausal women.
“We chucked Aboriginal people off their land and weren’t interested in asking them how they were so healthy,” Weatherhead continues. “It’s depressing we now have so little knowledge of native plants.”
Tasmanian mountain pepper
Both the leaves and the berries of this plant can be used in cooking. You can dry and grind the berries as you would ordinary black pepper, and it tastes very similar although it has a slight eucalypt tang. The berries are so aromatic that they can also be used in sweet dishes. The leaves can be used as a fresh herb or made into pastes and purées.
The RIRDC found mountain pepper to be high in antioxidants, to have antibacterial and antifungal properties and to be high in vitamin E, lutein, zinc, magnesium, calcium and iron.
How to embrace bush foods
- Get more information and recipes from Samantha Martin’s book (Explore Australia) or by watching her SBS/NITV series Bush Tukka Woman.
- If you’re in the Tynong area of Victoria, check out Julie Weatherhead’s tours or book into one of her bush food cooking classes.
- Bushfood Sensations has an extensive list of growers and providers of native edibles. Find out what you can grow in your part of Australia. Local nurseries are also helpful. Even big chains like Bunnings often have a surprising range of native edible plants.
- Find recipes, information and products here. Its creator Jude Mayall is also deputy chair of the Australian Native Food Industry and a great champion of research and working with Indigenous advisory groups. She has written a cookbook, too, and will happily answer email questions. Some of the foods may seem expensive but a little goes a long way.
- com.au has one of the largest ranges of native foods. It also offers a mouth-watering array of mixes and condiments.
- You can buy organic lemon myrtle products here.
- Importantly, don’t experiment with bush fruits or herbs unless you’ve identified them and ensured they’re not toxic.