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The real bush tucker: How to dine like a native
Australia's rarest restaurants stay true to the country's origins and make the most of great indigenous eats
Australians have long embraced the foods of ethnic groups from all over the world. From Italian to Greek, Brazilian to Japanese -- we’re adventurous eaters, on the whole, always willing and eager to try something new.
But when it comes to native foods, things like possum, emu, bush tomatoes and finger limes -- flora and fauna that sustained Indigenous Australians for more than 50,000 years -- most of us have never tasted them.
The phenomenon can be traced back to the 18th century, when Europeans began settling Australia. They brought with them an irrational disdain for the "technologically inferior" natives, their foodstuffs included.
Instead of harvesting kangaroo, Illawarra plums and other sustainable and super-nutritional native foods, settlers went about establishing the Western agricultural industries which now fuel the nation.
Nevertheless, there are a few native restaurants in Australia -- venues that have invented tasty and creative ways to incorporate real Australian meats, fruits, herbs and spices into modern Australian cooking.
We lift the lid on a selection of the best of this rare breed of native-Aussie restaurants.
The signature diner at Fraser Island’s Kingfisher Bay Resort, Seabelle Restaurant draws inspiration from Fraser’s abundant native herbs and garnishes.
A typical three-course meal begins with salt-and-pepper calamari and crocodile and pepperberry aioli as a starter, lamb rump with lemon-myrtle-herb crumble for the entrée and ginger pudding with munthari berry for dessert.
“We source lemon myrtle from Kingfisher Swamp and use it for smoking and flavoring fish and to create a lemony cream for panna cotta,” says sous chef Toby Vendenborn.
“We’ve also been experimenting with native bush ice cream, making flavors like wattleseed rosella and wild-lime sorbet.”
Kingfisher Bay Resort also holds thrice-weekly “Bush Tucker Talk and Taste” tours.
Conducted by a chef and ranger, it starts with a walking tour through Kingfisher’s herb garden and grounds to see native-Australian ingredients in their raw state.
That’s followed by a demonstration that shows guests how to apply their finds to everyday cooking, with 16 tastings throughout the hour-long program.
“Bush spices tend to pack a very strong punch,” says Vendenborn. “So you need to know to use them very sparingly and how to tweak them.”
Seabelle Restaurant, Kingfisher Bay Resort, Fraser Island, Queensland, +61 (0) 7 4194 9300; open daily 6 p.m.-midnight; www.kingfisherbay.com
Bush Tucker Talk and Taste tours are held on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. The cost is $25 (US$26) per person and bookings are essential.
Known as Kurilpa (Water Rat) to the Murri tribe of Southeast Queensland, the Brisbane suburb of West End is an appropriate location for Brisbane’s only native-Australian restaurant.
Tukka was established 10 years ago by Bryant Wells, a local chef who has taken it upon himself to turn native-Australian food into internationally recognized haute cuisine.
“We do traditional European cooking methods in a formal fashion but every dish has native ingredients, be it fruits, berries, meats or spices,” says Wells.
Tukka’s signature dish is a Cairns crocodile fillet cured in wattleseed with honey jus.
Crocodile also features on Tukka’s native platter -- an Australian interpretation of the antipasto plate that includes emu, kangaroo, nuts, berries, damper and dips.
But the restaurant’s most controversial dish is confit of Tasmanian possum, slow-cooked in duck fat.
“Some people take offense at the fact that possums are caught in the wild or think that we shouldn’t eat them because they’re cute little animals,” says Wells.
“But lambs are cute too and everyone seems happy eating them. It’s purely a matter of perception.”
Wells also holds monthly garden-cooking classes that show punters how to use native-Australian ingredients in the kitchen.
The three-hour class includes a two-course meal, a glass of wine and native spice pack.
Tukka, 145B Boundary St., West End, Brisbane, +61 (0) 7 3846 6333; open daily 6 p.m.-midnight; www.tukkarestaurant.com.au. The next garden-cooking class takes place August 12. $85 per person, bookings essential.
More on CNNGo: How to cook bush tucker
Set in a 148-year-old building in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, Charcoal Lane takes the concept of native-Australian cookery to the next level.
Owned and operated by nonprofit community group Mission Australia, it provides accredited education in hospitality for historically disadvantaged Indigenous Australians.
But cast aside all notions of clumsy trainee waiters and bumbling chefs, as the food, service and decor (think pressed linen tablecloths, polished silver cutlery and colorful Aboriginal art) are all top-shelf.
The à la carte menu includes dishes like wallaby tartar on melba toast, paperbark-smoked barramundi with parsnip cream and the signature dish, wildfire-spiced kangaroo loin with pomme purée and cranberry jus.
“Kangaroo is more of a gamey meat but healthy for you, as it’s very low in fat and high in proteins,” says head chef Andrew Bedford.
“Because of its low fat content, you don’t want to cook it anything past medium rare, as its gets dry and not so nice to eat.
“We cook ours to rare unless a customer stipulates they want it cooked more.”
Charcoal Lane, 136 Gertrude St., Fitzroy, Melbourne, +61 (0) 3 9418 3400; open Tuesday-Saturday 10 p.m.-3 p.m. and 6 p.m.-10 p.m.; www.charcoallane.com.au
Red Ochre Grill
Ray Mauger knew nothing about native-Australian cooking when he was hired as a consultant at the Red Ochre Grill, a restaurant with a view on the banks of the Torrens in Adelaide.
“I didn’t take it that seriously at the start,” says Mauger.
“But once I started learning about how native ingredients mix together and how well they go with modern Australian food, I become enthralled. Now I own the restaurant.”
“Native ingredients are also incredibly diverse,” he says. “Take native desert lime. There are at least three of four varieties that I know of. Each one can be used for different purposes, from savory to dessert and everything in between.”
Among Mauger’s most notable concoctions is slow-braised aniseed myrtle duck. It’s served with orange zest, chili sauce and coconut lemon aspen rice in a traditional Chinese clay pot.
Then there’s his warm-chocolate fondant with rivermint sorbet, or his handmade pepper-leaf pasta filled with native spinach, ricotta cheese, walnuts and sage.
“It’s quite strange that most Australian cities don’t even have a single native restaurant,” says Mauger.
“But a lot more chefs are starting to use these ingredients in their cooking. And that can only be a good thing for lovers of great food.”
Red Ochre Grill, War Memorial Drive, North Adelaide, +61 (0) 8 8211 8555; open Monday-Saturday 6 p.m.-midnight; www.redochre.com.au
More on CNNGo: 40 foods Australians like to call their own