Bursting with flavour and rich in nutrients, Australia's native ingredients will delight the health conscious traveller.
By Ute Junker
From the tangy taste of saltbush to the sweet flesh of the freshwater marron, you'll find many native Australian foods on the menus of restaurants around the country. In some cases, these foods - sometimes referred to as "bush tucker" to reflect their origins - helped sustain Australia's Aboriginal populations for more than 50,000 years, and offer exquisite flavour as well as health benefits. Keep your eyes out for these only-in-Australia ingredients.
On the menu in Australia
The macadamia nut, with its distinctive round shape and delicious buttery flavour, is one of Australia's most successful exports. Aboriginal tribes regarded these nuts as a delicacy, but today they are an everyday food, found in snack packs at the supermarket, sprinkled in salads and used in cakes and other desserts. Like all nuts, macadamias are packed with nutrients, including monounsaturated fats and essential vitamins and minerals such as thiamine, manganese and magnesium.
Try them: At Sydney’s acclaimed ARIA restaurant, with views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, chef Matt Moran teams mandarins with macadamia, white mulberries and yoghurt for a memorable dessert.
Barramundi has a lot of fans. Anglers enjoy trying to catch this formidable fish, which can grow to well over a metre (3.3 feet), while chefs love barramundi for its firm white flesh and its mild taste, similar to snapper. This versatile fish can be steamed, fried, baked or barbecued, is packed with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin A, and has only half the kilojoules (or calories) of salmon.
This Australian spinach, known as warrigal greens, was one of the first native foods to be adopted by Europeans in Australia. As far back as 1770, when James Cook first charted the Australian coastline, his crew ate the leafy greens, which taste a lot like English spinach, and even took seeds back to England. They were onto a good thing: warrigal greens are loaded with healthy antioxidants.
Try it: At Sydney's harbourside Flying Fish restaurant, which offers seafood of all kinds, warrigal greens are often served as a side dish.
The only delicate thing about Australia's giant mud crabs, which can weigh up to three kilograms (almost seven pounds), is their tender flesh. You will find mud crab on many menus, but nothing beats the experience of wading through Australian mangroves with a local Aboriginal guide, catching a crab yourself, then cooking it over an open fire. Crabbing tours led by Aboriginal guides are available in Port Douglas, just north of Cairns in Queensland, and in Western Australia at Cape Leveque, a two-hour drive north of Broome.
Try it: Australian chef Neil Perry's Eleven Bridge restaurant in Sydney offers mud crab salad with salted duck egg mayonnaise.
For Aboriginals living in harsh deserts, plants like the saltbush were lifesavers. Its salty leaves provided much-needed protein and minerals, and were also used to treat cuts and stings. Today chefs use them in many different ways, wrapping the leaves around meat or fish before baking, or stir-frying them with ginger and garlic. Beef from cattle that has grazed on saltbush has special qualities, such as high levels of vitamin E.
Try it: At celebrated Sydney restaurant Billy Kwong, chef Kylie Kwong blends Aussie ingredients and Chinese flavours in dishes such as saltbush cakes, with flaky pastry wrapped around the leaves.
SYDNEY ROCK OYSTER
When today's Sydneysiders settle in for a brunch of richly flavoured Sydney rock oysters, they are following a ritual that dates back thousands of years. The shores of Sydney Harbour are dotted with middens (ancient piles of discarded oyster shells), some of which have been carbon dated to about 6000BC.
Try it: One of the best places to eat Sydney's signature ingredient is in Sydney's signature building, the Opera House. Book a seat at the Cured & Cultured bar in chef Peter Gilmore's Bennelong restaurant, spectacularly located inside the Opera House with views of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Few ingredients qualify for superfood status as effortlessly as kangaroo. This free-range meat is high in protein, iron and vitamin B, and, unlike most meats, virtually fat free. No wonder it was a staple food for Aboriginal tribes all over Australia. The best reason to eat kangaroo, however, is its delicious gamey taste, reminiscent of venison, which is why it's often found on restaurant menus. Many Australians also cook with kangaroo meat at home. It's readily available in supermarkets.
Try it: At Melbourne’s acclaimed Attica restaurant, chef Ben Shewry serves red kangaroo tartare with native Australian bunya nuts.
This rainforest native is one of Australia's most popular bush tucker foods. The aromatic lemon-lime flavour of its leaves is irresistible when brewed into a fragrant pot of tea, but it is also used in all kinds of cooking, with a similar taste to that of the popular Asian ingredient, lemongrass. As such, lemon myrtle blends well with other Asian ingredients, such as chillies, galangal and ginger, and also tastes great in desserts, cakes and pastries. Many Australians keep dried lemon myrtle in their spice rack at home.
Try it: Sydney's Sepia restaurant, run by chef Martin Benn, is known for its combination of Japanese and Australian flavours. Lemon myrtle is used not only in desserts here, but with seafood, such as in a dish of seared spring bonito, served with jamon and lemon myrtle dashi jelly.
Marron is Australia's equivalent to the lobster: a crustacean with delicately flavoured meat that sells for high prices. It remains a highly prized gourmet secret, with most of the limited stocks of this freshwater crayfish shipped straight to Australia's top restaurants. The sweet flesh of its tail and claws is excellent poached, roasted or fried.
Try it: At Melbourne’s elegant Vue de Monde, on the 55th floor of the Rialto, the tallest office building in the Southern Hemisphere, marron is served three ways: raw, barbecued, and cured with citrus.
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