Want to taste the foods that the world’s most ancient culture has dined on for tens of thousands of years? Head to the spiritual heart of Australia.
By Katrina Lobley
When René Redzepi came to Sydney in 2016 to create a pop-up of his world-famous Copenhagen restaurant Noma, he first travelled around the continent in search of Australian native produce to feature on his 10-course degustation menu. Every sitting in the restaurant sold out in just four minutes – and praise was unanimous for his dishes such as snow crab (served with egg yolk cured in kangaroo broth), and a mango ice-cream sandwich with native green ants.
Redzepi’s decision to feature these ingredients was a sign of changing attitudes – both locally and internationally – toward Australia’s native produce. Growing interest has led to ingredients such as lemon myrtle (a beautifully fragrant herb with a citrus taste) and saltbush (a blue-grey leaf with a salty taste) appearing with increasing frequency on Australian menus, alongside more traditionally popular local foods such as macadamia nuts and kangaroo meat. Now – in what is a significant vote of confidence for Australia’s native ingredients – one of Australia’s most iconic venues, Ayers Rock Resort, has shifted its dining options to focus on native Australian flavours. It's a significant move for any resort - especially one with such an international audience - but in putting the flavours of the surrounding desert on its menu, Ayers Rock Resort is not only taking an ambitious vote of confidence for Australia's native produce, but firmly embracing the ancient Aboriginal food culture that it's inextricably entwined with.
First, a little history…
Ayers Rock Resort might be just 15 kilometres (nine miles) from one of Australia’s most sacred and spiritual landmarks, Uluru, but it wasn’t long ago that experiencing Aboriginal culture at the resort was difficult. As late as 2011, only two of the resort’s employees were Aboriginal. That year, however, the resort was sold to a new owner, which promptly set a workforce target of 50 per cent Aboriginal employment by 2018 (it’s currently at 37 per cent). As the Aboriginal workforce has grown, the resort has implemented several initiatives to celebrate its employees’ ancient customs. Guests can now learn about traditional hunting practices, watch an Aboriginal dance troupe tell stories through movement, and enrol in a dot painting workshop led by an Aboriginal artist.
But the resort’s dining initiative is one of its most impressive commitments to date. Bush Tucker Journeys is a wide-ranging culinary program that doesn’t just incorporate native Australian foods on the resort’s restaurant menus, but encourages guests to go “beyond the plate” to find out more about Australian native produce and Aboriginal heritage. All sorts of experiences are on offer, from relaxed cooking lessons held outdoors to luxury evening dining on red sand dunes beneath the starry outback sky.
Learn all about bush tucker
Perhaps the best place to begin your journey with Australia’s native foods is on the resort’s free daily Bush Food Experience, conducted outdoors on the Town Square lawn. Laid out on tables dressed with colourful fabrics are some intriguing foods from the desert. Small, bright yellow berries are desert figs. What looks like a handful of grass is actually pungent native lemongrass. Take a seat on a bench as these berries, grasses, flowers and seeds are passed around for closer inspection, and take notes as a resort employee talks you through a simple recipe for wattleseed shortbread (ground wattleseed smells a little like coffee). At the end, shortbread samples are passed around – delicious!
Another way to learn about these edible plants is to join one of the resort’s free daily Garden Walks. As you wander the resort’s extensive native gardens, a guide will point out how plants were traditionally used for food and medicine. You can also try your hand at turning desert grass seeds into something humans can eat – and see how good you are at throwing a spear – on a Bush Tucker and Reptiles Tour.
Order a bush tucker meal
Ready for a taste of the bush? Wherever you’re staying around the resort (it’s home to a wide range of accommodation, from a campground to a five-star hotel), it’s possible to try out native flavours at one of the property’s 10 restaurants. Try a croc-dog (a hot dog made from crocodile meat) at the Outback Pioneer BBQ & Bar, or head to the Arnguli Grill & Restaurant at the Desert Gardens Hotel to order a fillet steak with bush tomato jus or chicken breast chimichurri seasoned with mountain pepper. At the under-the-stars Sounds of Silence buffet dinner, sample house-smoked crocodile on mini dampers with desert lime preserve. If you’re staying at Sails in the Desert, you can enjoy a bush-flavoured omelette that might include kangaroo, cooked to order for breakfast. Want to splash out on a once-in-a-lifetime dinner? Tali Wiru (which means “beautiful dune” in the local Aboriginal language, Anangu) is an exclusive dinner for just 20 guests, on top of a red sand dune. Enjoy a flute of Perrier-Jouët as haute canapes – perhaps a smoked kangaroo and desert raisin crostini or a crocodile and desert lime salad – emerge from the rustic bush kitchen, with the setting sun in the background. Here, you’ll also find one of the resort’s most impressive desserts, Textures of Chocolate, in which hot chocolate sauce is poured onto a lid of solid chocolate, melting it away to reveal native desert fruits, Davidson’s plum and quandong, flavoured with native lemon myrtle.
Experience Uluru Festival
As part of Bush Tucker Journeys, the resort has also introduced a quarterly culinary festival focusing on Australia’s native ingredients. The program for Uluru Feastival includes everything from foraging tours to joining the warm and engaging Aboriginal celebrity chef (and Feastival ambassador) Mark Olive for bush tucker masterclasses and a three-course tasting dinner incorporating native produce.
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