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Australia is a land of diverse and plentiful wildlife – much of which is unique to the island-continent – so it’s not terribly surprising that the country’s indigenous foods are considered avant-garde to visitors from other parts of the world.
In recent years, chefs and educators in the Australian culinary world have been promoting a return to “bush tucker” cuisine, traditional foods that emerged from the Aboriginal lifestyle of hunting and gathering. As a result, ingredients like kangaroo are being revitalized by modern cooking styles in innovative restaurants across the country.
To prepare you for your next great food adventure, we put together this guide to some of the most unusual foods Australia has to offer, and where to find them.
Kangaroo meat may be the most Australian food there is. Endemic to Australia, wild kangaroos yield healthy meat that is low in fat and cholesterol, and high in protein, iron, zinc and the blood-pressure reducing conjugated linoleic acid. In modern Australian cooking, kangaroo is prepared in different ways for different dishes. For steak, chefs tend to err on the side of rare to prevent this lean meat from becoming tough or chewy. If you’re throwing some roo up on the barbie, chef Benjamin Christie offers instructions on how to cook kangaroo. Besides steak, common dishes range from kangaroo stir fry to kangaroo tail soup to Christie’s own kangaroo lasagne. Ground kangaroo meat is also occasionally used in Aussie meat pies.
Crocodiles and their eggs used to be staples in Aboriginal meals. Today, they can be found on the menus of a few daring upscale restaurants, taking the form of carpaccio or sushi. For an authentic bush tucker recipe, wattleseed crocodile with riberry confit combines the coffee and chocolate flavours of native wattleseed (the ground seed of acacia) with the clove flavour of native riberry (a small pink fruit that grows wild). If grilling or pan-frying, crocodile fillets are another option.
The emu is Australia’s largest endemic bird. Aborigines traditionally hunted emus for their meat and oil, which was believed to have medicinal properties. Emus are farmed today for their meat, oil and leather. Like kangaroos, they are very low in fat.
Quandong is a sweet bush tucker fruit that has a close relationship with the emu. After an emu eats a quandong, its seed (or nut) is left in the emu’s dung. This gives the quandong seed the perfect environment within which to germinate. Despite its origins, the resulting fruit is sweet, with a peach-like flavour, and contains high levels of vitamin C.
Besides being eaten on their own, quandongs are used in desserts and preserves. Try your hand at chef Benjamin Christie’s recipe for quandong jam.
When in season, flathead fish is not difficult to find on menus across Australia. It is handling and preparing flathead that is more adventurous than eating it. The fish has two poisonous spines, so fishing enthusiasts should consider themselves warned. Australian chef Peter Kuruvita offers this creative recipe for seafood consume, with tea crusted flathead.
For the true adventurer, witchetty grubs, once a major part of food gathering in Australia, are the larvae of ghost moths. Whitchetty grubs can either be eaten live and raw or barbecued. Another edible Australian moth is the Bogong moth (which was formerly served as a toasted delicacy at Sydney’s famous Deep Blue Bistro before it closed).
As for special preparations, we found a video of witchetty grub sushi being enjoyed at a bush food competition in 2009.
Balmain bugs and Moreton Bay bugs look like insects, but they are actually crustaceans. Their flesh tastes similar to that of rock lobsters and you are unlikely to find these shellfish outside of Australia. If you find yourself at an Aussie seafood market, follow these tips for choosing, storing, killing and cooking “bugs”.
Where to eat
In Sydney, creative preparations of exotic game meats can be found at Purple Goanna Café in Redfern. For breakfast, the poached emu steak is served with bacon, eggs, toast, baked beans and a sauce made from wild bush tomatoes. For lunch, try the kangaroo baguette sandwich, made with marinated kangaroo loin, the emu pumpkin lasagne or the creamed crocodile penne pasta.
Head north for more upscale dining at Rockpool Bar and Grill. Currently on the menu is a charcoal oven cooked flathead fish.
If you’d rather do the cooking yourself, visit Sam the Butcher. Located in Bondi, this organic butcher shop carries crocodile sausages, kangaroo sausages and kangaroo loin fillet. For fresh unusual seafood, the bustling Sydney Fish Market is a must-visit destination for Balmain bugs, Moreton Bay bugs and beyond.
You can learn even more about bush foods by taking the Aboriginal Heritage Tour at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. The tour focuses on the vegetarian side of bush tucker meals, and you even get to taste fruits and vegetables along the way.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.