Living off the land provides a healthy and free seasonal diet full of nutrients capable of fuelling an active lifestyle
Hardy natives suited to the Aussie climate, bush tucker plants have little need for fertilisers or pesticides
Hundreds of kilometres from supermarkets and fast food outlets in remote parts of Australia, many indigenous people live off the land with a bush tucker diet.
The food-hunting survival skills, passed down for generations, ensure outback inhabitants can survive on a bush diet and lifestyle, marked by long-distance walkabouts crucial for fleeing seasonal floods and famine.
This DIY style of sustenance includes foraging for witchetty grubs, picking macadamias, digging for honey ants and fishing for barramundi, which makes a bush tucker diet low in fat, high in protein and preservative-free.
Clarence Slockee, Educational Coordinator for Aboriginal Programs at The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, says that while it is traditionally associated with the outback, edible native fauna and flora is available anywhere in Australia, so the term bush tucker is really a misnomer.
‘Any native equivalent seems to automatically end up with the word bush before it, like bush tomato, bush potato and bush banana,’ says Clarence.
‘This is mainly because these foods are indeed found in the drier climes of what is termed the outback.’
Commercialising bush plants
According to Clarence, the two big commercially available bush medicines are eucalyptus and tea tree oil, while macadamia nuts are Australia’s major commercially grown bush food and are exported overseas.
The leaves were traditionally used to make an infusion or oil for treating pains, sinus congestion, fever and colds. High-grade eucalyptus oil is created from the blue mallee tree.
High-grade eucalyptus oil is created from the blue mallee tree
This oil, sourced from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia, or tea tree, can be used to treat coughs and colds. The leaves can be made into a poultice for wounds or infused to treat sore throats.
Tea tree leaves can be made into a poultice for wounds or infused to treat sore throats
This small but nutritious Australian nut is the only native crop to be traded internationally as a food product, and 70% of our harvest is exported to more than 40 countries.
Seventy percent of Australia's macadamia harvest is exported to more than 40 countries
Bush food gardens are fairly low maintenance and reward the home grower with ingredients to add a uniquely Aussie flavour to a wide range of recipes.
To grow bush tucker, start with easily available plants such as riberries and warrigal greens, and be realistic about the yields.
Choose plants suited to your climate zone and conditions, like self-sowing endemic natives.
Native Aussie foods
‘Many other foods still grouped under the bush tucker label are actually rainforest plants, such as lemon myrtle and Davidson’s plum, which are grown in more coastal locations,’ says Clarence.
Bush tucker is defined as native fauna and flora. It includes protein such as crocodile and kangaroo meat, nuts, seeds, leaves, berries and flowers, as well as other edible plants.
Some of the survival skills vital to indigenous people include simple ways of telling whether a plant is poisonous.
‘It all comes back to cultural knowledge that’s traditionally passed down through the generations as a part of day-to-day learning and survival,’ says Clarence.
‘An Aussie bush tucker diet made for a very healthy Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, prior to the introduction of European foods like flour and sugar.’
‘I’m sure there are many people in remote communities who still rely solely on traditional food sources for periods throughout the year.
‘Once upon a time, Aboriginal people lived entirely off the land quite happily for over 40,000 years.’
Bush survival tricks
Living off the land is easy when you know how to avoid potentially lethal vegetation, says Clarence.
‘There are a few little tricks to know if you’re in an area with vegetation that’s not familiar, so you don’t eat the wrong thing,’ he says.
‘Rub a bit of the plant on an area of sensitive skin like the inside of your wrist. Wait a while and if it doesn’t react, then rub a little more of the plant on the inside of your mouth.
‘Again, if you wait a while without a reaction, taste a bit. If there’s still no reaction, it’s fairly safe to assume it’s not poisonous and safe to eat.’
Apart from food, Aussie flora also provides effective medicinal remedies.
Traditionally, bush remedies were used to treat tired and aching bodies, run down from the constant demands of fending off enemies and predators, or constantly setting up home in a safer, more sheltered place.
The reputation and popularity of bush tucker food has now ventured far beyond the camp fire, and the coastal and rainforest areas of Australia, as well as the tourist confines of The Royal Botanic Garden tours.
Today, it also enjoys a global reputationfor food and medicinal plant applications.
Preparing the tucker
Aussie bush tucker is traditionally eaten raw and is usually consumed as soon as it’s sourced.
This is primarily due to a lack of refrigeration which, when combined with the hot and dry climate as well as the lack of preservatives, means the food is likely to perish fast.
A crude mortar and pestle may be used for grinding leaves, herbs or spices for flavouring.
If meat or fish is being eaten, it is cooked on a camp fire, which would then double as a heat source to take the chill off long, cold desert nights.
Finger lime, mountain pepper and lemon myrtle can be used in sauces and seasonings for barramundi, crocodile and other meat.