Seen in National Geo

Crocodile Meat, Bush Foods Find Popularity in Aussie Stores

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
for National Geographic News

September 14, 2006

In Australia, urban restaurants today are more likely to offer dishes like low-fat kangaroo, perhaps served on a bed of warrigal greens with a berry jus of lilly pillies.

These so-called bush foods were once found only in outback towns like Alice Springs, where tourists might try a bit of native tucker.

(Read a travel article about seeing Australia through Aboriginal eyes.)

But more recently, indigenous foods have left the bush for more visible spots in city restaurants and supermarkets.

As Australia's appetite for indigenous foods has grown, so have the business opportunities for isolated Aboriginal communities.

In 1986 Juliegh and Ian Robins set up what is now the country's largest native herbs and spices company, Robins Foods.

The former chefs wanted to bring new tastes and flavors into mainstream Australian cooking and also help rural Aboriginal communities create their own businesses.

The company is now partnered with one of Australia's best-known food brands, Ward McKenzie, to bring native foods, such as kakadu plums, wattle seeds (which, when roasted, have hints of coffee, hazelnut, and chocolate flavors), and bush tomatoes, to a wider market.

Juliegh Robins described it as less of a business arrangement and more of a "nurturing relationship to enable us to grow the industry and the supply chain."

Feral Pigs, Camels

The partnership means indigenous food products now sit on the shelves of one of the country's major supermarket chains alongside more traditional herbs, spices, marinades, and chutneys.

"People pick up the [standard] sauces, dressings, and chutneys and know what to do with them," Robins said. "It will be interesting to see what people do when they pick up raw [native] herbs."

New research by the Australian Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation suggests the partnership could signal a growing interest in indigenous foods.

The report found that 27 native foods—such as crocodiles, emus, kangaroos, possums, essential oils, nuts, wild herbs, and native fruits and vegetables—add half a billion dollars (U.S.) to the economy each year.

The market share is still small. Indigenous foods claim just 2.2 percent Australia's total farm production—about 2.2 per cent. And only game birds, kangaroos, macadamia nuts, Asian vegetables, tropical fruits, and olives gross more than 23 million dollars (U.S.) a year as individual commodities.

But the study suggests that native foods could have added social and environmental benefits. Harvesting wild game like feral pigs and camels, for example, could reduce environmental damage caused by the nonnative species, the authors write.

Market Share

Robins says that as more people acquire a taste for bush foods—such as peach-like quandongs, pear-shaped riberries, wild limes, and mountain pepper—more indigenous communities will be able to establish businesses that allow them to remain on their ancestral lands.

"In 30 years' time we want to make sure that Aboriginal people have a real role in the industry," Robins said.

To help guarantee a steady supply chain for indigenous food products, Robins Foods' created Indigenous Australian Foods, a nonprofit company made up of Aboriginal members.

The nonprofit sells products from eight Aboriginal companies representing 300 communities, many of them located more a hundred miles from any town. (See Australia map.)

"If [Aboriginal communities] aren't linked into a market, they haven't got a hope," Robins said.

"Even though it's culturally and intellectually their knowledge, it wouldn't take long for [their market share] to be taken away. Twenty years down the track, it's too late for them to come back in."

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