Wild Food – Juleigh Robins

Go wild with the natives

By Robyn Lewis
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Wild Food by Juleigh Robins

Wild Food by Juleigh Robins [©Penguin Books]


One of the delights of travelling is to enjoy flavours and experiences that you can’t get at home; later the taste or smell of a certain dish can transport you back to your holidays and fun times: gumbo to New Orleans, moules meurnière to Paris, laksa to Penang…. 

So when visitors come to Australia, surely the more adventurous diners might be seeking something other than ‘West Coast cuisine’ to remember us by? This style – described as 'a fusion of Asian, Californian, French that focuses on local seafood, meat and produce' – has spread in the last decade or two from San Francisco to the far corners of the globe. 

Indeed, it sounds very like ‘modern Australian’, although we might add a touch more Mediterranean. Sure, visitors want the assurance that one can eat well in Australia, but if diners can get the same in London, the Napa Valley and Cape Town, why fly 24 hours to repeat the experience?

Pick up a restaurant menu in Australia, any menu, and search for something that is truly regional, or even national – ironically, it’s hard. It’s far easier to sample indigenous or Australian culture in our galleries, theatres or the Tjapukai Cultural Park than in many of our restaurants.

So when books like Wild Food come along, instead of regarding them as 'niche', we should all take notice.  Since 1986 author Juleigh Robins and her partner Ian have been sourcing, experimenting with, packaging and marketing a range of native Australian foods, from the deserts of Central Australia to the rainforests of the Far North. A genuine 'point of difference'.

Fourteen indigenous ingredients are featured in Wild Food, from Kakadu plums, wild limes and bush tomatoes to Tasmanian mountain pepperberries and the increasingly-used lemon myrtle. Many of these were eaten by our Aboriginal population, whose native cornucopia was probably much wider.

However those featured here are species that can be dried, transported and find their way to you, if not via your supermarket then your local delicatessen.

You can go wild with anisata-flavoured lamb fillets, deep-fried whitebait with lemon aspen mayonnaise or apple and sour cream pancakes, or Davidson’s plums with pork fillets, duck breast or in a banana cake or ice cream.

Bush tomato is from the same Solanaceae family as potatoes and tomatoes (and also the inedible kangaroo apple, from which the first contraceptive pills were made). These bush tomatoes are collected by Central Australian Aboriginal women, dried and then marketed by their company Robins Foods. They can be used whole or ground, and add a rich flavour to any tomato-based dish. Move over oregano.

Robins Foods also produce a bush tomato chutney or ketchup – a recipe perfected over two decades, and not surprisingly absent from the book – but you can buy it in jars and use it in many of these recipes. The slow-cooked beef in Guinness with (powdered) bush tomato and mountain pepper parsnip and potato mash sounds particularly inviting for winter, as does Chris Wheelhouse’s lamb shank recipe, which uses the chutney.

Kakadu plums are found right across the Top End - if you’re there at the right time (March) you can eat them fresh; they freeze well and in that state are commercially available year round. They reportedly have the highest vitamin C content of any fruit on the planet. Freeze dried they are also made into powder. The whole plums steeped in vodka make a wonderful cure for salmon; the Robins also make them into a sweet chilli sauce, giving an indigenous twist to our imported Asian staple.

Similarly lemon aspen can be used fresh or frozen, and gives a unique citrus/honey/eucalyptus touch that is also finding its way into cosmetics. I can’t wait to try barbecued baby octopus in lemon aspen and garlic marinade. The unrelated lemon myrtle, whose leaves are dried and either used whole or powdered, along with the flowers and seeds. Use lemon myrtle on ocean trout or salmon for a genuine Australian flavour.

Macadamias were the first native species to be grown commercially; it often surprises Americans that they are not native to Hawaii, so widely are they planted there. Closely related to the candlenut of Asia, they can be used in curries; Robins also presents some new takes on them in Wild Food.

If you have some dried mountain pepperberries in the back of your pantry, you’ll also discover some new things to try them in, including a deliciously pink pepperberry aïoli to serve with tuna steaks, a black olive and pepperberry tapenade and a pepperberry-spiced peach sorbet. 

And so through native mint, quandong, riberries, rosella and wattleseed, to our miniature wild limes, which surely would inspire any chef to new horizons. Having embraced key and Tahitian limes with fervour, Australians can now turn to our very own natives from outback Queensland. The citrus family is spread across the Asia-Pacific region, and Australia is also home to the bizarre looking finger lime and several other species not yet commercially available.

The photographs, whilst modern, do little to assist identification of these largely unfamiliar plants, and for me Wild Food would have been improved with slightly more botanical information, plus photos or illustrations that enable us to at least recognise the plants, even in the store, as some of the fruits look remarkably similar when dried. Maps showing their natural distribution and some notes on their seasons would help food explorers, too.

There’s also nothing on matching the dishes with wine, beer or any other beverages – when flavours are new, some guidance would be appreciated – or perhaps this will be the subject of a future book.

Let’s hope forward-thinking Australian chefs will each buy a copy, and create dishes that we can’t find in any other modern restaurant around the globe, embodying some of the national authenticity we’ve been seeing from our artists since Hans Heysen and John Glover saw the bush with fresh eyes, over 100 years ago.

All these recipes can be made at home, so treat your visiting international guests (or recent immigrants) and your family to something truly national. I know I'll soon be reinvigorating my pantry with some 'new' Australians.


Wild Food by Juleigh Robins is published by Penguin Australia (March 2009; RRP A$55.00). VisitVineyards.com and Winepros Archive subscribers and Members can purchase Wild Food at 12.5% discount off RRP via Seekbooks (postage extra).

The video below gives some further insights into the rich variety of Australian 'bush tucker'.

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July 22nd, 2009
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