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Your Complete Guide to Bush Tucker in the Northern Territory

Bushfood, affectionately known as ‘bush tucker’, refers to food native to the Australian bush that was traditionally used as a source of nourishment by the Aboriginal inhabitants of this land. Today, bush tucker can describe any native fauna or flora used for either culinary or medicinal purposes, regardless of the continent or culture of origin.

Bush tucker is a big part of Northern Territory life, and when collecting bush tucker and native seeds, a permit is required with royalties needing to be paid on most species. For further information you can contact the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory or visit the website here.

The history of bush tucker

Assortment of bush fruits - Darwin FreeSpirit Resort

Australian Aboriginals have eaten native animal and plant foods for an estimated 60,000 years. Traditional methods of processing the foods may have varied over time, with toxicity playing an important role in how bush tucker is consumed.

By necessity, the Aboriginal people had extensive knowledge of plants, animals, the lands, and the effects of the weather at different times of year. They were hunter-gatherers and would look for energy dense foods, or foods that contained plenty of kilojoules per gram. These would include animal meat and offal, honey, fruit, and insects like witchetty grubs.

Traditionally, women would gather the foods eaten every day from sources like plants, reptiles, and honey. While they did this, the men would hunt for land and marine animals. Most foods were then eaten raw, although some were roasted or baked. Special considerations were also made for the young, elderly, and pregnant.

The bush tucker diet was high in nutritional density, offering good levels of protein, fibre, and micronutrients. It was low in sugar and glucose, and lower in insulin than similar western foods, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle meant plenty of physical activity. Some animal foods such as witchetty grubs and green ants were high in fat, but most native land animals were lean, especially when compared with the domesticated animals eaten today.

It was this knowledge of the land that sustained the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory for tens of thousands of years.

Availability of bush foods

Before white settlement, bush tucker was readily available. In his journal set in the 1840s, Australian pastoralist and squatter E.M. Curr wrote, “Murnong (once an important source of food for Indigenous Australians) were so abundant and so easily procured, that one might have collected in an hour, with a pointed stick, as many as would have served a family for a day”. The introduction of cattle, sheep, and goats by immigrating early-colonialist Europeans then led Murnong to near extinction.

This was the case for much of Australia’s bush tucker, with once abundant flora and fauna rapidly declining after white settlement. Recently, the Larrakia people of Darwin wanted some research done into the rising development around Darwin Harbour, for fear that the impact would severely hurt any chance of continuing to collect bush tucker in the area. Thankfully, the results of that research were positive, and there’s no reason to suggest that the remaining bush tucker around the harbour could be contaminated.

Bush tucker is very much back in the culinary limelight at present, and with the right protection, Australia can continue to indulge in its love for bush foods.

Bush food in medicine

Crushed lemon myrtle - Darwin FreeSpirit Resorts Credit CSIRO via CC3.0

From witchetty grubs to kangaroo apples, there was a number of native plants and foods used as ingredients in native medicine. These medicines are still used today in some parts of the Northern Territory and across Australia, with popular bush medicines including tea tree and eucalyptus oils and the kakadu plum.

Some plants, such as goat’s foot, were crushed, heated, and applied to the skin. Others were boiled and inhaled, and occasionally drunk. Saps were used directly on the skin, and barks could be either smoked or burned.  

Toxicity

The knowledge that the Aboriginals held of their environment is evident in the way they used the plants and animals around them. Their understanding went far beyond what they could and couldn’t eat, and they knew that while some plants were dangerous to consume, they could do wonders in medicine. The Aboriginals also established incredible strategies for making foods less toxic. But this was all done through trial and error.

For the average Australian setting off on a bush tucker expedition, the warning of toxicity in plants should be taken seriously. Many species are difficult to identify and some plants can be highly toxic or even deadly. Never eat any part of a wild growing plant without being certain you can identify what it is, and avoid any plants that may have been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides, or contaminated by polluted water.

Bush foods in the Northern Territory

If you’re visiting the Northern Territory, the best way to understand the Aboriginal connection with the land is to get outdoors and experience it for yourself. Foraging for bush foods is one such way to live life as they once did (and some still do). It’s a great way to discover some unbelievable bush tucker right in your own backyard while discovering local artists, sacred and historical sites, and unique communities only too happy to share their stories around a campfire.

Please note: All the information below on bush tucker is offered with the assumption that readers will exercise proper caution when handling native plants and animals. We take no responsibility in how you put use to this material, so be wise!

Fruits

Bush bananas: Bush bananas are found on a winding vine that climbs up trees and shrubs. Young fruits are eaten raw while older fruits can be cooked lightly in hot earth.

Bush tomato: Growing naturally through the central deserts from Tennant Creek, NT to Marla, SA, bush tomatoes have been a staple food of Indigenous desert dwellers for a long time. A rich source of minerals, they are delicious eaten both fresh or dried.

Cocky apple:Also known as Wulngum. The cocky apple fruits once a year, carrying fleshy, pink and white flowers. Newly developing leaves are reddish in colour. The cocky apple tastes similar to quince, and the bark and leaves of the tree were used in medications by the Aboriginals. The bark and roots were also used as a fish poison.

Fingersop: This fruit belongs to the custard apple family and grows in a long, cylindrical shape with reddish skin. Inside is a long seed pod with sweet flesh and edible small, round seeds. The taste of the finger lime is not dissimilar to that of an apricot.

Green plum: Also known as wild mango. Found on a wide variety of well-drained sites, this small scraggly tree offers a rough, dark grey bark, and egg-shaped, leathery green grey leaves. Flowers are small and creamy, and grow plentiful on the tree. The fruits are small, soft, and look like tiny mangoes that are yellow-green when ripe. The green plum is generally consumed raw.

Kakadu plum: Also known as the Billy Goat plum. A small, deciduous tree, the Kakadu plum displays a rough, creamy grey bark, large light green leaves, and small, cream coloured, sweetly scented flowers. Fruits are fleshy and ovoid, with a short beak containing one seed. Eaten raw, this fruit contains 50 times more vitamin C than oranges.

Pandanas: Pandanas are bountiful across Northern Australia, with the most common species being Pandanas Spiralis. They produce large, heavy, woody, pineapple-looking fruit, which ripen from August to January. The white growing basis of the leaves are edible, with a taste similar to cabbage or silverbeet. The fruit separates into wedges, with each wedge housing several small almond-like nuts. These can be eaten raw or roasted, and are a good source of protein.

Quandong: These shiny red fruits grow on short desert trees that carry cream coloured flowers found in clusters along the edge of branches. Quandongs hold a small nut or kernel inside them, which is sometimes almost as large as the fruit itself and was used for medicinal purposes by the Aboriginal people. Quandongs are slightly sour but highly nutritious, with twice the vitamin C of an orange.

Red bush apple: Found in open forest, woodland, and sandy coastal plains, the red bush apple presents dark glossy leaves and large white flowers. The red fruit is fleshy and round, with a ribbed edge and one large seed contained inside. When ripe, the skin will show fine cracks. Another form found in Melville Island is the pink beach apple, much sweeter than the red bush apple.

Wild grape: Wild grapes are found in the Darwin region through to Arnhem Land and Melville Island. Leaves are dark green and pale underneath, with very small purple flowers with yellow stamens. The fruits are found in grape like clusters, and should be dark purple to black when ripe. Seeds shouldn’t be eaten, however the tubers can be roasted and then eaten, and the leaves of the tree can be used to wrap meat before cooking so as to improve flavour.

Wild passionfruit: This grows on a climbing vine with thin, woody stems and leaves covered in short yellow hairs. Available all year round, the wild passionfruit are round, yellow-orange when ripe, and filled with a white pulp with black seeds inside. The skin of the plant should not be eaten, and care should be taken to avoid the hairs on the leaves and stems as they can cause irritation.

Leaves

Mat rush: This herb has tufts of long, strappy leaves, the white coloured bases of which can be chewed on to release starch and water. The seeds were ground by Aboriginals to be used in damper, while the leaves were used for weaving bags, baskets, and other items.

New Zealand spinach: This leafy ground cover has thick, triangular leaves that shine as if covered in dew or fine crystals. While native to Australia, the plant has gone on to be cultivated internationally. The leaves can be enjoyed cooked or raw.

Pigface: Pigface can be found in most parts of Australia and is a ground running creeper with fleshy leaves and little purple flowers. The leaves can either be eaten raw or boiled and eaten as greens. The juice can also be applied to sandfly bites, burns, or scalds.

Swordgrass: These sharply serrated leaves are a distinguishing feature of this plant and can be difficult to harvest. They contain edible starch, making them a good source of energy, and can be eaten either raw or cooked.

Scurvy weed: Sometimes called Native Wandering Jew. This weed has leaves that are edible and can be consumed either raw or cooked. The leaves were first eaten to alleviate scurvy from a lack of Vitamin C, hence the name. The plant has blue flowers, which make it distinct from the similar introduced plant, Wandering Jew.

Nectar

Banksia: Also known as Native Honeysuckle. The nectar from the flowers of the banksia plant can be sucked on or made into a drink by soaking the plant in water. The flower carries dense reddish spikes and woody follicles that make the plant distinctive from other Proteaceae.

Heath banksia: At certain times of year, the flowers of the wad-ang-gari, or heath banksia, are literally dripping with nectar. Banksia can be soaked in water to produce a sweet drink that is high in energy.

Corkwood tree: The cream coloured flowers of the Corkwood tree contain nectar which can either be soaked in water to make a sweet drink, or sucked directly from the flowers in true bush style.

Typha: Also known as Bulrush. The roots and tubers of this plant are a great source of starch, and can be eaten either raw or cooked. Like wheat, this starch contains gluten. The pollen of the Typha carries nutritional qualities and can be steamed or baked into patties or ‘cakes’. The plant can also be used as an antiseptic, and when burned, can be used to repel insects.

Grass tree: This plant has a short trunk with a large tuft of long, slender leaves at the top. When flowering, a tall scape can be seen with a spike of tiny whitish brown flowers at the top. The nectar from these flowers can be sucked or made into a drink by soaking in water. Resin extracted from the plant was used as glue, while the wood from flower stalks was used for friction firemaking.

Tubers

Long yam: Wild yams are the potatoes and carrots of Australian bush tucker, although caution must be taken with preparation as they can be poisonous. A twining vine, the long yam is a staple food in many parts of Australia, particularly along rainforest edges. Yams are at their best when the leaves turn yellow, and are best eaten boiled or roasted. Be prepared to dig deep for these guys!

Water lily: Found all over the top end in freshwater lagoons, swamps, billabongs, and slow moving waterways, water lilies are a common source of food. The tubers can be eaten raw or roasted, and are thought to help ease the symptoms of diarrhea. Just watch out for crocs when foraging!

Common fringed lily: Also known as fringed violet. This herb is sprawling with stems up to 50 cm long, and flowers last only a day. The lilies produce tubers, which can be either roasted or eaten raw, and are very mild in flavour.

Seeds

Wattle seeds: There are nearly 1,000 species of wattle seed in Australia (otherwise known as acacia). The seeds of these plants are harvested, ground or eaten whole. The seeds can also be steamed and milled into flour. The flavour is nutty and slightly bitter, and often used to flavour other foods, such as breads.

Water lily: As well as the tubers, water lily seeds are highly sought after. Again, the seeds give off a nutty flavour.

Spices

Wild hibiscus: Wild hibiscus adds a natural sweetness and mixes well with other herbs and spices when dried.

Pepperberry: Both the berries and leaves are used from the pepperberry bush, giving an intensely strong peppery bite as well as a mineral-like aftertaste that lingers for several minutes.

Lemon myrtle: Arguably Australia’s best or most popular spice, lemon myrtle offers scents and flavours reminiscent of lemongrass, lemon, and lime. Lemon myrtle can be brewed into a tea or used to flavour seafood, breads, and salads.

Ground bush tomato: Indigenous Australians often made use of ground bush tomato, referred to as Akatjurra. With strong aromas of sun dried tomato, caramel, and tamarillo, ground bush tomato can be used with numerous recipes, or even on its own as a base for a sauce, dip.

Strawberry gum: This tree carries cream colours flowers with small woody capsules. The leaves carry an intense aroma not dissimilar to strawberry or passionfruit flavours. The spice is great to use with fruits, dips, and chutneys, or with any food as a flavour enhancer.

Lemon ironbark: This tree has a fruity, citrusy flavour with hues of rosemary. The leaves are also used as an essential oil. The leaves of the lemon ironbark can be used in cooking like bay leaves, or brewed as a herbal tea.

Broad-leaved paperbark: This tree has several uses. With cream-yellow flowers and red spikes, the fruits often contain several small seeds.  Other than its use as a spice, the leaves of the broad-leaved paperbark were infused with water to relieve headaches and colds.

Other edibles

Witchetty grub: A large, white, wood-eating larvae of the cossid moth (which feeds on the witchetty bush), the witchetty grub is the most important insect food of the desert. It has been a staple in the Aboriginal diet for thousands of years and tastes like a combination of almonds, chicken, and fried egg.

Honey: Honey and nectar can be found in the honey ant that nests under mulga trees, native bees, and the flowers of the Bloodwood and Corkwood trees.

Animal meats: Foods from the animals include kangaroo, emus, wild turkey, rock wallaby, possum, snakes, lizards, and anteaters. Kangaroo is still a long time favourite, and is first thrown in a fire to singe off the hair, then put in a hole and covered with hot coals to cook.

Recipes

If you find yourself having safely acquired bush foods and ready to make a meal out of it, here are some recipes you can try courtesy of our friends at Taste Australia Bush Food Shop. All recipes and images belong to Bush Tucker Recipes.

1. Lemon Myrtle Crusted Crocodile

Original recipe.

Ingredients
500g crocodile tail
2 tsp ground Lemon Myrtle

Method

  1. Gently roll the crocodile in the ground Lemon Myrtle, lightly covering the outside
  2. Cut into bite-sized medallions and grill each side in a hot pan, being careful not to overcook
  3. Serve with salad of cos lettuce, grape tomato, red onion, and avocado tossed in a dressing of half bush tomato vinegar, half macadamia oil.

2. Baked Ricotta and Honey Lemon Myrtle Cheesecake

Original recipe.

Ingredients
1 packet granita biscuits
¼ cup sugar
90gm unsalted butter
250gm cream cheese
600gm ricotta cheese
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp cornflour
4 eggs
2 tsp ground Lemon Myrtle or grated lemon or orange rind
1½ tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp honey
45gm pistachios

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 180℃ and grease a springform pan, wrapping the outside with 2 layers of aluminium foil
  2. Finely crush the biscuits and combine with sugar and butter. Press crumbs into the base of springform pan and refrigerate
  3. Beat the cream cheese and add the ricotta and sugar. Beat for another 2 minutes until smooth, then add cornflour
  4. Add eggs one at a time, blending well each time. Add Lemon Myrtle and vanilla
  5. Place the springform pan in a baking dish and pour mix inside. Pour enough hot water into the baking dish that it comes halfway up the sides of the springform pan
  6. Bake for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 140℃ and bake for a further 30 minutes until almost set
  7. Remove pan from water and cool. Cover and refrigerate cheesecake for at least 6 hours
  8. Serve with honey and pistachios

3. Marinated Tofu and Vegetable Kebabs

Original recipe.

Ingredients
½ large red capsicum, cut into squares
3 pickling onions, quartered
1 zucchini, cut into 2½ cm chunks
250gm firm tofu, cut into 2cm cubes
3 tsp white miso paste
100ml honey
1½ tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp water
1 tsp Lemon Myrtle
1 tsp Sea Parsley
1 tsp Pepperberry
1 tsp salt

Method

  1. Soak 6 wooden skewers in water for ten minutes
  2. Thread the vegetables and tofu alternately onto skewers and place in a rectangular baking dish
  3. Combine the white miso paste, honey, sesame oil, water, lemon myrtle, sea parsley, pepperberry, and salt and pour over kebabs
  4. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate for at least an hour
  5. Cook on the BBQ for approximately 6 minutes, brushing frequently with the marinade

4. Glazed Quandong

Original recipe.

Ingredients
100gm dried quandong
Sugar

Method

  1. Make a sugar syrup using equal parts sugar and water and heat to 70℃  in a stainless steel saucepan
  2. Pour warm syrup over the dried fruit, just enough to cover it
  3. Wait 24 hours and then add 20gm of sugar to the mix, reheating to 70℃
  4. Turn off heat and repeat this process for 5 more days, bringing you to a total of 7 days processing
  5. On the 8th day, warm fruit mixture and pour off syrup (you can pour this into a bottle and use later). Catch fruit in strainer, allow to drain, then dry in oven on a low temperature

5. Roasted Chicken stuffed with Native Sage, Lemon Myrtle, and Native Thyme Breadcrumbs

Original recipe.

Ingredients
1 whole chicken
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 diced onion
1 tsp Native Sage
1 tsp Native Thyme
1 tsp Lemon Myrtle
2 tbsp Macadamia Nut Oil
1 tbsp ground Pepperberry
Sprinkle of Mountain Pepper

Method

  1. Combine breadcrumbs, onion, and bush herbs with 2 tablespoons of Macadamia Nut oil
  2. Wash the chicken and stuff with the mixture. Secure opening with a toothpick
  3. Smear the chicken with oil and sprinkle with Mountain Pepper
  4. Roast at 180℃ for 90-120 minutes and allow to rest before serving

6. Slow Cooked Pepperberry Wagyu

Original recipe.

Ingredients
2 small red onions
1 carrot
1 stick celery
1 red capsicum
2 cloves crushed garlic
420gm cubed Wagyu Chuck Beef
1 tbsp ground Pepperberry
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup water
1 tsp crushed Bush Tomato

Method

  1. Dice the vegetables and place in slow cooker
  2. Add garlic, beef, ground Pepperberry, tomato paste, and water, mixing well to combine
  3. Slow cook for 7 hours
  4. Add bush tomato and salt ten minutes before serving. Serve with pasta, steamed beans, and a wild rocket salad

7. Peppermint Gum & Lemon Aspen Sponge with Stewed Quandong

Original recipe.

Ingredients
3 eggs, separated
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp Lemon Aspen flakes
1 cup self raising flour
1 tsp Peppermint Gum
2 tbsp hot water

Method

  1. Beat egg whites until stiff peaks form
  2. Gradually add sugar and beat until dissolved
  3. Add yolks, Lemon Aspen, and beat until combined
  4. Gently fold through the sifted flour and peppermint gum, followed by the water
  5. Spoon mix into greased cake tin and bake at 180℃ for 20-25 minutes and then cool
  6. Cut in half and fill with vanilla custard. Spread custard over the top and refrigerate. Serve with stewed quandong