Eating About the Bush – Aboriginal – Food – Custom

Ashleigh Wilson; 10/2/07; The Australian; Weekend Magazine; No Internet Text; Walkabout Chefs by Steve Sunk and David Hancock, (SkyScans Australia, $39.95), is available in bookshops now or via

The big bloke with the big moustache, Steve Sunk, lays pieces of white, smoked crocodile on a plate, then drips rye berry vinaigrette over the top. On the next plate, he coats small kangaroo fillets, blood running rich through the centre, with a bush tomato chutney, a personal favourite that adds a comforting reassurance to the pungent meat. For the third serving it’s magpie goose, over which is spooned a bush peach glaze, the small, charred, pan-fried breasts balanced against the tangy sauce that spills red slowly to the edge of the plate.
The man they call the Walkabout Chef, who seems to prefer a hearty pub steak to elaborate haute cuisine, pauses beside this final dish. “So beautiful,” he says, and for a moment it’s as though he’s hosting a TV cooking show: “Look at that. This is my favourite meat. The game bird of the Territory. You don’t want to play too much with this food.”
The ingredients are unusual, but they’re only a hint of the variety Sunk would like to cook to educate this nervous diner even further. But in his huge university kitchen at Palmerston, a short drive from the centre of Darwin, he’s restricted by the fact that the meats, fruits and vegetables required for some of his more eye-opening dishes can’t be bought at the local supermarket.
It’s more than that, of course. Most of the ingredients can’t be bought any-where. Try asking your local butcher for dugong, or turtle, goanna, witchetty grubs or python.
For Sunk, though, none of this is a novelty. At home, with his wife and daughter (his two adult sons live in Adelaide), he likes to cook fish, maybe mud-crabs, preferably when he’s caught them himself. A larger-than-life character, a straight-talking bloke with a booming voice and no-bullshit style, Sunk has spent a decade touring indigenous communities across the Northern Territory, teaching classical cooking techniques and learning the finer points of Aboriginal food and culture in return. He’s hunted for his tucker, and tried pretty much every food eaten by Aboriginal people across the Territory. The result is a kind of ultimate Aussie fusion – albeit one that most people will never taste.
“I think I’ve eaten everything there is to eat,” says Sunk, 53. “I’m more fortunate than most chefs because I’ve been out with Aboriginal people, tried a lot of stuff like snakes, goannas. You name it, I’ve eaten it.”
Behind the passion is a project that predates other famous attempts to turn lives around with food, such as Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen cooking school for disadvantaged British kids. As commercial cookery lecturer at Charles Darwin University, Sunk has taken the university to the bush for the past 10 years, offering basic training to hundreds of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
With many remote communities crippled by health problems, the aim is to improve nutrition in the bush, raise the skills base and empower Aboriginal people on their own terms. Plans to open a remote indigenous cooking school are being drawn up too, but no one’s saying much about that one just yet.
Dishes such as crocodile frittata and stingray balls might sound exotic, even slightly ridiculous, but there’s a method behind the madness. “These are natural resources for Aboriginal people,” Sunk says. “They get it all year round. They can value-add to the bush foods, that’s what it’s all about, so it’s sustainable for them as well.”
All these years spent hunting and eating, Aboriginal-style, has given Steve Sunk plenty of yarns to spin. There was the time he went spear-fishing for barramundi on the Daly River, only to be forced to flee when a huge croc was spotted lurking in the water. There was his delight when, on the Tiwi Islands, some of his students substituted dugong for chicken to improve a schnitzel recipe he’d taught them. (“I’d have the dugong too,” he says. “It’s a nice meat.”)
And there was the privilege, early last year during a visit to Titjikala, a small community near Alice Springs, when the old women found a rare desert truffle and gave it to the chef to “play around with”. They said it was the first one seen out that way for seven years. “It’s not like an Italian or French truffle,” he says. “It’s much smaller, white, and it’s the rarest of all the foods.”
So it seemed inevitable that all this would end up in a book. Walkabout Chefs – by Sunk and Darwin photographer David Hancock – is hard to pin down. At once cookbook, travelogue, and photo essay on Aboriginal life, it’s the recipes that set it apart.
Where to begin? Well, there’s the dugong curry, prepared macassan-style; kangaroo tail soup with witchetty grubs; stir-fry turtle; and “turtle liver risotto with crispy turtle tripe and pilaf rice”. The dishes are divided into saltwater, fresh-water and desert, using ingredients native to the main regions of the Territory.
At the end, there’s a list of alternative ingredients, such as chicken or pork for dugong, or veal for freshwater turtle. But for some of the more exotic foods, such as witchetty grubs, turtle eggs and mangrove worms, Sunk simply writes: “Nothing similar.” (Curious food lovers should know that the NT Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act allows only indigenous owners in their traditional areas to take protected wildlife without a permit. The maximum penalty is a $55,000 fine or five years in jail.)
So assuming it’s not a joke – and it’s not – the question remains: will anyone actually cook and eat this stuff? Sunk is confident that a lot of it is, or will be, cooked in several Aboriginal communities. But perhaps not the witchetty grub pasta. “That’s a signature dish I devised down at Titjikala to be a bit more way-out with the ladies,” he says. “They won’t do it. Traditionally the witchetty grub is taken on the day out of the tree or shrub, then cooked straight on the fire.
“I did this dish to say, `All right, let’s see their response to this type of food.’ It was solely for the Aboriginal ladies, and they ate the lot. One pot I did had over 300 witchetty grubs in it. And what you’ll find with them, the older ladies, is they’ll eat the lot, the head and all, because they like the crunch. But the younger ones, they bite the head off and spit it out. Same as me.”
Some of Sunk’s dishes feature at Nauiyu, a small community on the Daly River, south of Darwin. Community school teacher Miriam Rose Baumann, a member of the Prime Minister’s National Indigenous Council, says the tuck shop serves wallaby stir-fry, among other meals, to local kids. Indeed, Baumann was one of the first people to encourage Sunk to develop his cooking classes for remote communities and is delighted at the growth of his work. “The people here didn’t have the opportunities to go to the city to learn about these things, so I thought why not bring a chef out here?” she says.
It was a crusade that began in 1994, when Sunk arrived in Darwin from Adelaide, having taught cooking for several years at Regency College. The move north was mainly “to keep the missus
happy”, but when he started teaching apprentices at what was then the Northern Territory University, a niche presented itself. Food, he thought, could help improve the poor nutrition and health levels so often found in remote communities.
So in 1996, he took a cooking pro-gram to Daly River in a trial backed by the university and Territory government. He trained 15 adults in basic cooking skills, focusing on people associated with the school canteens and local store. “There’s me target,” Sunk thought.
He took the program to the desert community of Lajamanu as well, increasingly convinced that this was the work he had to do. “They weren’t cooking; they thought they were cooking,” he says. “They were doing mainly stew-type stuff, all-in-one-pot cooking. What I brought in was training in hygiene, nutrition as well, different styles of cooking methods that you could use, then encouraging them to bring the bush foods in.
“I thought, we’re not going to fix the problem with heart disease and diabetes if they’re just going to go willy-nilly and buy take-away stuff. So let’s look at their bush tucker, because they’re interested in that.”
In the past decade, about 1100 people have completed Sunk’s basic cooking program, backed by the university.
For Sunk, the learning has gone in both directions. He says the recipes in the book were partly developed by Aboriginal people, particularly the women with their knowledge of bush tucker. “Many of the old ladies came into the classes, and that’s the key thing,” he says.
“When they come to the class, they’re passing their knowledge on to the students as well. I’m passing the other knowledge on, so it’s mixing nicely together. The old ladies are happy because they’re able to tell their stories, and it keeps the Aboriginal tradition going. It’s nothing for us to get into the Land Cruiser and catch a goanna, or go fishing, or get some witchetty grubs – depends where you are – then bring it all back and have a little cook-up.
“The old ladies, I love them, they love me, I’ve got respect for where they’re coming from, but I wouldn’t harp on a 60-year-old to cook this type of thing. They love to go out; it’s in their blood to go for the hunt. But the times are changing. I’ve taught the mothers and some of the fathers, now I’m teaching the kids. And they’re not eating unhealthy food as much anymore. Ten years ago, I could not get an Aboriginal person to eat yogurt, for example. Now they’ll tell you straight away to cut the fat off the steak, they won’t have it.”
Which is, of course, the driving force behind Sunk’s bush endeavours. For years, health statistics have been dire in remote communities, and life-style is cited as one of main causes behind diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure and other problems. And over-crowded housing – a fact of life in most remote Aboriginal communities in the Territory – makes it harder for people to cook healthy meals at home.
For the untrained palate, some of Sunk’s creations can be an adventure. Take the dishes made for this guest: crocodile, kangaroo and magpie geese. All three are prepared flawlessly, of course, and the sauces complement the meats perfectly. The crocodile certainly needed something, being a bland taste on its own, and Sunk’s vinaigrette adds a much-needed sourness to the mix. Magpie goose is a familiar-tasting game bird, and with the peach glaze it tastes as delicious as it looks.
The kangaroo is different. This writer finds kangaroo meat a little hard to stomach. Sunk’s chutney, though, is a delight, simple but to the point, and it’s used to cloak (hopefully without offending the chef) the overwhelming kangaroo flavour. One thing seems clear: if I’m struggling with something like kangaroo, a relatively unchallenging meat, then dugong, turtle and other delicacies could be a problem.
Sunk doesn’t mind. He’s used to the uninitiated turning up their noses at bush food, even when it’s cooked beautifully in a western style. His dishes aren’t really designed for them anyway.
“That was cooked the way Aboriginal people like it – medium rare,” he says, glancing down at the kangaroo pieces left on the plate. “You’ve got to understand, what I’m cooking is accept-able to Aboriginal tastes.”