Native foods bring out flavor of Australian cuisine

September 08, 1991|By Christian Science Monitor

HORNSBY, Australia -- The emu is an ungainly, ostrichlike bird that struts across the Outback of Australia. Tonight, however, it's the waitresses who are strutting about with the emu -- as the main course at Rowntrees, a restaurant specializing in Australian cuisine.

Jean-Paul Bruneteau, the co-owner of Rowntrees, has prepared the thighs of the bird with an orange sauce. "I use bush foods to give a true Australian flavor," says Mr. Bruneteau, who soon after this farewell banquet closed his restaurant to become a free-lance chef, consultant and author.

Emu, kangaroo, bunya-bunya nuts, wattle seeds, warrigal greens, and, of course, witjuti (or witchetty) grubs, are all bush foods that are integral parts of Down Under cooking.

"Australian cuisine has to embrace indigenous foods and then combine wild food with home-grown, European, and some American or Asian ingredients," says Vic Cherikoff, a bush food consultant and owner of the Bush Tucker Supply Proprietary Ltd.

The concept of native foods is increasingly appealing to hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists. A recent ad for the Yulara resort in the Outback featured the food instead of nearby Ayers Rock. Among the dishes: buffalo carpaccio, emu fillets stuffed with crocodile, and baked witchetty grubs.

One Australian chain, the Country Comfort Inn, has decided to make "bush tucker," or native foods, a signature of its restaurants, which are part of its 19 motels. Their menus include wattle-seed pavlova (a dessert), beef and lamb with Illawarra plum and chili sauce, and chicken in sauce with wattle and kurrajong seeds.

Bush food also took to the air last month on Australian Airlines. Corporate chef Brian Ferguson was planning to introduce bush tomatoes, kakadu plums, wild rosella jams, lillipillis (with a clovelike flavor), kangaroo medallions and wattle-seed blinis. "This is all new to me; it's been like discovering herbs and cheeses. It's great fun," says Mr. Ferguson, who is responsible for overseeing 30,000 meals a day.

Mr. Cherikoff takes visitors and corporate executives to some of Sydney's parks to demonstrate aboriginal-style cooking. He digs ground oven, lines it with rocks, and lights a fire in it. Once the fire has burned down to coals and the rocks have become red hot, he removes the rocks and ash. Then he lays down paperbark (from the paperbark tree) and puts the cleaned, hot rocks back in. The food is then wrapped in paperbark, set on the rocks and the hole is covered. In about 40 minutes, the food is ready.

The paperbark, says Mr. Cherikoff, gives off a "delicate, smoky flavor" that stimulates the appetite. Aboriginal cooking has evolved over the past 40,000 years, and each of the 600 tribes in Australia had its own cuisine. "There is still a lot to learn," says Mr. Cherikoff, who also runs a food store in Sydney called the Wattleseed Deli.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. made major strides in educating the public about bush foods with its series "The Bush Tucker Man." Host Maj. Les Hiddins showed viewers which fruits and plants were edible in the Outback and rain forests. The ABC shop in Sydney reports videotapes of the show are popular gifts. (The show is now off the air after two seasons.)

Other, traditional Australian foods include Lamingtons (stale spongecakes covered with chocolate and coconut); meat pies (they can travel with a station-hand for days without refrigeration); and pavlovas, meringue desserts liberally covered with fruit.

But the real excitement surrounds bush foods cooked European style. At Rowntrees, for example, Mr. Bruneteau recently hosted 30 members of the Pittwater Food & Wine Society. The menu: witchetty grub soup, skate on warrigals, emu with orange sauce and rosella and quandong tart.

Mr. Bruneteau buys the witchetty grubs frozen. They are roughly the size of a man's index finger. They are pureed and mixed with a broth to make a meaty-tasting soup. Aborigines eat the grubs whole and uncooked.

"They have a nice, nutty flavor when roasted," says Mr. Bruneteau, who adds they are much better than the snails favored by his French ancestors. He estimates he uses about 12,000 grubs per year including a considerable number in the soup, which he cans and sells.

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