An Australia-based chef turns Aboriginal cuisine into fine dining
Author Elizabeth Woodson
MELBOURNE – Ever heard of quandongs? No? Don’t worry, you’re not the only foodie unfamiliar with the bright red drupe fruits, which rarely make it out of the Australian bush and onto the menus of fine-dining establishments. But Ben Shewry is changing all that.
The 36-year-old chef uses quandongs and other foods and techniques traditionally used by Australian Aborigines at his Melbourne restaurant, Attica, which recently appeared on San Pellegrino’s “World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list for the first time. The honor has helped make the eatery one of the most difficult reservations to get in Australia, and is aiding Shewry in his quest to bring a monumental shift in the Aussie food psyche back toward the cuisine of the bush.
Colloquially called “bush tucker,” indigenous Australian food spent decades in a state of culinary neglect. “There are something like 2,500 native plants eaten by indigenous people that no one was using,” Shewry says. Now, with the growing popularity of his innovative dishes, plants like saltbush (a salty gray-blue shrub) and muntrie berries (tiny clustered fruits that look like miniature crab apples) are becoming chef favorites.
Shewry, for his part, has been cooking with bush ingredients since he opened Attica in 2006. “These ingredients are uniquely Australian, but few Australians have really ever tasted them,” he says.
As for traditional techniques, to make his King George whiting with butter-infused oyster meat and green tomato juice, Shewry wraps the mixture in paperbark and slow-grills it over charcoal. In a nod to his own Kiwi heritage, he serves slices of rare wallaby with a potato that’s been cooked in a traditional Maori hangi (a large, recently dug pit filled with hot rocks) then mixed with fromage blanc, crunchy bits of dried saltbush, cured trout, charred coconut husk ash and coffee grounds for a dish charmingly called “A Simple Dish of Potato Cooked in the Earth It Was Grown.”
While the use of native Australian ingredients is gaining in momentum, the movement remains slightly controversial—a number of organizations have sprung up to raise awareness of the cultural issues surrounding the new trend.
“Aborigine communities are very concerned with keeping ownership of the industry,” says Jodie Ahrens, co-founder of the Australian Future Foods Lab, which holds regular workshops, lectures and dinners. She says she’d prefer that bush tucker reach a broader audience than just one with deep pockets and the wherewithal to make reservations months in advance.
“When I can go to a football match and enjoy a kangaroo meat pie with a bush tomato sauce,” she says, “then I’ll know native foods have been properly assimilated.”