The first Indigenous-owned restaurant in Victoria (and possibly Australia) opened in 1992 at Hall’s Gap in the Grampians (Gariwerd to the Djab Wurrung and Jardwardjali people). The Branbuk Koori Restaurant, otherwise known as Gugidjela) was part of a centre showcasing the local Aboriginal culture. Although the centre and the restaurant are owned by first nations people, the guiding hand was an Englishman, Sam Fairs.
The restaurant aimed to introduce non-indigenous people to bush foods. Fairs told The Age that the brief was “to create a classically Koori cuisine that had sufficient gugidja (European) elements to appeal to tourists, and that also reflected Koori tastes from across the continent”. Among the dishes were kangaroo-tail soup, emu liver pâté with puree of bunya nuts, frog’s legs with bush tomato, smoked eel, water buffalo and pan-friend crocodile tails. Most ingredients could not be locally sourced but came from as far away as northern Western Austral (emu), Cape York (crocodile), Darwin (buffalo) and South Australia (kangaroo). At least there were yabbies from Victoria’s Lake Lonsdale.
The restaurant received mixed reviews. One American food writer struggled with the menu and opted for crocodile which, she said, had a “unique texture…surprisingly similar to a bicycle tyre”. It seems the original candle-lit diner was soon replaced with a less ambitious Bush Tucker Café offering more casual fare including kangaroo pies, lemon myrtle scones and wattle-seed damper. It now (2023) operates as The Brambuk Café and Eatery from Monday to Friday from 9am until 2pm.
In 1996, another Indigenous-owned restaurant opened in Sydney, this time with an Indigenous chef, Mark Olive. The restaurant, Midden, aimed to showcase native ingredients. Like other early hospitality ventures featuring “bush foods” it struggled. It was before its time and, according to Olive, people did not understand the food. How things have changed.
Over the following two decades, interest in native ingredients has ballooned and we have become increasingly conscious of the significance of these foods in First Nations culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cooks and chefs are opening restaurants and cafés from Alice Springs to Byron Bay, from Yarraville to Redfern.
An example is Big Esso, at Melbourne’s Federation Square. A Broadsheet review describes a menu that highlights seafood (and not just of the animal variety):
Highlights include a bucket of chargrilled prawns with sea succulents and Bero’s own hot sauces; pipies with fresh tamarind, chilli and Neptune’s beard (a fine stringy seaweed); ginger-poached periwinkles (sea snails) with chilli aioli; and fried crocodile with saltbush, pepperberry and pickled karkalla (a sea succulent). There’s also namas, a coconut-cured kingfish that’s similar to ceviche, and a dish called zurra, a broth that’s similar to a fish consomme.
Bush foods have come a long way. No longer just a novelty, they are edging towards a place in the mainstream of Australian restaurant cooking. As are the people to whom they have long been “bread and butter”.