Learn about using Australian native ingredients in the kitchen with First Nations knowledge

For First Nations people, the popular native food ingredient movement popping up all over Australia is much more than a trend. Adnyamathanha and Dieri man, Damien Coulthard, says native plants are woven into the identity of First Nations people — much like the Country they're from.

"When you're born, you're given a moiety and that gives you your connection to place, plants and animals."

While the benefits of cooking with native ingredients are vast, it can be difficult to know where to begin, how to find them, and what to do with them once you have them. Rebecca and Damien are on a mission to provide sustainably sourced native ingredients, along with the cultural, historic and contemporary knowledge of how to use them. Their cookbooks Warndu Mai and First Nations Food, along with all the starter packs and native ingredients available on their website, make experimenting with this food revolution simple and fun.

Warndu Australian Native | Damien Coulthard & Rebecca Sullivan
Damien Coulthard and Rebecca Sullivan share their knowledge on how easy it is to cook with native ingredients. ()

Ethical Sourcing

Over the last couple of years, Damien and Rebecca have been working hard to 'decolonise the food industry' by teaching people about the importance of using traditional language names for native plants.

"Each plant is connected to a different [Indigenous] group … language is very important because it explains certain elements," Damien says.

By using original language names, it places you in the specific Country where that plant grows and the special connection First Nations people from that area have with it. The popular use of some native ingredients by international chefs has created a lot of exposure for the native farmers and industry, but it comes at the cost of cultural connections being lost.

"Macadamia is being shipped and grown offshore and the industry is worth over $40 million but the [number] of Aboriginal people [working] in the industry is less than 1 per cent," Damien says. "What impact is that having on Elders who have a particular connection with that plant when it leaves Country?"

To avoid and repair the damage to native ingredients caused by colonisation Damien and the team at Warndu aim to educate people of the colonial impact on native plants and promote ethical and sustainable purchasing practices. They run educational workshops offering a unqiue cultural immersion experience exploring the importance of Place, Taste and Story connected to the native food products provided by Warndu.

"When we deliver educational workshops, we use the Tasmanian pepperberry to talk about frontier warfare because it's a powerful tool for saying this belongs [to Palawa people] but sadly it doesn't have a language name," Damien says.

Damien recommends that you look for products made by First Nations people or plants that are harvested by First Nations people on Country — particularly if you're buying from one of the big supermarkets.

You can also support First Nation suppliers, farmers, and businesses by buying from marketplaces or directories online that sell products from 'certified' Indigenous businesses.

Cooking with native ingredients

Rebecca Sullivan is a self-taught cook, author and urban farmer who has been working in the sustainable food industry for over a decade. She says the easiest way to use native plants in home cooked meals is by swapping them with staple ingredients — like herbs or salt and pepper.

"Everything we find in our cupboards or fridges, has a native alternative. Tasmanian mountain pepper is super high in antioxidants, and it packs a huge punch, so you need way less than traditional pepper."

A simple dish Rebecca likes to cook for the family using lots of native ingredients is bolognaise. Basic ingredients like parsely, tomatoes and seasoning can be swaped out for sea parsley, bush tomatoes, and bush salt and pepper berries. Alternativley, kangaroo meat is 84% protein and is a cheaper alternative to beef.

Ripe bush tomatoes (known as 'kutjeri' to First Nations people in Central Australia) can be eaten raw, cooked or dried, replacing ingredients like sundried tomatoes, raisins and even vegemite.

If you're a tea or coffee lover, Rebecca says there's a range of great native ingredients you can try that not only taste good but have other benefits First Nations people have used for many years. Native lemongrass has long been known as nature's paracetamol to ease migraines, as well as making a delicious cup of tea.

"Wattleseed (known as 'ariepe' in Arrente or 'minga' in Adnyamathanha) is a coffee substitute. You can make a pot of wattleseed coffee the same way you'd make a regular pot of coffee but it's caffeine free and still gives you a natural kick."

For First Nations people, plants like wattleseed are used for more than just food, making it an important part of caring for Country. The seed, 'minga', is used to make a particular type of paste for bread, the plant is used for medicine, and the tree is used for fire, for warmth, and also to make tools.

Growing your own native plants

Damien and Rebecca have a variety of native plants they grow at home not only because it helps repair Country but because it's a great hobby for your mental health too.

"We're so busy in our day-to-day life that we don't actually take time to sit and process thoughts or emotions, so we really encourage people to start growing their own plants and spend some time in the garden," Damien says.

You don't need a large backyard or lots of space to start growing your own native plants. Herbs are a great plant to start because they can be grown in pots and kept in small spaces like your balcony.

"We've had our Geraldton wax for nearly 10 years and that started on our balcony and is now outside our kitchen window. Plants I recommend [starting with] are native thyme, river mint, Geraldton wax, lemon myrtle tree and a pepperberry because the leaf is stunning," says Rebecca.

Growing your own native plants aren't just good for your health and your wallet but they play an important role for our future too. This is a collective effort to improve quality of life, the environment, and to promote reconciliation.