Karkalla - also known as pigface and beach banana - is a succulent most commonly found among sand dunes and on cliff faces around the Australian coastline. One species, Disphyma crassifolia, has slender leaves that are plump, juicy, and more palatable than others. It grows further inland on salt flats and in clay.
More succulent than anything else, imagine a juicy, crunchy and salty green. It is delicious. The flowers are edible too and when it fruits, expect salty little fig-like berries in a stunning shade of pink. You will never walk past it again without stopping for a nibble. The plant grows low to the ground, mainly on the coast, but it is super-resilient and can be grown from cuttings. Add to salads, stir-fries, pickle it, ferment it, and eat it!
The briny flavour of karkalla makes it a no-brainer for fish dishes or raw in salads for added texture.
Karkalla is native to southern and western Australia and has been growing wild since ancient times. The sprawling plant is typically found near the ocean, covering dunes and hillsides, but it is also located alongside coastal lakes in sandy soils.
Although Karkalla is common in the wild, foraging for it is illegal. Today Karkalla is cultivated on a small scale and found in Victoria and Tasmania at local markets.
◎ Common Name: Karkalla, Pig Face, Beach Banana
◎ Scientific or Latin Name: Dishphyma crassifolium
◎ Comparison: Salty and juicy bitter greens (bok choy in texture) but saltier
◎ Seasonality: All year fresh
◎ Region: Coastal
◎ Taste Profile: Karkalla have a salty, slightly spicy flavour which is bursting with the taste of the sea. Karkalla are well-known for being juicy.
◎ Types: There are about 30 species, and while many species are also native to South Africa and Europe, six of those are native to Australia. The plant is available all-year-round, although its purple daisy-like flowers tend to flourish in the summer and autumn months, which is when the fruit is ripe and ready.
- Karkalla is an excellent source of fibre, iron, and calcium, and also contains some vitamin C.
- Karkalla is known to be an anti-inflammatory and loaded with antioxidants.
- Every part of the common beach plant is edible – raw or cooked – the leaves, the flowers and the fruits.
- Like aloe vera, the juices of the succulent leaves help to soothe itches, bites and burns.
- You can use roasted leaves as a salt substitute.
- It contains a lot of drinkable moisture and is a good source of water in a survival situation.
- It can also be used as a gargle for sore throat and mild bacterial mouth infections.
Aboriginal & Traditional
Karkalla has become widely popular in Australia today as many culinary leaders are looking to the traditional food of the Aboriginal people as a source of nutritious inspiration. The Aboriginal people of Australia would consume the leaves, fruit, and flowers, both raw and lightly cooked. The leaves were predominately served with meat, and the fruit was eaten fresh or dried.
Karkalla plants were also used medicinally to soothe burns and insect bites by squeezing the liquid from the leaves as the juice was believed to be astringent. In addition to using the liquid topically, the leaves would be pressed, mixed with water, and consumed as a drink to help reduce symptoms of sore throats and gastrointestinal issues.
Western & Modern
All parts of the Karkalla plant are edible and can be consumed raw or lightly sautéed, blanched, stir-fried, or steamed. The leaves are extremely juicy but are also crunchy, giving added texture and flavour to fresh salads. The leaves can also be lightly blanched and served with seafood such as sea snails, crab, octopus, mussels, oysters, and fish, or they can be stir-fried with greens and served alongside cooked meats.
The salty Karkalla leaves make great substitutes for salt or fish sauce in recipes and the briny flavour compliments egg-based dishes. Karkalla leaves can also be grilled into a crisp texture, made into a chutney, or pickled for extended use.
Most recently it's been used as a flavour profile in some boutique gin blends.
Every part of this plant is edible, the flowers, the leaves and even its water - it contains a lot of drinkable moisture, and this juice takes on aloe vera-like properties as it can be used to soothe burns, bites and stings.
Aboriginal people have been aware for thousands of years of the medicinal and nutritional qualities of this plant. However, it is only now that we are starting to acknowledge the natural therapeutic benefits that this plant may provide.
Note: The term 'Bush Tucker' and 'Bush Food' are not Warndu's preferred terms for Australian Native Ingredients or Australian Botanicals.
Images: © Luisa Brimble