For anyone familiar with bunya pine trees (Araucaria bidwillii), summer is associated with a distinct and interesting botanical phenomenon. Each January at the Australian Botanic Garden in Sydney's Mount Annan, the bunya pine trees begin to drop their cones.
If you don't think this is a big deal, you should know that bunya pines have been on this earth for millions of years. Think dinosaurs. Apparently they ate these nuts too. These gigantic trees produce pine cones so big that in falling they can actually kill people by falling on their heads. The cones have many kernels inside which need cracking prior to eating.
They are best fresh but can also be frozen. The bunya nut is high in protein, carbohydrates and good fat. The flavour reminds me of a pine nut, and the bunya can be used in the same way.
◎ Common Name: Bunya Pine, Bunya Nut
◎ Scientific or Latin Name: Araucaria bidwillii
◎ Comparison: Pine Nuts
◎ Seasonality: All year frozen
◎ Region: Rainforest
◎ Taste Profile: The flavour of the kernel is similar to a chestnut. It is a mild, slightly sweet, nutty flavour similar to almond meal.
◎ Types: The bunya pine is the last surviving species of the section Bunya of the genus Araucaria. This section was diverse and widespread during the Mesozoic period with some species having cone morphology similar to A. bidwillii, which appeared during the Jurassic period.
- The nutritional content of the bunya nut is somewhat similar to that of chestnuts. It is comprised of water (40%), complex carbohydrates (40%), protein (9%), fat (2%), and minerals like potassium and magnesium.
- Bunya nut is gluten free and hence the flour made from it is considered to be an ideal substitute for people having gluten intolerance.
- Bunya nut has a healthy glycemic index (GI) rating, in the range of 50 to 75.
Traditional Aboriginal Food and Uses
The cones were a very important food source for native Australians – each Aboriginal family would own a group of trees and these would be passed down from generation to generation. This is said to be the only case of hereditary personal property owned by the Aboriginal people.
After the cones had fallen and the fruit was ripe, large festival harvest would sometimes occur, between two and seven years apart. The people of the region would set aside differences and gather in the Bon-yi Mountains (Bunya Mountains) to feast on the kernels. The local people, who were bound by custodial obligations and rights, sent out messengers to invite people from hundreds of kilometres to meet at specific sites. The meetings involved Aboriginal ceremonies, dispute settlements and fights, marriage arrangements and the trading of goods.
Indigenous Australians eat the nut of the bunya tree both raw and cooked (roasted, and in more recent times boiled), and also in its immature form. Traditionally, the nuts were additionally ground and made into a paste, which was eaten directly or cooked in hot coals to make bread. The nuts were also stored in the mud of running creeks, and eaten in a fermented state. This was considered a delicacy.
Western & Modern
Bunya nuts are still sold as a regular food item in grocery stalls and street-side stalls around rural southern Queensland. Some farmers in the Wide Bay/ Sunshine Coast regions have experimented with growing bunya trees commercially for their nuts and timber.
Bunya timber was and is still highly valued as "tonewood" for stringed instruments' sound boards since the first European settlers.
Its most popular use is as a 'bushfood' by indigenous foods enthusiasts. A huge variety of home-invented recipes now exists for the bunya nut; from pancakes, biscuits and breads, to casseroles, to 'bunya nut pesto' or hoummus. The nut is considered nutritious, with a unique flavour similar to starchy potato and chestnut.
When the nuts are boiled in water, the water turns red, making a flavoursome tea.
Studies indicate that bunya nut extract exhibits anti-bacterial activity and hence has the potential to be used as food additives to slow down food spoilage caused by bacteria and also to inhibit food borne illnesses. Using this natural additive can therefore do away with the need for adding chemical preservatives. Furthermore, the antibacterial properties of bunya nut extract may also have promise in the medical field as they can be used as antibiotic or anti-microbial agents.
Bunya Nuts can be used in this recipe in Warndu Mai:
Note: The term 'Bush Tucker' and 'Bush Food' are not Warndu's preferred terms for Australian Native Ingredients or Australian Botanicals.
Images: © Luisa Brimble