As An Indigenous Woman, Food Is My World — Here’s What I Want You To Know About Native Ingredients

Image courtesy of Channel 10
MasterChef Australia's Mindy Woods
Ever since I was a young girl, I have always been such a foodie. I remember asking my parents if I could have a Chinese banquet for my fifth birthday back in the 80’s — forget the fairy bread and chocolate crackles, give me the beef and black bean and fried rice!
I remember being so excited to come home and to see what mum was cooking for dinner. We always ate as a family and one of our favourite meals was a Malay chicken curry with Roti Canai, which I still love to this day.
But as a First Nations woman, nothing lights up my heart (and belly) more than Indigenous food and I’ll always take the opportunity to speak about it when I get a chance. Indigenous food is so important to me because it connects me with my ancestors and culture.
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As a mob we would always cook up a big pipi curry — pipis straight from the beach and a big pot of curry that’s absolutely delicious and one of my personal favourites.
Indigenous food also allows non-Indigenous people to connect with our beautiful and rich culture in a very powerful way. And at a time when it’s being popularised by cafes, restaurants and media throughout Australia, it’s also an exciting time to be talking about native foods and how more people can be ‘discovering’ them.
Food has the ability to define time and place. It has a culture, a history and a story. As a nation of food and travel lovers, we freely associate countries and cultures across the globe with their unique foods and ingredients. Think about the street food of Thailand with kaffir lime and lemongrass, the curries of India and the unique and vibrant spices, and the fine cheese, wine and champagne of France.
Interestingly as Australians, we struggle to associate our own country with its own unique food culture, despite the fact that Australian 'Native food' has a 60,000-year-old history. It’s estimated that there are over 6,500 food species native and unique to Australia, but how many have you actually tried?

How To Use Native Ingredients

I love to use native ingredients in my everyday food and it’s so easy to do. I use warrigal greens instead of spinach or kale, native Dorrigo pepper in lieu of black pepper, and lemon Myrtle instead of lemongrass.
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Native ingredients are intensely flavoured and generally you should only need a touch of the ingredient compared to standard spice.
Half a teaspoon of dried lemon Myrtle powder can be as strong as two sticks of lemongrass. It’s wonderful to use when you need to inject a lemony flavour into any sweet or savoury dish. Think of lemon Myrtle instead of using lemon zest, lemongrass, lemon verbena or kaffir lime.

You can't eat our food if you can't swallow our history.

Uncle Bruce Pascoe
Lemon Myrtle, Cinnamon Myrtle and anise Myrtle are amazing native substitutes for common spices. I use dried and ground cinnamon Myrtle in place of cinnamon or cassia, and anise Myrtle in place of ground fennel.
These ingredients can be easily accessed and purchased online through Playing With Fire Foods and Creative Native.

Support The Industry

As a proud Indigenous woman, I know that the creation and caretaking of Country is of the utmost sacred importance. The gathering, sourcing and protection of our native foods is also part of our responsibility to Country. Our foods are linked to our Dreaming, our country, our history and our culture. They are in our DNA. This connection is inseparable and in the great words of Uncle Bruce Pascoe, "You can't eat our food if you can't swallow our history."
Native foods are a vital part of our environment, our past and our future. Native foods are a great example that the world's oldest living culture is very much alive and thriving.
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As Australia’s latest food trend the native food industry grows at speed, I encourage you all to consider:
1. Supporting Indigenous-led Native Food businesses that (appallingly) make up just 2% of the $20 million+ industry in Australia.
2. Acknowledging and respecting Native foods’ rich history that stretches back beyond Millenia and is unique.
3. Learning the traditional names for native foods and the traditional country it comes from.
4. Embracing these ingredients in your everyday cooking. Eating and cooking with Native Australian foods connects us to our surroundings, our rich traditional culture and acknowledges the significance of these foods for all Australians.
Whether I’m cooking in or out of the MasterChef Australia kitchen, I always think about how I can weave a native ingredient or two into my dishes. And as you go about your next food adventure, I encourage you to do the same.
Mindy Woods is a proud Bundjalung woman of the Widjabul Wia bul clan, who placed fourth on MasterChef Australia in 2012. She returns in 2022 as a contestant on MasterChef Australia: Fans & Favourites, which premieres on Easter Monday, April 18 at 7:30pm on Channel 10 and 10Play.
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