‘Eating Is Linked To Colonisation’: Nakkiah Lui Reflects On Decolonising Her Palate

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Activism has always been a big part of Nakkiah Lui's life. Growing up in Mount Druitt in Sydney's west, the Kamilaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman watched loved ones around her speak up on important community issues.
"I come from quite a politically active family. My parents have always been very community-minded and very proud of our culture," Lui tells Refinery29 Australia.
The 32-year-old has long championed representation and the voices of First Nations people, whether through her Pretty For An Aboriginal podcast, her TV shows Preppers and Black Comedy which she co-wrote, or her various plays, including Black Is The New White.
Given her penchant for using the arts and various media platforms to explore cultural and political issues, it's no surprise that Lui has released a new podcast. This time, she unapologetically looks inwards, acknowledging that while she's learned a lot about her culture — including language and history — she hasn't known much about First Nations food.
"What I realised, as I was thinking of the land I was standing on, is that I couldn't tell you the name of any First Nations food or vegetables," she reflects. "That was a really big shock to me because it seemed like, 'Wow, what a big blind spot in my own knowledge'."
That all changes thanks to the seven-episode podcast called First Eat, a series that sees Lui decolonise her own palate, while seeking answers about the injustices that happened in the creation of our food system.
In putting together this podcast, Lui asked herself, "What would a plate of food look like if First Nations people owned the land?"
"From there, that became an incredible journey that was very, very far-reaching and incredibly intersectional. I'm a firm believer that the personal is very political, and you can't get more personal than food."
In considering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their food, you can't ignore a traumatic history where colonisation led to denied ownership of land, as well as restricted access to "business, home and culture".
"Accessibility is just class and it's a really big conversation," she explains. "So as we started unpacking what that question was — which is essentially how do you decolonise a plate of food — it became a question about how do you practise decolonisation as an active community member, and myself as a mother?"
That last part is incredibly important to Lui. Since having a baby girl, she's thought more about how she will nourish her daughter, and what values she'll pass down to her.
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Miranda Tapsell (L) and Nakkiah Lui (C) during the making of the First Eat podcast
Looking into her own family's history while recording the podcast was instrumental in getting answers. Lui explains that her great great grandmother was Aboriginal and her great great grandfather was a white convict.
"They have children and he dies. They [my great-grandmother and her kids] have the land taken off them and they're sent back to the mission. From there, the journey of food in my family is so related to finding home and place."
Impacted by "food scarcity and a lack of access to the land that they were from", Lui's family eventually moved "into an urban place" in western Sydney, where she has fond memories of making rabbit stew with her mum.
Seeing this food journey has helped Lui understand the impact it's had on her and her views on body image.
"I've have had a very public journey with my weight loss going up and down, and having weight loss surgery because of things like obesity and diabetes," she explains. "Those are all linked to colonisation and food being used to oppress Aboriginal people."
Elaborating on this link between food and colonisation, Lui recalls her mother telling her about a time when her "cupboards would be checked for food by welfare officers, because they were all under the Aborigines Protection Board. If you didn't have food in your cupboards, your kids could be taken. So, of course this idea of eating is linked to colonisation."
Decolonising of food is happening around the world, so there was no stopping Lui in travelling across waters to learn more about how other countries like New Zealand and America are tackling this. Closer to home, she has interviewed the likes of fellow actor Miranda Tapsell, Indigenous chef Jayde Harris and various family members, farmers and academics.
It also wasn't lost on her that releasing such a project in 2023 could attract mixed public reactions. In the past, she's taken a step back from social commentary, explaining that "it can be really hard as a First Nations person to be spoken about in a way where it's like your humanity doesn't matter, or that your humanity is a political talking point".
"There are so many amazing First Nations people who are really putting themselves out there at the moment and fighting for First Nations equity, especially as we head into a referendum," she says.
But doing a project like First Eat was her way of "nourishing" herself. As Lui learns more about her family and the connection to food through each episode, she hopes that listeners feel inspired, curious to learn and of course, ready to eat.
Ultimately, it's about telling "a story about something as simple and as personal as food... and making that story complex, big and thought-provoking, but also empowering and hopefully making people feel hungry when they listen to it".
The Audible Original podcast, First Eat with Nakkiah Lui, is out now. Listen for free here.
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