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Dawn on the Kimberley coast: an intense contrast of Pindan red earth, white sand, turquoise ocean and verdant bushland. Yet this iconic Australian landscape is unknown to so many.

As we walk, Pat Mamanyjun Torres from Mayi Harvests tells stories from the Dreamtime, points to signals of a changing season and explains the traditional techniques of harvest and preparation for native foods.

Patricia Torres director Mayi Harvests Native Foods

Standing beside a coastal wattle tree, its seed pods elongated like broad beans, Torres explains its significance as a former staple food in the region. “There were about five or six wattleseeds that we collected. They were easily stored and made into cakes. We lived near the sea or the rivers, so you had fresh fish on a regular basis.”

It’s a crash course in her family knowledge passed down through 50,000 years. This is food culture past, present and future; tied to the land and its people, indigenous and otherwise. Torres’s ancestors are of the Djugan, Yawuru, Garrajerri, Jabirr-Jabirr, Nyul-Nyul and Bard peoples, stretching along the coast from Broome, up the Dampier Peninsula. She also acknowledges her non-indigenous roots: Spanish, Filipino, Indonesian and Scottish; a legacy of Broome’s pearling history and the diverse make-up of the town still evident today.

Through her business, Mayi Harvests, Torres is working to ensure native ingredients and cultural practices are not an anthropological footnote. Among the company’s larder of wild-harvested native products available to chefs and online consumers is alaarga (mangrove myrtle), nirliyangarr (coastal wattle), yarl mang ngurr (Pindan walnut) and gubiny (Kakadu plum).

Chefs, she says, “know the common things like wattleseed and lemon myrtle, but being West Australian I wanted to introduce them to some more of our foods. We’ve brought them currants, fruits and nuts, some of our herbs now, and because it’s new to them they’re experimenting and seeing what they can do with it.”

The Kimberley sun is biting as we take shade under a Pindan walnut tree. A lone out-of-season fruit hangs from it, dried fallen fruit on the ground. The hanging fruit is deep-purple, almost plum-like with a thick skin, and dense, fibrous pulp, while the fallen fruit is the incredibly hard walnut-like shell, encasing the almond-shaped seed.

“When we were children, our great-grandparents would sit down and hammer away and feed us these little nuts [the seed],” Torres says. “They’d roast it and we’d sit there and we would always get a really good feed from it.”

For now, the commercial focus is on the gubiny or Kakadu plum and wattleseed, with 50 people collecting with Torres this year. Founded in 2006, Mayi Harvests is still an emerging business, but Torres believes it has a strong economic, social and cultural future. “It makes sense to indigenous people that we can do business with our own knowledge base because we have such a relationship with it in terms of our connections with it, our story and our long history of use.”

At Co-Op Dining in East Perth, chef Kiren Mainwaring pulls out containers of Mayi Harvests ingredients with the enthusiasm born of discovery. “We have to do research and development to get the best out of them, but it’s important to realise that people tried and tested these ingredients over thousands of years,” he says. “They’ve probably suffered the consequences of foraging the wrong things, studied the environment around them. We’re using this knowledge and need to be mindful of that. We need to acknowledge experts like Pat.”

For a chef devising a degustation menu, the element of surprise offered by unfamiliar ingredients is a gift. Boab nut, from the Kimberley tree, grated over macadamia ice cream bursts with a sherbet fizz. “People are intrigued where ingredients come from and things they can’t get themselves,” Mainwaring says. “It adds a rare aspect to your menu, people love that.”

Chefs in Western Australia such as Scott Bridger of oceanside favourite Bib & Tucker and Paul Iskov of roaming restaurant Fervor are also exploring what Mayi Harvests and suppliers like it have to offer. Mayi Harvests sells nationwide to stockists such as Indigiearth in NSW and Andrew Fielke of Tuckeroo in Adelaide.

The native foods industry is a mix of indigenous and non-indigenous operators engaged in wild harvest and cultivation. Respecting indigenous culture, practices and knowledge is key but has not always been the case.

For Torres, the answer is proper collaborative relationships and real partnerships. “Not, ‘give me your fruit and I’ll give you minimal money’, which has been what has happened in the past. You know a lot of our knowledge was taken, our fruit was taken, and we were left behind with nothing to say. So nowadays we have a bit more verbal ability to negotiate a unique place in the business world so we can get a better relationship going.”

Amanda Garner, chairwoman of Australian Native Food Industry Ltd (of which Torres is a director) seeks government funding for infrastructure and micro-industry within indigenous communities, with the aim of retaining knowledge and revenue where the traditional knowledge is held. She’s well versed in the issues: supply is sporadic and products are often not market-ready. About five tonnes of Kakadu plum are harvested presently, but there could be “50 to 100 tonnes not being harvested”. The fruit, found across the Top End, has huge levels of vitamin C (up to 100 times that of an orange), creating interest as food and nutraceutical, but a lack of “density mapping” is holding back the nascent industry, says Garner.

This lack of mapping and understanding about what we have also concerns chef Clayton Donovan. He grew up on Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung land on the mid-north coast of NSW, but his time living in Britain and return to Australia has convinced him we have something unique. “Talking to bush producers here, we’re just touching the surface of what we’ve got, maybe 10 per cent,” he says.

Research funding is at a minimum, but ANFIL is starting nutri­tional tests on the Pindan walnut, essential for businesses looking to value-add and that need nutritional information for labelling.

Adelaide chef and restaurateur Jock Zonfrillo has created the Orana Foundation to help support indigenous communities. “We want to touch more communities, catalogue the culture. It’s essentially about food and cultural preservation, a broad foundation that’s close to my heart.” Among the varied projects is a food lab with Charles Darwin University, of the Northern Territory, that will also analyse and research native foods.

While Zonfrillo is at the forefront of the native-foods crusade here, he is part of a wider global movement of chefs seeking to forge a new identity through discovery — rediscovery — of their countries’ indigenous cuisines.

Now Danish chef Rene Redzepi, having effectively launched the movement, has announced the temporary relocation of his Copenhagen restaurant Noma to Sydney early next year, to shine the light on our own native-foods legacy.

Torres is clear on the value offered by holders of traditional knowledge; their place at the centre of the industry and the importance of sharing the stories along with the produce. “I grew up learning all this stuff from my grandparents, and I always talk about it, but there’s not always information written that substantiates what I’m saying,” she says.

“Our value is our sense of place. Our value is thousands of years of history connected to plant, people and land and sea. It’s that story that is very important.”

Report. Max Brearley via Linked in


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