Ingeborg van Teeseling

Culinary reconciliation: Tabling Australia’s food racism problem

As a nation, we hold our culinary diversity as a metaphor for the importance of our country. Food from everywhere, for everyone. However, is it the fare of the first peoples that we should advance?


Just before I left Holland for Australia in 2006, I got hooked on an Australian cooking show, Mark Olive’s Outback Café. I was especially fascinated by the ingredients he used, most of whom I had never heard of before: wattle seed, pepper berry, desert lime, quandong, lemon aspen, warrigal greens, lemon myrtle, saltbush. I ordered some in and, with Olive’s recipes in hand, tried to recreate his dishes. Usually only after having searched high and low for kangaroo or crocodile or a replacement for barramundi or yabbies. To me, they were the taste of Australia, and when I migrated here I expected every restaurant to have them on the menu and every shop to sell what Olive had introduced me to. I was very much mistaken. Most Australians I met had never heard of any of the ingredients and fiercely objected to eating kangaroo, let alone crocodile or emu. Apparently, these were not Australian foods at all, but Aboriginal ones, and there was a big difference between the two.

Just starting out here, I found that attitude both ridiculous and puzzling. After more than ten years here, the ridiculous still stands, but I now understand more of what is going on. What is happening here, I, unfortunately, agree with food writer John Newton, is food racism.

See, I like cooking. I always have. Maybe that is because there were too many days with not enough food when I was young, but I dream about how to combine beetroot with juniper berries and orange. A bit of lamb backstrap, a touch of Madeira wine. Especially since I’ve been on Michael Mosley’s 5-2 diet (made necessary because of my love of food), cooking has become a joy. I also see food as a cultural expression. So does John Newton, in his new book The oldest foods on earth. A history of Australian native foods. With recipes. Newton writes that ‘food, as we know, is far more than a material substance which is ingested and excreted. It distinguishes and defines us to ourselves and to our fellows. It can be a primary cultural marker of our clan, tribe, religion, region, province, personal sensibilities and country’. Partly, Newton says, we are very good at including other people’s food into the culinary repertoire of this country. ‘Australia is not just a multicultural society, but a multiculinary one’, he states, and the fact that we love other people’s foods and are willing to try just about anything ‘has helped us ease our way into what is generally a remarkable multicultural stability’. So far, so good. ‘Food binds us together’.

There is, as John Newton calls it, a form of ‘culinary reconciliation’ on the way. More and more chefs, especially ‘young ones who don’t carry the racial baggage of the past are beginning to use native Australian ingredients’..

Unless it is Aboriginal food. Newton reminds us that kangaroo was only approved for human consumption in South Australia in 1980 and in all other states in 1993. Apart from fish and crustaceans, we eat hardly any of the 6000 edible plants, 2000 types of mushrooms, myriad of game birds or mammals that the First People consumed. From the start of white occupation of the land, Europeans found it difficult to get their heads around both the Indigenous peoples and the food they grew and ate. William Dampier, the first Englishman to explore parts of Australia in 1688, said that ‘there is neither herb, root, pulse, nor any sort of grain for them to eat that we saw; nor any sort of bird or beast that they can catch, having no instruments wherewithal to do so’. Of course, he had no idea what he was talking about, and he could have known that if he had wondered how it was possible that, if there was nothing to eat, these people were still alive and looking fit and healthy. In fact, we now know that Aboriginal people had been providing for themselves on this land for 50,000 years, by farming the land, as Newton quotes Bill Gammage in his epic The biggest estate on earth. Gammage says that Indigenous people ‘burnt, tilled, planted, transplanted, watered, irrigated, weeded, thinned, cropped, stored and traded’, in short: they were engaged in agriculture. But because it was a system that the Europeans did not recognise, did not see, as Dampier said, they thought it wasn’t there. That is the funny thing about human beings: we can only see what we understand and recognise.

The rest simply doesn’t exist.

But it also suited the Europeans to ignore both the farming and the food. At the basis of terra nullius is the idea that the land was not being used, that it was empty and the people not civilised. Acknowledging that people were not savage wanderers, but farmers who built houses (as Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has proven) and tended to their crops, made colonisation without a treaty very much more difficult. In fact, according to British law, impossible. Pretending the food wasn’t there was the same as pretending the people weren’t there: allowing ‘knowledge’, Newton writes, ‘would get in the way of the main game: taking over the land for cultivation and the running of stock’. So after the closing of the eyes came the suppressing. First white authorities ‘discouraged the hunting and collecting of traditional food’, considering it ‘primitive and undisciplined’, something that would get in the way of assimilating Aboriginal society. Then the land was taken over by imported animals, ‘compacting the soil and encouraging run-off rather than allowing the rain to soak into the soil’. There was less land to go around, and the quality quickly deteriorated. Now Aboriginal people were starving, which made it possible to use rationing ‘instead of violence as a mode of government’. Over time, Indigenous people lost the skills to hunt and gather or ‘to live as a blackfellow’. ‘Demoralisation and degeneration’ followed, and dependence on white folks. With that came social problems, diabetes, obesity, substance abuse, desperation. Although the ‘race’ has not died out, as Darwin and Freud predicted would happen, now we’ve got the next best thing (and this is my interpretation, not Newton’s): Aboriginal people mostly under white control. Because that is what food racism is, I think: if you ignore people’s food (and then land rights, and culture) you contribute to what Henry Reynolds has called ‘genocide’.

But let’s try and end this story on a lighter note. Because things are slowly changing. There is, as John Newton calls it, a form of ‘culinary reconciliation’ on the way. More and more chefs, especially ‘young ones who don’t carry the racial baggage of the past are beginning to use native Australian ingredients’. Even the contestants on Masterchef don’t shy away from finger lime and pepper berry. Mark Olive himself is now a co-host on SBS’s The chef’s line and presents On country kitchen on NITV, and there are many producers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who sell butterfly pea flower tea and other bush tucker.1 Personally, I was amused and overjoyed by the story of Richard Gunner, a butcher from South Australia. When he heard that magpie geese were destroying the mango farms in the Northern Territory and that farmers had started to poison them, he drove north to propose an alternative. Instead of wasting beautiful meat, he asked the local Larrakia people to kill, pluck and process the birds, so he could get them to the tables of restaurants in the south. In the first year, 4,000 geese were transported, which made it a win-win-win-win: more mangoes for the farmers, jobs for the Larrakia, money for Gunner and a feast for southern diners. Smart guy, that Gunner.

And as Bruce Pascoe once wrote: ‘having said sorry, we refuse to say thanks’.

Let’s start there.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.