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Desert Delicious: Indigenous Australian Foods for the Global Palate

by Julian Cribb, Yvonne Latham and Maarten Ryder

Australia’s deserts are poised to give the world food menu its biggest shake-up since Columbus. The exotic, succulent, spicy and stimulating flavors of the indigenous foods of Central Australia are heading for home dining tables, restaurants and TV cooking shows worldwide, thanks to a partnership between Aboriginal communities, scientists, food companies and supermarkets.

A Gourmet Feast of Desert Delights

  Inspecting young hybrid native citrus.
  Dr. Maarten Ryder inspects newly planted hybrid native citrus in Moonta, South Australia.
Photo by Bob Schuster, courtesy CSIRO Land and Water.

Indigenous communities and researchers from the Desert Knowledge CRC (Cooperative Research Centre) are trialing a gourmet feast of desert delights—the staple fare of the people of Central Australian for tens of thousands of years but still unfamiliar to the global palate.

Bush tomatoes (intensely flavored pea-sized fruits), wattle (acacia) seeds, desert limes (a small knobbly fruit with a sharp lime flavor), quandongs (bright red berries high in vitamin C), sandalwood nuts, bush bananas (a vine bearing elongated fruits that taste of green peas and avocado), and a host of other traditional Aboriginal foods are among the many flavors of the desert now making their way into the 21st century cookbook.

Many are still hand-gathered by local communities who will share the piquancy, healthiness and sustainability of wild-harvested food with a wider market. Others will be domesticated for the first time in history, grown by indigenous communities along with more familiar horticultural crops, says project leader Dr. Maarten Ryder, CSIRO Land and Water research scientist.

“A vital part of this project is to explore how indigenous communities can be involved in this new industry, and how it can generate new jobs and enterprises in remote areas,” he says.

Map of Australia.  
Desert Knowledge network stretches across Australia, which is the driest continent on earth. Less than 3% of Australia's population resides in its arid and semi-arid areas, which comprise 70% of the continent's land area.
Graphic courtesy Desert Knowledge CRC.

The bush foods project will marry the traditional knowledge of desert dwellers who have inhabited Central Australia for more than 35,000 years, with modern scientific approaches, such as the breeding of new domesticated varieties that can be farmed in the inland.

The intellectual property of new crops produced will be shared with the Indigenous owners, who will thus have a say in how their new foods industry develops—as well as a range of delicious foods to stimulate the tastebuds of the world, just as their paintings are attracting art-lovers.

Australia's Native Foods Industry

The native foods industry in Australia is based on traditional Aboriginal knowledge of what is edible in the Australian flora. The long history of Aboriginal occupation of this continent has resulted in many lifetimes of research and development of the native flora. The accumulated wealth of Aboriginal knowledge about the uses of plants has now formed the foundation of the native foods industry. Individual plant species often have multiple uses, including food, medicine, utensils, tools, musical instruments and weapons. Aboriginal knowledge of food preparation methods is also important. For example, some ingredients must be roasted before they can be eaten safely.

  Great Victoria Desert.
  The Great Victoria Desert.
Photo by Greg Rinder, courtesy CSIRO Land and Water.

Desert Knowledge

Where Indigenous Know-How Meets Western Science

Desert Knowledge is the unique knowledge Australians have about prospering in the hot, dry and isolated inland that makes up more than two thirds of their continent.

Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), a virtual network of researchers from 28 organizations nationwide, links indigenous knowledge and local skills with cutting-edge Western science to improve the livelihoods of all desert people.

This extensive new network is paving the way for Australia’s next billion-dollar export sector by marketing the products of its unique research combination to some 1.5 billion people around the globe who also live in hot, dry and isolated places.

Scientists and practitioners working on over 40 Desert Knowledge CRC research projects are busy finding solutions for people and their businesses throughout desert Australia. These include:

• Turning the medical and culinary properties of desert plants valued by Aboriginal peoples into new economic oppor-tunities. The Plants for People project combines traditional indigenous knowledge with the latest science to develop the health-giving foods and life-saving medicines of the future and create economic opportunities for Aboriginal communities.

• Developing advanced, low-cost telecommun-ications technologies for isolated regions. The Sparse Ad-hoc Communications Networks For Desert Environments (SANDS) project is working on a mobile phone prototype which promises a reliable phone service to remote communities that lack costly infrastructure.

• Discovering more beneficial ways to use and manage bush fires—a fact of life in outback Australia. Desert Knowledge CRC draws on Aboriginal fire management techniques to breathe new life into desert landscapes, industries and cultures.

• Teaching the science of Desert Knowledge to future researchers and tech-nology teachers through hands-on assignments in desert communities and schools. The Lifecycle Models for Sustainable Investment in Desert Communities project encourages students to work with remote Aboriginal communities on practical ways of extending the life of houses and other infrastructure.

Source: Desert Knowledge CRC.

There is some evidence that Aboriginal people practiced plant improvement through selection, possibly also cross-pollination and also a kind of horticulture that is quite different from Western cultivation methods. For example, renowned Australian writer and social activist Mary Gilmore recorded in her diaries in the 1930s that Aboriginal people (Wiradjuri) in New South Wales cross-pollinated quandongs, planted selected seeds from especially large berries and planted grass seed in the soil after special preparation for burning, which would warm the soil, release nutrients, and destroy pathogens, creating a good seed bed.

One cultivation method used by Aboriginal people was the burning of areas of land, mosaic burning practices or ‘fire stick farming’ for promoting grass lands for animal grazing or for edible seed collection. Early Tasmanian settlers noticed that once the Aboriginal people were made to stop their burning practices, the forest boundaries would begin to grow back over the land, infringing on the early settlers’ crops or pastures.

In Central Australia, mosaic burning or fire stick farming was performed to ensure maximum availability of food and movement for humans. The result was a “mosaic pattern of burnt and unburnt areas in different stages of recovery [which] ensures that at the end of the dry season when the vegetation is very dry and lightning strikes are very frequent, hot widespread fires are prevented. As in Central Australia, a potentially disastrous ‘fire bomb’ has been cleverly defused.”

When Europeans settled in Australia, traditional Aboriginal customs started to change. Being made to live on ‘reserves’ or ‘community’ areas caused loss of country. Culture began to break down. Bonding with and tending to the land was a major part of the Aboriginal lifestyle, which was now forbidden by the new white inhabitants. As time went on, with the process of assimilation into the white community, the handing down of traditional knowledge, culture, spiritualism, art, language, flora and fauna began to decline.

The ‘modern’ native food industry brings the potential for Aboriginal people to regain health and social status along with the retention of some of the remembered culture, language and knowledge of plants and animals. While gathering was traditionally undertaken by women, entire families now leave the community for harvesting—going into the bush and taking the younger people with them. The harvesting practices additionally promote exercise and health and are a part of a social event. Language is being used, and some parts of the culture are being remembered and passed on. And of course, community members can also benefit economically from the wild harvest of food produce.

Central Australia's Desert Delicacies

Which of the hundreds of plants eaten by Aborigines have the greatest potential for modern food industry use and commercial cultivation? In general, native plants with the greatest potential for food use and cultivation are likely to possess the following core characteristics:

  • Good and novel flavor
  • Easy to harvest, handle, transport and store, or at least do not present any major difficulties
  • Easy to process
  • Have an existing, or likely potential, market demand
  • Relatively easy to propagate
  • Likely agronomy is reasonably well understood, and does not appear to pose any major obstacles to successful cultivation

Some of the most likely candidates to meet the global palate include:


Acacia beans.  
Acacia beans.
Photo courtesy CSIRO Land and Water.

The seeds of many Acacia species are edible; however, seeds of some species contain toxic components. The seed of Elegant Wattle (Acacia victoriae) is regarded by many as the food industry 'standard,' though there are a number of other species commonly traded or of interest for food, including Acacia colei, A. Coriacea, Golden Wattle (A. pycnantha), Sandplain Wattle (A. murrayana), Silver Wattle (A. retinodes) and Coastal Wattle (A. sophorae).

Wild wattle acacia.  
Wattle acacia.
Photo courtesy CSIRO Land and Water.

After roasting, the flavor is commonly described as 'nutty,' with variations in taste between species. Wattle seeds are high in protein and have a low glycaemic index and they could be included in diabetic and other specialty diets. Current retail product categories include baked goods, flour mixes, mustards, dressings, sweet sauces, beverages. Currently, the supply of Acacia seed for the food industry is almost entirely reliant on seeds obtained from natural stands. The current level of commercial cultivated plantings is still small and probably accounts for less than 10% of current seed supplies.

More Information  > >

Bush Tomato

Bush tomatoes.       Bush tomatoes, cooked.
Cultivating bush tomatoes, a true desert delicacy.
Photos courtesy CSIRO Land and Water.

Bush Tomatoes (Solanum centrale) also called desert raisins or desert tomatoes. Other species such as S. chippendalei and S. ellipticum also produce edible fruit and are of interest to the native foods industry. Bush tomatoes have an intense, earthy-tomato and caramel flavor of great piquancy and pungency. Current retail product categories include dried spice, dipping sauces, chutneys and relishes, and seasoning for white and red meats. Most fruit is still sourced from the wild, although there is small-scale commercial cultivation.

More Information  > >

  Desert limes.
  Desert limes.
Photo courtesy CSIRO Land and Water.

Desert Lime

The Desert Lime (Citrus glauca) is native to Queensland and New South Wales, west of a line running from Rockhampton to Dubbo, with some isolated occurrences in central South Australia. It has a strong and distinctive citrus flavor, and is used for distinctive but recognizable citrus flavor in sweet and savoury products. Current retail product categories include jams and conserves, dipping sauces, and simmer sauces. Most fruit is still sourced from the wild, although commercial cultivation is now in progress.

More Information  > >


Quandongs.       Quandongs, cooked.
Colorful quandongs have a wide variety of edible uses.
Photos courtesy CSIRO Land and Water.

Quandong is also called native peach (Santalum acuminatum). The fruit has widespread distribution in arid and semi-arid areas of southern Australia. The flesh of Quandong has a high vitamin C content. The Quandong is tart, with peach, apricot and rhubarb characteristics. It is primarily used for fruit-type flavor in sweet and savory products. Its current retail product categories include liqueur, jams and conserves, dipping sauces, confectionary, dairy products, and baked goods. Currently, wild harvesting accounts for around 75% of supplies, with cultivated supplies increasing slowly.

More Information  > >


Julian Cribb, a former editor with The Australian, is one of Australia’s most prominent science journalists and communicators. He is a consultant to Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, a virtual network of researchers from 28 Australian organizations. The Centre links Aboriginal knowledge and local skills with cutting-edge Western science to improve the livelihoods of all desert people.
Yvonne Latham
is an Indigenous project officer working with CSIRO Land and Water on the cultivation of native Australian food plants. She coordinates the maintenance and data collection of nine field trial sites in Southeastern Australia. She has a longstanding interest in both native foods and medicinal plants.
Maarten Ryder
is a research scientist who leads Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre’s Bush Foods project team. He works for the Land and Water division of the CSIRO (Commonwealth Science Industry Research Organisation) in South Australia.
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Australian Government Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation

Australian Native Foods

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO)

CSIRO Land and Water

Desert Knowledge

Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre

New Crop Industries Handbook

Northern Territories Department of the Chief Minister


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