The Kakadu peach? It isn’t sweet. It isn’t even juicy. Unlike the garden-variety peach, which likely originated in China and spread to Europe, the endemic Australian fruit is earthy with botanical notes—and it’s only now that international tourists can taste it.

Last December, the Northern Territory-based startup Kakadu Kitchen released its canned Kakadu peach bellini. Made in collaboration with Altd Spirits, an alcohol-free distilling company in Sydney, it’s the first commercial use of the rare an-marabula, as the stone fruit is called in Kundjeyhmi, a local Kakadu dialect.

When I sit down for dinner in Kakadu National Park in May, I join a select few who’ve gotten to try the limited-edition beverage. Just 300 cases were made available, so Cooinda Lodge in the park’s center is one of the few places to serve it—the result of a partnership between the Indigenous-owned hotel and Kakadu Kitchen’s founder, Bininj Aboriginal chef Ben Tyler. Along with his extended family, Tyler ethically harvested the peaches from his community in the heart of Kakadu National Park, a 7,500-square-mile landscape rich with monsoon forests, rocky red gorges and dramatic waterfalls.

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Kakadu Kitchen founder Ben Tyler Helen Orr

“Our people have a cultural connection to native ingredients,” says Tyler. “They’re not just a plant that we get from [our traditional] country —each ingredient has a story and the culture from each location.”

Each dird (full moon), Tyler and Cooinda Lodge’s executive chef Philip Foote host a four-course Bininj menu that explores Kakadu’s seasonal native flavors, with dishes such as smoked barramundi (a whitefish) with crème fraiche and Davidson plum spritz, or swamp buffalo cooked in an earth oven with bunya nuts and pickled lily stems.

Chances are you’ve never heard of most of the ingredients that Tyler uses, let alone tasted them. Until recently, “bush tucker,” or Australian wild food, was associated with overcooked kangaroo steaks served at roadside stops or witchetty grubs found on guided hikes. But thanks to Aboriginal chefs, entrepreneurs and growers like Tyler who are championing its use, bush tucker is now making its way onto menus across the country in more nuanced and unexpected ways, with ingredients like the Kakadu peach poised to become the next açaí.

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Aboriginal-owned tour company Mandingalbay leads visitors on a guided bush tucker walk. Tropical North Queensland Tourism

Aboriginal-owned tour company Mandingalbay, for example, serves canapés featuring green ants and kangaroo smoked in paperbark (a type of tea tree) on its sunset cruises in Cairns. On the Gold Coast, non-alcoholic beer brand and brewery Sobah incorporates pepperberry (a pungent spice) and Davidson plums (a sour rainforest fruit) into its brews. At Wintjiri Wiru, the new choreographed drone show at the iconic Uluru natural landmark, tourists are served picnic hampers stuffed with saltbush-marinated olives and Waldorf salad with quandong (a slightly salty sour desert fruit). And if you’re lucky enough to nab a spot at Melbourne’s Attica—a mainstay on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list—you might be served smoked emu with warrigal greens (a leafy coastal plant) and finger limes (a sought-after citrus that bursts with caviar-like pearls of fruit).

After steadily growing for decades, Australia’s native foods industry is on the brink of exploding, driven in part by tourism (with about 9.5 million international visitors arriving annually pre-pandemic) and the popularity of shows like “MasterChef Australia.” Worth about 81.5 million Australian dollars (around $54 million) as of 2020, the industry is expected to double in size by 2025. Demand is already outstripping supply for the nutrient-dense foods, with only about 18 of 6,400 known native foods and botanicals currently commercially cultivated.

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Red bush apple (with green ants) in Kakadu National Park Tourism Northern Territory/Parks Australia

The industry’s exponential growth offers an opportunity: It could provide income generation for First Nations people—who are among the most socially and economically disadvantaged in the country—while allowing them to remain connected to their traditional land and culture. Yet, a 2018 survey by Bushfood Sensations, an alliance of businesses that promote Indigenous Australian food, estimated that as few as 1 percent of those involved in the industry are Indigenous.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are Australia’s first scientists,” says Katherine Locock, a chemist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia’s government body for science and research. For over a decade, she’s been working with First Nations groups to bring products to market. “They’ve developed a huge body of knowledge about the medicinal properties of plants and how to live in harmony with country rather than harm it. But even though the knowledge of these plants is Indigenous cultural intellectual property, a lot of the supply chains aren’t within Indigenous hands—and that’s a big concern.”

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Dale Tilbrook squeezes finger lime pearls. Courtesy of Dale Tilbrook

As Locock explains, harvesting bush foods isn’t a simple case of plucking a piece of fruit from a tree. In addition to necessitating an understanding of seasonality and growth cycles, bush foods may require unique processing and preparation, such as wild yams and cycad seeds, both of which are toxic unless first leached in water.

Aboriginal people have honed this knowledge over the roughly 65,000 years that they have occupied the mainland. According to Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, they didn’t just hunt and gather; by the time British colonists arrived, Indigenous people were “in the early stages of an agricultural society” that included farming and aquaculture. The plants they harvested were suited to Australia’s harsh environment; drought- and pest-resistant, bush foods typically don’t require the amount of land, fertilizers or irrigation that introduced foods do.

Their flavor, too, is a distinctive reflection of the landscape, as I learn in Kakadu National Park. After pointing out Kakadu plums—a cousin of the Kakadu peach—growing on a tree, my guide gives me one. The green fruit is the shape of a pear, but miniature. Its size better suits a possum than a person. All pit and very little flesh, its flavor is impossible to pin down; entirely foreign, yet somehow familiar.

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Kakadu plums Tourism Northern Territory

As we drive through the park toward Burrungkuy—an Aboriginal rock art site depicting life from 20,000 years ago that helped Kakadu land its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation—I work my way through a handful of Kakadu plums before settling on a description: They taste like a cross between lemon rind and the skin of a Granny Smith apple, with a texture reminiscent of an overripe plum. Later, I learn that its profile has been described as having an “aroma of stewed apples and pears, some cooked citrus” with “pickled and fermented notes,” so I’m not far off.

For what the Kakadu plum lacks in size and flavor, it more than makes up for in its nutritional content. University of Queensland researchers have found that the tiny green fruit and its kernal are high in protein and dietary fiber, and act as a good source of magnesium, calcium and phosphorous. A powerful antioxidant, it’s also known for its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

This is true of countless other bush foods. Protein- and fiber-rich wattleseed—which acts as a nitrogen-fixer in the soil—provides calcium and more iron than found in lentils or chickpeas. With only 2 percent fat, kangaroo meat is packed with long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and as much, if not more, iron than beef. And macadamia nuts—believed to originate from one single tree in Queensland—can help lower cholesterol levels. These bold claims are backed by research, which is why experts predict bush foods are the next superfoods. They’re capable not only of bolstering our health, but also of future-proofing our diets in the fight again climate change.

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Kakadu plum fruit salad Tourism Northern Territory

But it’s still unclear who would financially benefit from a bush food boom—and what the commercialization of these foods would look like. The Kakadu plum may not have much flesh, but neither did a peach prior to decades of selective breeding. Once upon a time, the now-sweet fruit was mainly pit, with an earthy and salty flavor.

Then, there are the concerns about biopiracy, or the appropriation and exploitation of bush foods and the Indigenous knowledge that accompanies their cultivation and use. In 2006, American beauty brand Mary Kay applied for a patent to extract ingredients from Kakadu plums for a skin cream. Had it succeeded, local Indigenous suppliers wouldn’t have been able to create or market their own products using the fruit.

“We believe it’s the fifth theft happening in this country: Our country has stolen the land, the language, the resources, the children, and now they’re trying to take our food,” says “Aunty” Dale Chapman, a Yuwaalaraay Kooma woman and the owner of My Dilly Bag, a Sunshine Coast-based business and storefront that offers bush food tastings and catering. She’s referring to the legacy of colonization and government policies that resulted in Aboriginal people being systemically displaced from their land, forcibly separated from their children and denied their right to cultural practices, including speaking their native languages.

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Aunt Dale Chapman of My Dilly Bag and Cris Dawes of FNBBAA Jessica Wynne Lockhart

Chapman is also the Queensland representative the First Nations Bushfood and Botanicals Alliance Australia (FNBBAA), which is in the process of trying to establish Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property over the full supply chain of bush food production, ensuring it’s grown and harvested by Indigenous people according to cultural protocols. Consumers currently associate the term “bush tucker” with “dusty abandoned roadkill,” explains Cris Dawes, FNBBAA’s CEO. A database with geographical identifiers and corresponding branding will create provenance for what FNBBAA refers to as “sovereign foods.”

“Genuine commercialization of sovereign foods should first be granted and given to First Nations people,” says Dawes, who estimates the value of the industry is closer to 1.2 billion Australian dollars ($790 million) based on its consumer value (which includes the industry-wide profit margins, such as the packing, shipping and marketing of bush tucker) rather than its farm gate value. “Right now, they’re being left behind.”

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Kakadu National Park is a 7,500-square-mile landscape rich with monsoon forests, rocky red gorges and dramatic waterfalls. Tourism Northern Territory

FNBBAA’s vision is that the provenance of native foods will also bolster tourism. Much like how true Champagne production can only be seen in Champagne, France, or how one million people visit the Swiss village of Gruyères annually for its eponymous cheese, foodies might travel to the Northern Territory to taste Kakadu plums at the source. And much like we’ve come to love Idaho potatoes and Florida oranges, geographic indicators will act like trademarks, guaranteeing origin and quality—and ensure that profits remain in the hands of Indigenous people.

“We’re attempting to create an economic future for our people, on-country [on their traditional territory or homeland],” says Chapman. “If you’re growing produce, educating people and doing cultural practices, then you’re going to feel like you’re contributing back to your people and the country you live in.”

“This is our legacy; this is for our children’s children,” she adds.

Not everyone backs the hard-line approach FNBBAA is taking, though.

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Food guide and "bush tucker queen" Dale Tilbrook Courtesy of Dale Tilbrook

“You can’t turn back the hands of time. We can’t stop the world from wanting to grow our bush foods,” says Dale Tilbrook, a food guide known as the “bush tucker queen.” Based in Swan Valley, Western Australia, the Wardandi Bibbulmun woman has decades of knowledge gleaned from her elders. Tilbrook leads tourists through tastings of locally grown seasonal fruits, nuts and herbs.

But Tilbrook agrees that tourism—in whatever form its takes—is the perfect vehicle for both elevating native foods and ensuring First Nations people become bigger beneficiaries in their commercialization. For visitors, it’s an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Indigenous culture and how varied it is across Australia.

“It’s not just a matter of picking something and eating it,” she says. “There’s ecological knowledge, history, stories and connection to country that goes with it. It’s a very enriching experience to talk to tourists.”

The Next Superfoods May Come From Australia
Barramundi cooked in paperbark Kakadu Tourism

Kakadu Kitchen’s Ben Tyler, too, has plans for the future. In addition to launching an entire line of non-alcoholic cocktails, he’s in the process of obtaining a commercial farming license for his remote Kakadu community to build a vertical farm in what was once garbage dump. Its produce, he says, will be used to supply the area’s restaurants and hotels, including Cooinda Lodge. Tyler’s hope is that it will regenerate the landscape, create jobs and be replicable by other mobs (tribes) across the country. He says this is a tenet of Bininj-Mungguy culture, one that’s echoed by Indigenous cultures around the world.

“The concept we need to continue exploring and expanding upon in the modern commercialization and production of Australian bush foods is looking after country so that the country looks after us,” says Tyler. “We need to prioritize thinking and asking what Mother Earth needs first, rather than what we can take from her.”

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