Australian Native Cuisine (with Printable Herb/Spice Blends Chart)

Caricature1I have experimented with herbs and spices lately that I received from some wonderful friends in Australia and having great fun tasting the explosive array of flavors they add to my cooking!

Emerging as a new frontier in the spice trade, Australian wild-crafted spices like bush tomato and mountain pepper are the newest things to hit spice shelves in years. Interestingly, we are discovering that Indigenous Australians’ spice racks may predate those of the rest of the world by millennia. Entrepreneurs in the spice trade discovered the potent bush tomato while investigating the Indigenous Australian diet. “Bush tucker” is finally being noticed!

The Australian cuisine is underrated in the world of cooking, with native species of herbs and spices almost unknown in the rest of the world. Australian native spices are very unique. The flavors are very subtle but distinctive and complement each other in cooking.

The seasonings are suitable for both sweet and savory cooking and work well with most cooking styles. Australian native tastes are a new addition of flavors to the world kitchen and a way to experience a culinary knowledge of Australia. In Australia, fruits are also commonly used as flavorings in cooking and form a large part of the culinary seasoning palate.

Australian native plants have been used for thousands of years by Aboriginal people for a range of uses including staple foods. Australian herbs and spices are used by Aborigines to flavor food in ground ovens. With the recent rediscovery of the flavors of the Australian hot dry deserts and lush rainforests, the native plants have found their way into the modern kitchen for everybody to enjoy. The spices are not commonly available and mostly collected from the wild. This also means they are grown without the use of chemicals and have been gently hand harvested.

The bush tomato and wattle seed are traditional staple foods collected in Central Australia by the local aboriginal communities. The industry gives new incentives for traditional land management and opportunities to pass valuable knowledge from the older to the younger generation. It is mostly older women that collect the fruits and seeds in the company of grandchildren.

The term “spice” applies generally to the non-leafy range of strongly flavored dried Australian bush foods. They mainly consist of aromatic fruits and seed products (although Australian wild peppers also have spicy leaves). There are also a small number of aromatic leaves but unlike culinary “herbs” from other cultures which often come from small soft-stemmed herbaceous flowering plants, the Australian herb species are generally trees from rainforests, open forests and woodlands.

Australian herbs and spices are usually dried and ground to produce a powdered or flaked spice, either used as single ingredient or in blends. A lovely combination of flavors can be achieved by adding Australian native herbs and spices to the more traditional herbs with which we are more familiar. Bush Tomato and Dorrigo Pepper, when added to Basil and Oregano bring a new dimension to Italian recipes, as does Aniseed Myrtle.

Holy Basil

01Holy Basil(Ocimum tenuiflorum) Holy basil, an Australian transplant from the Far East, is a perennial plant that grows easily from seed. The leaves can be picked throughout the year for garnishing or as a native tea. Once established this plant is very tough and will provide you with year round food. Native thyme grows well in the Northern territory, but is on the “Threatened Species” list. Do NOT forage for this plant. Instead, grow your own from seed.

The leaves and the seeds may both be used. Dried and powdered leaf and fresh leaves are also often consumed. Always add basil at the end of the cooking time to maximize its flavor.

Tulasi – as the plant is also called – is used in a wide variety of Thai dishes. When used in cooking, the leaves, as well as the completed dish cooked with said leaves, are called kraphao. A kraphao dish basically consists of some kind of meat stir fried with a variety of vegetables, garlic, and a generous portion of holy basil, then served alongside some plain white rice. Kraphao is by no means the only dish that uses tulsi however. The herb is used in stews, entrées, and even some drinks or desserts.

Substitutions for Holy Basil: Basil (This isn’t as spicy as holy basil) or a combination of basil and mint, basil and ground pepper, or basil and crushed red chili peppers.

Lemon Myrtle

02Lemon Myrtle(Backhousia citriodora) Lemon myrtle is a medium size tree found in the coastal rainforests of North Eastern Australia. The leaves from the lemon myrtle tree are characterized by their strong lemon aroma. They contain essential oil with the world’s highest known concentration of citral (around 90-98%).

Lemon myrtle is fast becoming famous for its incredible flavor. Demand for the leaves has paved the way for commercial production in Northern New South Wales and Queensland.

Lemon myrtle is a common ingredient in many bush blend spices. It can be used in baking: shortbread, biscuits, pancakes, cakes, cheesecake and damper; cooking: stir fries, pasta, rubbed on meat and seafood, stirred through dressings, tea and lemonade. Lemon myrtle loves chicken fish, seafood, pork, rice and fruit and marries with aniseed, basil, chillies, fennel, galangal, ginger, parsley, pepper, thyme and yogurt.

The leaves can be used fresh or dried, or dried and ground into a green powder. Add at the end of cooking, as prolonged cooking will destroy the lemon taste. Use only in small amounts. If you use it in large amounts, a eucalyptus-like taste will come through instead. For the dried powder, use only up to 1/2 teaspoon per pound (500g) of other ingredients.

Substitutes for Lemon Myrtle: Lemongrass, Lemon Verbana (double the amount), or Lemon Zest. And yes, you can use lemon myrtle as a flavor substitute for lemongrass or lemon zest.

Olida (Forest Berry Herb)

03Forest Berry Herb(Eucalyptus olida) Australian native olida is also called Forest Berry Herb and has a passionfruit-like taste. It is also known as strawberry gum with its hint of strawberry flavor, an ideal companion to tropical fruits (especially in fruit salad), but is also really nice in biscuits, ice creams or pancakes. This is a native flavor that works well in sorbets.

Olida has a variety of uses and these are often best achieved by thinking of it is a flavor enhancer rather than expecting it to come out and overtly flavor a dish with its own character. It is used to enhance the flavor of cooked fruit dishes, desserts or spiced jams, bringing out the classic ‘berry’ flavor. You can also use it in herbal teas and carbonated beverages.

There are two basic guidelines worth remembering to achieve the best results with olida. One is to add only a small amount, say 1/4 to 1/2 tsp to 500g to fruit or vegetables, then taste before adding more. The other is to only put olida in recipes that cook for a short time, never subjecting it to extreme temperatures for more than 10–15 minutes. The reason for this caution is that when too much olida is used, or when it is cooked for too long, the flavour-giving volatile oils will be depleted and a sharp, hay-like, less than pleasant eucalyptus flavor may dominate.

Although forest berry herb’s own flavor will be diminished in a fruit jam, it will enhance the fruit and berry flavors. While olida does go quite well in shortbread, cakes and muffins, add it to sweet things that are either not cooked (e.g., fruit salads) or are cooked more quickly at a lower heat, such as blini and pancakes.

Substitutes for Olida: Strawberry extract or dried strawberry powder or dried passionfruit powder.

Dorrigo Pepper

04Dorrigo Pepper(Tasmannia stipitata) Dorrigo Pepper or Northern Pepperbush is a rainforest shrub of temperate forests of the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, Australia. The culinary quality of T. stipitata was recognized in the mid-1980s by horticulturist, Peter Hardwick, who gave it the name ‘Dorrigo pepper’, and Jean-Paul Bruneteau, then chef at Rowntrees Restaurant, Sydney. It is mainly wild harvested from the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales.

Dorrigo pepper has a woody peppery note in the leaves and fruit/seed. The hot peppery flavor is derived from Polygodials, an essential oil component. Dorrigo pepper is also naturally free of safrole (a banned toxin), unlike some other Tasmannia species.

Dorrigo pepper is similar in taste to Mountain Pepper with many of the same properties. It is slightly hotter and makes a wonderful addition to soups and stews. Try a little Dorrigo Pepper in patés and terrines, it is also suitable for seasoning quiches, omelettes, soups and salad dressings as well as being used as a general condiment, however it should be used sparingly as it has such an intense flavor.

Dorrigo pepper tastes very hot with a woody note. It is completely lacking the sweetness of Tasmanian pepper. In contrast to other Tasmannia varieties it is naturally free of safrole, a liver toxic and carcinogenic essential oil banned in foods. Dorrigo pepper is therefore completely safe to use as a substitute for black pepper. Long cooking times destroy the aroma of all Australian pepper varieties. They should therefore be added towards the end of the cooking time. Since Dorrigo pepper is much hotter than black pepper, the quantity used should be adjusted.

Substitute for Doriggo Pepper: A combination of Szechwan Pepper and smoked paprika.

Mountain Pepper (Tasmanian Mountain Pepper)

05Mountain Pepper(Tasmannia Lanceolata) Mountain pepper is a small tree growing to around 5 meters and is found in South Eastern New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. The ground leaves of this Australian native tree are a good substitute for traditional pepper. However it has a fairly intense flavor and should be used with this in mind.

Both the leaves and berries contain a compound called polygodial which gives them their characteristic hot taste. Most of the production of mountain pepper is from wild harvesting however commercial plantations are now emerging to keep up with demand.

It has a tangy, spicy flavor with hot, strong undertones. Both the leaves and berries of this tree are used for cooking. The ground leaves are, on the whole more suitable for quiches, flans, Asian dishes or recipes that would normally require white pepper. Casseroles, stews or dishes that require long slow cooking benefit from the use of mountain pepperberries, as the lengthy cooking process mellows and dissipates their heat.

Substitute for Mountain Pepper: Szechwan Pepper.

Wattle Seed

06Wattle Seed(Acacia victoriae and others) There are over 700 species of wattle in Australia however only a few are edible, the most common variety being the Acacia victoriae. Several species of Acacias are more palatable and commercially viable, these being: Acacia victoriae (Prickly Acacia), Acacia sophorae (Coastal Wattle), Acacia retinodes (Wirilda), Acacia coriacea (Dogwood), Acacia murrayana (Colony Wattle), and Acacia aneura (Mulga). In their natural habitats these species are plentiful, and because of this, they have been mainly harvested in the wild. The most sought after wattleseed is the Acacia retinodes (Wirilda) which is now being planted in large commercial plots for the bushfood industry.

The Australian Aboriginals have been using wattle seed for thousands of years as a staple food source but these days it is more commonly used as a spice when roasted and ground. Today the seed is commercially roasted similar to coffee beans. The resulting seed is used to flavor desserts, mousse, crème brûlée, ice cream or savory sauces. It can even be used as a coffee substitute. The seed has a nutty flavor with hints of chocolate and hazelnuts.

The seeds of the Acacias have very hard husks, and when they fall to the ground, will last for up to 20 years in their natural environment, usually only germinating after bush fires. Because this hard outer casing also protects the seed during long periods of dormancy on the ground, wattle seed has provided indigenous Australians with a rich source of protein and carbohydrate in times of drought. Even the green seeds of some species were eaten after baking in the hot coals.

Roasted ground wattle seed has a diverse number of uses in the kitchen, from baking to thickening of sauces and casseroles to ice cream. By dark-roasting Wattle seed, the most delightful aroma of nutty fresh roasted coffee is released and can be used as a beverage or as an addition to chocolate or desserts. The flavor, reminiscent of hazelnuts and chocolate with hints of coffee, makes wattle seed an ideal seasoning for ice creams, nut butters, sauces, and coffee beverages. With a low glycemic index and high protein content, wattle Seed is also an excellent candidate for low-fat, healthy cuisine. It is such a diverse ingredient that there are many ways to use it:

  • Wattle Seed Flour: The seed is crushed into flour between flat grinding stones and cooked into cakes or damper.
  • Wattle Seed Grounds: Use for its rich roasted, toasty flavors in pancake batter, desserts (mousse, crème brûlée, anglaise) and baked products eg muffins, breads, and shortbread, and as a coffee substitute.
  • Wattle Seed Extract: Use by simple addition to sweet or savory sauces, and dairy desserts.
  • Wattle Seed Paste: this makes using Wattle Seed really easy. It’s pre-treated for  maximum flavor strength, ideal for all of the above uses and more.

Substitute for Wattle Seed: A combination of coffee grounds, cacao powder, and hazelnut extract or powder.

Bush Tomato (Desert Raisin)

07Bush Tomato(Solanum centrale) The Bush Tomato is a small shrub found in Central and Eastern Australia. A relative of the common tomato and potato, this plant is a perennial and like many other Australian plants, thrives after bushfires. The fruit is left on the bush to dry before picking.

The crushed or ground version of bush tomato is referred to as akudjura, the color varying from light, sandy orange-brown to dark brown depending upon the amount of rainfall the plants experienced while the fruits were developing. The powder is often combined with brown sugar and used as a rub for lamb and can also give a country-baked taste to cookies and apple crumble.

The aboriginal tribes of Central and Eastern Australia have gathered these dried fruits for thousands of years relying on them as a staple food. Now used as a spice, most of the production is from wild harvesting by Aboriginal communities, though some commercial plantations are now emerging. Kutjera, or Australian desert raisin is a plant variety native to the more arid parts of Australia. Like other bush tomatoes, it has been a food source for Central Australian Aboriginal groups for millennia.

The vitamin C-rich fruit are 1–3 cm in diameter and yellow in color when fully ripe. They dry on the bush and look like raisins. These fruits have a strong, pungent taste of tamarillo and caramel that makes them popular for use in sauces and condiments. They can be obtained either whole or ground, with the ground product (sold as “kutjera powder”) easily added to bread mixes, salads, sauces, cheese dishes, chutneys, and stews, or mixed into butter.

Substitute for Bush Tomatoes: sun-dried tomatoes.

Finger Limes

08Finger Lime(Citrus australasica) Finger Limes are a small rainforest fruit which grows in the subtropical rainforests of east coast Australia near Byron Bay. Inside the fruit are small pearls of aromatic juice like caviar. When you bite the little pearls they pop just like caviar or ‘pop rock candy’ and release an aromatic lime burst of flavor to your palate. The fruit naturally come in a large variety of colors. They get their name because they are the size and shape of a finger.

finger lime caviarNative to Australia, the fingerling, or finger lime, is approximate 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches long and is filled with tiny caviar-shaped spheres that taste similar to the Mexican true lime (key lime). These limes have become quite popular with U.S. chefs.  They are hard to find in the United States but you can buy the plants online. In California the finger lime trees bare fruit in November and December.

In addition to using the fruit like citrus caviar, it can be used for jams and marmalade.  See picture for examples of the various colors of citrus caviar.

Finger lime makes the ultimate specialty garnish and are incredibly versatile. They are equally at home sprinkled over seafood, sushi and in drinks such as cocktails or even Champagne. The little balls of flavor are added just before serving with hot dishes to maintain the flavor burst, it’s like a little surprise of flavor every time you bite into one of the little pearls.

Substitute for Fingerling Limes: Mexican (key) lime for a similar flavor but not the little flavorful spheres.

Macadamia (Bush Nut)

09Macadamia Nut(Macadamia integrifolia and Macadamia tetraphylla) Macadamia is a genus of four species of fruit trees indigenous to Australia, but only two are considered edible raw. They are native to north-eastern New South Wales and central and south-eastern Queensland. Macadamia species grow as small to large evergreen trees. The fruit (nut) is a very hard, woody, globose follicle with a pointed apex, containing one or two seeds.

Compared to other common edible nuts such as almonds and cashews, macadamias are high in fat and low in protein. They have the highest amount of monounsaturated fats of any known seed and contain approximately 22% of omega-7 palmitoleic acid, which has biological effects similar to monounsaturated fat. They also contain 9% protein, 9% carbohydrate, and 2% dietary fiber, as well as calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, selenium, iron, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.

Macadamia nuts are used extensively in Australian cuisine.

  • Macadamia nuts can be substituted for other nuts measure for measure in most recipes and vice versa. Some recipes call for ground macadamia nuts. Simply put them in a food processor and pulse until desired consistency is achieved. Beware over-processing — you’ll end up with nut butter. If you do over-process, macadamia nut butter is delicious as a spread. Add a touch of vegetable oil and a bit of honey for smoothness and added flavor.
  • Ground macadamia nuts can be used as a filler and flavor enhancer in ground meat, poultry and seafood dishes.
  • Use ground nuts in pastry dough or sprinkle on the bottom of pie shells for a delightful change of taste.
  • Toasting nuts before adding to the recipe will yield a brighter flavor. Always let toasted nuts cool down before grinding or chopping to prevent them from becoming oily or pasty in texture. To toast: Spread nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in 350-degree F. oven. Toast until golden, about 12 to 15 minutes. When using a toaster oven, cut the time in half. It’s best to toast only what you need at the time as toasted nuts will not store as well as raw nuts.
  • Macadamia nuts pair particularly well with coconut , chocolate, and fish.
  • Macadamia nuts figure prominently in the native dukkah spice blends.
  • Macadamia oil is excellent frying oil due to its high heat capacity. Several properties of macadamia oil are particularly important for use as an edible oil. It contains up to 85% monounsaturated fats, has an unrefrigerated shelf life of one to two years, has a smoke point of 410 °F (210 °C), and contains more oleic acid (a good fatty acid) than olive oil.

PLEASE NOTE: Macadamias are toxic to dogs. Ingestion may result in macadamia toxicosis, which is marked by weakness and hind limb paralysis with the inability to stand, occurring within 12 hours of ingestion. Depending on the quantity ingested and size of the dog, symptoms may also include muscle tremors, joint pain and severe abdominal pain. In high doses of  toxin, opiate medication  may be required for symptom relief until the toxic effects diminish. Full recovery is usually within 24 to 48 hours.

Substitute for Macadamia Nuts: You can substitute Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, or walnuts but realize the creamy texture and mouth feel will not be the same.

Australian Herb/Spice Blends

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Australian Herb-Spice Blends


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