There’s nothing new about the ingredients celebrated on the menu at Melbourne’s Attica, one of Australia’s most lauded restaurants. In fact, the very opposite – they are among the oldest, most untouched ingredients in the world. Serving this ancient produce, serving dishes created from a true Australian cuisine is a responsibility Ben Shewry, chef and owner, takes very seriously.
“I have often been asked what Australian cuisine is and I could never answer beyond ‘a melting pot of experiences.’ I now realise what it really is – it’s Aboriginal food,” explains Shewry. “This is a cuisine that was once regional, it is still regional – like the regional cuisines from Italy – created from different clans, different ingredients and different methods of cookery. People don’t know that…I’m only learning that. These are some of the most beautiful and interesting examples of cooking I’ve ever witnessed.”
Australia’s Indigenous ingredients offer an incredible opportunity to a chef; they have not been tampered with, they have not been bred to travel on trucks, to ripen at the same time, to be perfectly round, they are almost exactly as they were 20,000+ years ago. Working with our native ingredients is an opportunity to cook with history – heirloom flora and fauna of the utmost purity.
And yet, Shewry is urging us to look beyond the pantry if we want to cook with these ingredients – he is asking people to look deeper. Beyond the soil, beyond the produce, it is the stories of the incredible culture, the longest-surviving continuous culture in the world, that we need to share and celebrate.
An ancient tapestry
Australia’s First Nations culture is a tapestry of language, of connection, of culinary traditions drawn from some 500 sovereign nations across Australia. They are now thought to be the world’s first bakers (with evidence suggesting they were baking bread some 10,000 years before the Egyptians) and a recent discovery of cooking hearths dates back as far as 120,000 years. Both these ingredients and these methods have nothing to do with the cooking you will find in the cookbooks on your shelves.
“First Nations culture is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The stories about food, about culture, humbled me,” says Shewry. “I am fortunate and privileged to work with mentors and friends to understand these products. They make me look good! I take so much pride in that. I’m just trying to serve them in the best way, and then, in the restaurant to add my own voice to them.”
Conversely, Shewry is adamant his time on country is not about his voice. “I go with the idea to shut up and listen. I’m honoured to be there. I don’t go to appropriate their knowledge, I go to understand their story with an open heart and mind. With their permission, I then try to pass that story on to people here in Attica.”
To illustrate his point, Shewry recounts the story of his first bimbla, a native clam also known as a blood clam. “The bimbla was large,” he explains, “half the size of a fist.” Looking for ideas as to what he could do with this unique shellfish, Shewry did what any chef would: he set the bimbla in a hot pot, with a little water, and allowed it to quickly steam open. “I didn’t like them, they’re high in haemoglobin and they tasted bloody – not for me, I thought, and so I left it.”
“Two or three years on,” Shewry continues, “I became friends with Uncle Noel Butler and his wife Trish. I was invited to spend time on country with them. Uncle Noel belongs to a small family group called Budawang and is one of only nine people left who speak Durga. ‘Tonight’, Uncle Noel said, ‘I would like to cook shellfish the traditional way – oysters, fish, mussels, and we’ll get some bimblas.’ Here we go, I thought…”
“Uncle Noel was specific about the wood, in fact, he had cut down the tree he needed to create the necessary hot charcoal. I watched as the bimblas went on the fire, I watched as 10 minutes went by, curious; then 20 minutes goes by and I’m thinking, this is way too much; then 30 minutes goes by, it’s unthinkable to a chef, and Uncle Noel finally gets them off. The bimbla are black and look dry and shrivelled, but of course out of politeness and respect I try…and it’s amazing.”
“It was at that moment I realised I didn’t have the cultural context for that food. How would I? How could I compare my knowledge to the tens of thousands of years his people have been there? All the knowledge we have in the kitchen might not mean anything in the context of these foods.”
The whole picture
The idea goes deeper than the requisite respect and technique. To cook with these ingredients, Shewry explains, we need greater understanding of everything that came before – the good, the bad and the (indeed, very) ugly. Quoting Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu: “You can’t eat our food if you can’t swallow our history.”
“I’m strong on the responsibility that comes with First Nations’ ingredients anywhere in the world, whether America, Amazon or Australia,” says Shewry. “Don’t be tokenistic about it. There are now chefs using the ingredients, but not learning about the culture with it – they don’t know the history, who used them, the words for the food, in many cases they’re not buying from Indigenous people. If we continue to use the food that way, we are going to create damage. Aboriginal people cannot be taken out of the conversation.”
Only two per cent of the profits, Shewry asserts, from Indigenous ingredients are actually going to Aboriginal people.
“These people lead with generosity and love… That’s the part I’m blown away by. I want to see people love it and not just take from it and exploit it. I want to give back to the community. I feel like what I’ve been given, I’ll never be able to repay,” laments Shewry. “You go slow, you help where you can. Most of all, you acknowledge some of these incredible stories of food and survival in food.”
Late last year, Shewry gave a speech at a culinary festival in Ireland entitled ‘Shut up and Listen’. He explained it was a speech about Australia and yet a speech he could not yet give in Australia. It was a tale of his time on country, of the beautiful encounters, generosity in food and an enormous wealth of knowledge that has largely been ignored, has largely been destroyed and is at risk of disappearing.
While the ingredients and techniques are old, what is new is the power of the chef to bring awareness, to shine a light where the light needs to be shone. It is up to all of us to listen.