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Native ingredients you can find growing wild in Sydney

Freya Herring

This week we took a remarkable Aboriginal Heritage Tour at the Royal Botanic Gardens. And, wow, did we find out a lot about our native bushland. Education co-ordinator for Aboriginal programs and Ularai/Barkandji woman, Jody Orcher was our guide, and what an intelligent, generous and engaging guide she was. She'll also be speaking at our upcoming Time Out Talk. From blossoming macadamia trees to tiny, rose-scented berries, it made us totally rethink our image of the city – we were blown away by how many incredible foods are readily available and growing in Sydney right now.

“Native foods to me are home,” Orcher tells Time Out, “It’s about cooking the way we prepared it, it’s about eating with family, it’s about going and getting it, catching it, gathering it, killing it, whatever it may be, and everyone pitching in. And then the way that we make use of different things in the animal or the plant – I think I value those things because they are things that I learnt from my family, so it reconnects me back to my identity.” Learning and eating bush food has larger implications too. As Orcher tells us, it’s also about “having the integrity to understand how to recognise and to respect those traditional owners or where those foods come from, it’s as easy as recognising them as who they are.”

Here are some of our favourite finds on the day – some you’ll know, some you won’t, but trust us, you should be seeking out them all (go on one of Orcher’s tours to find out more).

Lemon myrtle
When Orcher puts some scrunched-up lemon myrtle leaves in our hands, the smell hits our nostrils instantly. It’s like bush perfume, and Orcher tells us that traditionally it has been infused in water to soothe sore throats and tummies.

Native raspberries
These little berries are, seriously, one of the most delicious things we’ve ever eaten. They taste like sugar-drenched roses and the flavour lingers in the mouth long after you’ve taken a bite. Imagine a pavlova topped with these bad boys? These need to be on Sydney restaurant menus, stat. Although the morsels we sampled were tiny, they can grow much larger than European raspberries.

Warrigal greens
They grow like weeds, warrigal greens, but they are packed full of protein, iron and calcium. Orcher advises using them in place of spinach, and she loves them transformed into a pesto. They can be a little tough, so Orcher suggests blanching them for a couple of minutes before eating. 

Black apples
As is the case with many ancient civilisations – and remember, our Aboriginal people are one of the oldest surviving cultures on Earth – nothing is wasted, and every part of the plant or animal killed is utilised. Black apples see the sweet, starchy, plum-like flesh eaten, the large, glossy brown seeds used to make necklaces and the dark purple skin transformed into dye.

Gymea lily
The giant flower head at the top of the gymea lily plant can be roasted over coals for 50 minutes, and tastes like cabbage, Orcher tells us. “It’s like being in Willy Wonka’s factory, where you can eat the wallpaper!” she says.

Seriously – cherry blossom season in Japan has got nothing on this. If you’ve never seen a macadamia tree in bloom, get down to Botanic Gardens immediately. Resembling something between a weeping willow and cherry blossom tree, long garlands of pink flowers hang from the tree. Each flower, after a nine-month gestation, is destined to become a macadamia nut. Walking through the folds of flowers you get drifting scents of sweet, floral cream. What’s even more magical? Traditionally, Orcher tells us, Aboriginal woman would time their pregnancies by the tree.

Golden wattle
Want to clean your hands before you tuck into all the food you’ve collected? Tear up a golden wattle leaf and add a few drops of water, then rub your hands together as if you are washing them. The mixture will start to foam up and exfoliate your hands, then when you wash it off, your hands are clean as a whistle. Orcher tells us that men used to clean themselves this way before a hunt so that the animals couldn’t detect their scent.

We’ll leave you with what Orcher told us at the end of our tour, which perfectly sums our experience too: “I think bush food allows you to be comfortable, it doesn’t matter where you have it, you’ll always remember when you first had it; it’s always an event.”

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