I'll Have the Witjuti Grubs, Please'

Australians and their visitors are ordering up more native foodstuffs and Outback cuisine BUSH TUCKER CATCHES ON

THE emu is an ungainly, ostrich-like bird that struts across the Outback of Australia. Tonight, however, it's the waitresses who are strutting about with the emu - as the main course at Rowntrees, a restaurant specializing in Australian cuisine.Jean-Paul Bruneteau, the co-owner of Rowntrees, has prepared the thighs of the bird with an orange sauce. "I use bush foods to give a true Australian flavor," says Mr. Bruneteau, who soon after this farewell banquet closed his restaurant to become a freelance chef, consultant, and author. Emu, kangaroo, bunya-bunya nuts, wattle seeds, warrigal greens, and, of course, witjuti (or witchetty) grubs, are all bush foods that are integral parts of Down Under cooking. "Australian cuisine has to embrace indigenous foods and then combine wild food with homegrown, European, and some American or Asian ingredients," says Vic Cherikoff, a bush food consultant and owner of the Bush Tucker Supply Proprietary Limited. The concept of native foods is increasingly appealing to hotels and restaurants frequented by tourists. A recent ad for the Yulara resort in the Outback featured the food instead of nearby Ayers Rock. Among the dishes: buffalo carpaccio, emu fillets stuffed with crocodile, and baked witchetty grubs. One Australian chain, the Country Comfort Inn, has decided to make "bush tucker," or native foods, a signature of its restaurants, which are part of its 19 motels. Their menus include wattle-seed pavlova (a dessert), beef and lamb with Illawarra plum and chili sauce, and chicken in sauce with wattle and kurrajong seeds. Bush food also took to the air last month on Australian Airlines. Corporate chef Brian Ferguson was planning to introduce bush tomatoes, kakadu plums, wild rosella jams, lillipillis (with a clove-like flavor), kangaroo medallions, and wattle-seed blinis. "This is all new to me; it's been like discovering herbs and cheeses. It's great fun," says Mr. Ferguson, who is responsible for overseeing 30,000 meals a day.

Cooking, aboriginal style Mr. Cherikoff takes visitors and corporate executives to some of Sydney's parks to demonstrate aboriginal-style cooking. He digs a ground oven, lines it with rocks, and lights a fire in it. Once the fire has burned down to coals and the rocks have become red-hot, he removes the rocks and ash. Then he lays down paperbark (from the paperbark tree) and puts the cleaned, hot rocks back in. The food is then wrapped in paperbark, set on the rocks, and the hole is covered. In about 40 minutes, the food is ready . The paperbark, says Cherikoff, gives off a "delicate, smoky flavor" that stimulates the appetite. Aboriginal cooking has evolved over the past 40,000 years, and each of the 600 tribes in Australia had its own cuisine. "There is still a lot to learn," says Cherikoff, who also runs a food store in Sydney called The Wattleseed Deli. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation made major strides in educating the public about bush foods with its series, "The Bush Tucker Man." Host Maj. Les Hiddins showed viewers which native fruits and plants were edible in the Outback and rain forests. The ABC shop in Sydney reports that videotapes of the show are very popular gifts. (The show is now off the air after two seasons.) Bookstores are also well-stocked with books on bush tucker. "There is a trend at the moment for it," says Jan Hazlewood, assistant to the publisher at Weldon Publishing, which has published "Bush Food," by Jennifer Issacs. Weldon is planning a third printing for the book, first published in 1988. Of course, not all Australians are slurping down witchetty grubs. In fact, for many Australians, the closest they get to native food is the Vegemite they smear on their toast in the morning. Vegemite is a relatively recent Australian food derived from the yeast used to make beer. Kraft Foods adds salt and a few other ingredients. "In other hot climates people like chili or spices; here they like salt," explains Cherikoff. Outside of Australia, few people can get past the first whiff. Other, traditional Australian foods include Lamingtons (stale sponge cakes covered with chocolate and coconut); meat pies (they can travel with a station-hand for days without refrigeration); and pavlovas, meringue desserts liberally covered with fruit. But the real excitement surrounds bush foods cooked European-style. At Rowntrees, for example, Chef Bruneteau recently hosted 30 members of the Pittwater Food & Wine Society. The menu: Witchetty Grub Soup, Skate on Warrigals, Emu With Orange Sauce, and Rosella and Quandong Tart. Bruneteau buys the witchetty grubs frozen. They are roughly the size of a man's index finger. They are pureed and mixed with a broth to make a meaty-tasting soup. Aborigines eat the grubs whole and uncooked. "They have a nice, nutty flavor when roasted," says Bruneteau, who adds they are much better than the snails favored by his French ancestors. He estimates he uses about 12,000 grubs per year including a considerable number in the soup, which he cans and sells. The warrigal is a native green somewhat like spinach. Mixed with garlic, onion, and black pepper, it is pureed before the skate is sauteed in clarified butter.

Eating flowers and desert peaches Bruneteau sears the emu in an oiled, hot skillet. He sprinkles the meat with peppercorns. After a few minutes, the emu is grilled for 8 to 10 minutes to give it a barbecue flavor. Then the bird is baked in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes. The emu is sliced very thin. Without the sauce, the meat is somewhat on the dry side and tastes like the dark meat on a turkey. Rosella, the outer leaves of a hybiscus heterphyllus bud, tastes like rhubarb while the quandong, a desert peach, has a citrus flavor and apricot texture. The two fruits complement each other on the tart which is served with sauces of cream and berries. The Australian government is now trying to get farmers to begin raising quandongs commercially. As the plates return to the kitchen, Bruneteau looks at how much food has returned - a sign of success or failure. "As far as I am concerned, nothing came back," says Bruneteau. And, in another good indication, members ask where they can buy emus so they can try their hand at bush tucker themselves.

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