Australian Functional Ingredients – by Vic Cherikoff

The Modern Trend of the Newest Flavours of the Oldest Culture on Earth

This article is not new but as I have had a number of requests for copies, I’ve reprinted it here. It also adds to my recent segment on The Food Investigators on SBS. The show is available for viewing on the SBS website. This episode of the Food Investigators has received a great deal of comment as people seek the wild fruits I mentioned on the show. Well this story puts it into perspective.

Oh and by the way, if you want to easily benefit from the nutritionally dense, wild Australian superfoods, check out this product in the Cherikoff on-line store.

Herbs and spices have been the basis of the economic development of many countries for centuries and are at the core of the growth of civilisation. While there is some evidence of herbs and spices being used by African and European hunter-gatherers through pre-history, clear records show that the Ancient Egyptians used herbs and spices in food, cosmetics and medicines since 5000BC.

The Arabian Spice Trade spanned over 5,000 years and grew out of the Middle East to the Mediterranean and on to Europe. Supplies came from Chinese spice merchants gathering their cargoes from their own country as well as Indonesia (specifically the Spice Islands of Maluku), India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The great trading companies of old (which could be considered as equivalents of our dot-coms) pushed the frontiers of exploration and endeavor creating new industries in their wake, all based around these new food flavors. More recently, the functional attributes of herbs and spices have been re-discovered and are creating yet other possibilities as food moves closer to medicine and these nutraceuticals gain ground as essential elements of a healthy diet.

Interestingly, there have been some anomalies. Consider the use of coriander (cilantro): Several Asian cuisines spring to mind which use coriander as almost a signature flavor. Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian and even Japanese cuisines include many dishes where this ancient Roman herb is an essential ingredient. Similarly with vanilla, coffee, chilli, chocolate and many other herbs and spices, particular cuisines have adopted these flavours and made them basic to their culinary repertoires. This certainly makes comments by one chef (a title I bestow generously) who claimed that he only cooked in the classic French style and a Wattleseed crème brulée just wouldn’t make sense to him. However, vanilla and chocolate are often used in this classic dessert and these are from the New World and certainly not native to France. Where’s the sense? Additionally, the French have always embraced new foods from lands they ‘explored’ (some would say raped and pillaged) and quickly applied them to their traditional and regional cooking methods labeling the result French cuisine. Perhaps Wattleseed crème brulée as a classic French dish is now only a matter of time.

So this brings us to the contribution to world food from the world’s largest island continent; Australia. At the time of the British invasion, there were around 25,000 plant species (we’ve since lost some through extinction from habitat clearing and destruction). Aborigines in the 600 nation states that was pre-colonial Australia used around 2500 or so species as medicines, forage foods and found functional ingredients with a foot in both camps (nutraceuticals as above).

Unfortunately, it was the British (and mainly men at that) who first came in contact with traditionally living Aborigines (many of whom were pre-infected by the diseases the British brought with them and culinary exploration and Aboriginal haute cuisine was not high on their list of spoils from the Antipodes.

Traditionally, Australian Aborigines used spices such as the wild nutmeg, pepperberries, caperberries and ginger seeds; herbs (half a dozen of which are now in commercial production) and even the powerfully flavored fruits including lemon aspen, riberries, bush tomatoes and wild limes. Some ingredients have been modernized, for example, I took wattle seeds which were eaten milled into flour and made into a seed cake and by roasting them like coffee, I created Wattleseed as a spice and grain ingredient. It is now used commercially around the world in cream and ice cream, as a beverage (I like it better with a little coffee added) and in sauces and breads. This is similar to the drying of the herbs such as lemon myrtle. Aborigines used the leaves more as a medicine or as a green stuffing but modern use has lead to dried herbs and essential oil extracts taking over from the fresh herb form.

I have been fortunate in being able to resurrect the next step in the historic spice trades. Through Australian Functional Ingredients Pty Ltd and along with my many colleagues, compatriots and clients we are forging the elements to an authentic Australian cuisine. We have begun the re-discovery of a family of flavors which offer new twists to established cooking methods and ingredient combinations. For many culinary professionals who can see their potential and not be blinded by the insecurity of traditions, Cherikoff flavors could very well be the next major food trend in those cities and regions where food fashion is born, grows and from which it spreads.

These ingredients are incredibly exciting. They seem familiar but have their own unique characteristics and are intensely flavorful. The herbs are strongly aromatic and the spices powerfully pungent. I think that all creative chefs who understand innovation will be or should be very excited.

I know that every time I ‘re-discover’ an ingredient I may not have used for a week or two, or longer, I am struck by its impact on other more conventional foods. And I must say that I get an equally powerful charge when chefs tell me that these flavors have re-inspired them and rekindled their love for cooking.

It has taken me, my colleagues and customers, over 25 years to experimentally identify a marketable range and develop organic plantations as well as managed systems of wild-crafting commercial quantities so that world markets can begin to be serviced. It will be some years, possibly decades still, until they have any hope of being common foods but even today, they are generating huge interest around the globe as new and exciting flavors and recognized as versatile and adaptable for a host of applications, irrespective of cuisine.

So lets look more closely at these ingredients, once only sustenance for Australian Aborigines: Not unexpectedly, they include herbs and spices (less than two dozen all up), fruits (thousands), seeds (hundreds), nuts (maybe around a thousand), greens (less than a dozen) and other specialties from Australian rainforests, woodlands, highlands, coastline and deserts. Today they also range to extracts, concentrates, purées, isolates, essential oils and infused oils, and most recently, even some dense gas extracts. In all, there are nearly three dozen species but export markets will be introduced to them in stages. The current commercial range of herbs and spices (eight in total), paperbark (a cooking wrap and flavouring made from the bark of a tree) and a versatile collection of fruits, purées, sauces, syrups, infused oils and preserves are first up with other products to follow as supplies permit. Yet even this initial range results in a huge variety of possibilities.

The Cherikoff food service range of marinades, sauces, chutneys and spreads have been designed to be used as base flavourings allowing them to add a particularly innovative twist to different world cuisine styles. For example, lemon aspen syrup can be transformed into a Japanese dipping sauce by adding umeboshi plum vinegar and tamari or wasabi; or made suitable for Chinese food as a sweet and sour sauce with rice wine vinegar and ginger juice. For a delicious topping for potato chips as fries or wedges, Cherikoff Mountain pepper BBQ sauce served with sour cream or coconut cream is delicious. This barbecue sauce can even ‘Australianise’ Middle Eastern cuisine when mixed with hummus, baba ganoush or sheep’s milk yoghurt or alternatively, applied to American dishes when used either as a flavouring for mayonnaise on salads or splashed straight onto a hot dog with mustard. For another idea, right off the wall, get into a hot dog with a paperbark smoke seeded mustard or an Oz lemon BBQ sauce. Mmmm.

There have already been some successful value-added applications of Australian ingredients: Alpine pepper, roasted Wattleseed (Acacia seeds) and Forest anise (aniseed myrtle) in breads and other baked products; Lemon Myrtle Sprinkle or wild fruit concentrates in manufactured dairy and frozen desserts and a wide range of the herbs and spices in prepared seasonings, sausage pre-mixes, infused oils, pastries, cheeses, ice creams, chocolates, beverages and sauces. We are working on a natural food preservative made from a blend of essential oils and sub-critical extracts and this will be ideal for the organic industry as well as replacing a whole raft of more toxic preservatives. Did you know that we tend to rot more slowly when buried after death than our ancestors because of the preservatives we consume all our lives? Good news for forensic scientists, I guess.

One service we offer to both chefs and manufacturers is a ‘flavour-up’. This is my suggestions using Australian ingredients as applied to existing menus or product ranges. Fax or email a menu and I’ll send back an array of possible ingredients incorporated into your existing repertoire. The dishes are ‘tweaked’ yet the chef and his team are already familiar with the routine of preparing the established menu. It is not a radical change but merely an adjustment of tastes. The result is a smooth transition taking good and even great food and as one personality chef in the USA has the habit of saying, “kick it up a notch” with these unique and delicious flavours.

Who ever said a menu shouldn’t promote a restaurant? Once customers discover that something different is going on, there’ll be an avalanche of interest. In fact, we have proven increases averaging 74% when a restaurant shifts to a well-applied Australian menu.

At a recent food show in San Francisco, a buyer from a widely known retailing group said “These new Australian flavours are about the only new concept in food amongst over 5000 exhibitors.” It is ironic that these flavours are also among the oldest foods on the planet.

Now as part of the modern age, the products are fully supported globally, via the Internet via this extensive site which includes product descriptions, recommended addition rates, menu ideas and recipes to open the doors on how best to use the ingredients.

Comparisons help. For example, the dried yet very aromatic Oz lemon (my lemon myrtle sprinkle) is best infused into hot dishes not unlike using fresh basil or coriander (cilentro). Fruit spice is a mixture of dried fruits and herbs with astounding fruit enhancing qualities and is ideal to boost fruit desserts and sauces and really turns up the flavour complexity when used in curries. Think of using it as you would nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla or cloves. And Alpine pepper, a spicy seasoning made from a Tasmanian peppertree enhanced with the related fruits and a few other Australian herbs and imported spices. This can be compared to cracked black pepper in that it can complement the flavour of strawberries and other berry fruits as well as being a hot savoury spice.

One exciting factor is that beyond getting the most impact from a given quantity of ingredient, there are no rules of pairing and we will no doubt continue to see the influence of fusion methods featuring the striking highlights provided by these wild quality offerings as they spread around the globe.

In conclusion, one important consideration in the marketing of these ingredients and products flavoured with them is the terminology and descriptors used. How do you respond to the name aniseed myrtle? Is aniseed a flavour you like? How informative or confusing is the label, myrtle? What if this product were called Forest anise? What is your reaction to the following?

Walk through the cool, light filled open forests on the Eastern facing rolling hills of the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales. Here you can still find large stands of Forest anise. The leaves of these tall trees have a soft, subtle Pernod-like character and have other, almost magical qualities. This is the herb for those of us who burn life’s candle at both ends – a caffeine-free, herbal pick-me-up and natural tonic. It is stimulating and refreshing as an infusion and has a myriad of food uses in both, sweet and savoury dishes …

However, the best flavoured product in the world could be left on the shelf (or never even get that far) if its presentation ignores the emotional appeal on which we base all our purchases. Chefs and manufacturers need to create the desire to taste the deliciously exotic, the must-have trendy, the unique and rare or the flavour for the discerning few if marketing has some hope of making the grade. Australia’s rare herbs and spices, fruits and extracts have all of these attributes and we have only just begun.

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Vic Cherikoff