Australian Functional Ingredients – by Vic Cherikoff

Putting Australia on the Menu

I’d like to start out by saying I am really thrilled that we are seeing Australian wild foods on such high profile menus as in the topic of this blog. I am grateful for the time and commitment each chef using any wild food ingredient has invested in discovering, understanding and exploring what are new flavours in many instances.

So for my observations on the event …

The roll out of chefs cooking what they each call Australian cuisine at an Opera House function for 500 is interesting. They say it’s putting Australia on the menu but let’s look at the reality of it.

My ingredients feature on some of the dishes with Wattleseed and Wild rosella but most of the other three dozen foods are ignored for the high shock value bush tucker tricks I saw in the 1980s. Kylie thinks we’ll love ants and mealworms (not native) and such. I was asked to supply witjuties which are a great food but unsustainable to harvest in commercial quantities. Besides, a truly authentic Australian cuisine is as much about grubs and ants as French food is about snails.

Neil is still pushing his Asian twist to Australian food. He even had proof that we don’t really like his approach with the closures of his past Asian-themed restaurant ventures. But he is persistent if nothing else. However, I don’t see dumplings as ever being considered as core to Australian cuisine unless they are made our own by the inclusion of some wild flavours.

I would have liked to see quandong with the kangaroo to be served by Brent Savage as this is a classic Australian combination. Happily Dan Hunter is pairing wallaby with Wattleseed – a good choice to add richness and depth to his jus, no doubt.

Interesting to see the uptake of samphire. As a bit of a cynic, my guess is because it is also eaten in Europe and not due to its outstanding culinary virtues. It really only feeds our salt addiction and there are far better wild foods which also add aromatics, pungency and unique tastes, not just saltiness.

There is one MAJOR benefit of a growing market for samphire which is for the environment. Like warrigal greens, here is a salt tolerant plant that thrives in degraded, salt-affected land that was inappropriately cleared and mis-managed. If more of us learn to appreciate samphire as a food we can use the demand to rehabilitate this type of country and create new opportunities from otherwise ruined land.

In relation to food and flavour, I gave a presentation last night at an AIFST (Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology) function on food flavours and the many new product development teams of major food companies seemed to like my take on recipe development. It was obvious that like the chefs cooking at the Opera House event, they create new products based on foods with which they are familiar and come up with combinations that have some roots in defined cuisines or mixtures of them.

As I do not have formal chef training, my experience with foods is based on experimenting with the many hundreds of wild foods I have tasted and the three dozen I helped commercialize since the 1980s and now market and promote.

My approach is empirical and I rely on the interplay of the 12 basic flavours in foods and create dishes which blend and balance the critical 10 tastes (see my previous blog on flavours here). By building dishes up from the basic flavours, new recipes can be created that have wide appeal. I also dismantle classic dishes and analyze why they work and generally find that they follow my findings of the right mix of the 10 critical flavours, texture, flavour timing and layering and good representation of colours too.

Nutrition of the foods we eat is also a passion of mine as we are losing the battle of the bulge and diabetes is said to become the 7th leading cause of death within 15 years.

So I am pleased that Rene Redzeppi is coming to our shores again. He stimulated all this renewed interest in our wild foods and at least our chefs are doing their bit to promote my ingredients. With time, I am sure they will discover the real gems from the bush and I hope that I can guide them to incorporate our wild fruits, seasonings, infused oils and even cooking methods such as using paperbark more.

As David Chang put it “Australian cuisine is still a work in progress” and even our top chefs have a lot to learn about wild foods.

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Vic Cherikoff