Wild yams set for gourmet fame

Attica's Ben Shewry rates the native daisy yam.
Attica's Ben Shewry rates the native daisy yam. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe has a red hot plan to resurrect an almost extinct food plant that once covered vast swathes of the country and fed the population of Southern Australia. He has launched an online campaign called Gurandgi Munjie to raise $25,000 to plant a commercial crop of daisy yams to be grown by aboriginal men, initiated in lore, and to be sold to top Australian restaurants.

Daisy yams were a common food source for the aboriginal people of south-east Australia, growing in grasslands favoured by graziers. The program is part of a groundswell of food-led reconciliation where indigenous Australian traditions and ideas are being adopted by high-profile chefs, both in Australia and around the world. But it's going beyond what is known in the industry as "culinary blackface", token usage of bush foods to appropriate aboriginal kudos.

Pascoe is preparing this week for a breakfast in collaboration with Swedish super chef Magnus Nilsson in Sydney on the weekend where they'll cook bread made with native millet at alternative wine and food show Rootstock. "Native millet was a plant domesticated by the first Australians tens of thousands of years ago," says Pascoe. "It was planted after heavy rains and matured all at the same time allowing for a single harvest." Pascoe will be grinding grain with men from the Yuin people whose country extends from Merimbula to Port Jackson. In his non-fiction book on the farming and food practices of pre-European Aboriginal people, Dark Emu, Pascoe describes men from the Yuin people hunting alongside killer whales on the beaches at Eden and Montague Island and great grain stores of many tonnes for the inland aboriginal people.

New growth: Bruce Pascoe plans to grow the yam commercially.
New growth: Bruce Pascoe plans to grow the yam commercially. Photo: Richard Cornish

Another Nordic chef who has a strong interest in the food of Australia is Rene Redzepi of Noma fame. Prior to opening his Sydney version of Noma, the award-winning chef has travelled the outback learning about the foods of native Australians and hunting for magpie geese. This is an ingredient that is now been harvested commercially and championed by chefs including Jock Zonfrillo from Adelaide's Orana.

At Pascoe's trial of daisy yam last year, he teamed up with Attica's Ben Shewry​ where a small harvest was served at WAW festival. "They are pretty amazing," says Shewry. "They are a bit like water chestnut when raw. When you cook them they change colour and go more like a New Zealand yam. If they become commercially available, one hundred per cent I am putting them on the menu."

Pascoe will also be cooking a lunch at Rootstock of garfish, local shellfish and blood cockles, a dark and very tasty bi-valve from the waters around the Victorian-NSW border. "We want to show people that the Yuin were coastal people and that they ate seafood and shellfish." At the end of the meal the shells will be buried to create a Rootstock midden.

To support the Gurandgi Munjie​ online campaign go to pozible.com/project/202236.

Bruce Pascoe will be appearing at Rootstock at Carriageworks, Eveleigh, Sydney, this weekend. rootstocksydney.com