Creamy hummus, smoky baba ghanoush and nutty tahini are mainstays of the menu at Anchor in Elwood, much like other Middle Eastern restaurants around Melbourne.
But as of this week, Anchor will make those dishes with Australian sesame seeds, which have just been launched after many years of research and investment.
"They're so nutty and creamy," says restaurant owner Rosalin Virnik. "The colour is magnificent and when you touch the seed in your hand, it's so full of life [that] you can smell the oil that's coming out on your fingers."
Virnik prefers to use local ingredients in every dish for environmental and quality reasons. However, unable to get her hands on Australian sesame seeds, she has been relying on imports since opening Anchor last year. The seeds are the backbone of the tahini that features in many of Virnik's dishes, including hummus.
Sesame seeds are perfectly suited to growing in the hot, dry climate of northern Australia. But although the plant has been here since the gold rush, it's never been successfully farmed on a large scale. It's estimated that just 525 hectares were planted in 2019.
"It makes a healthier society, [there's] better nutrition and health, more engagement with our food, more work for farmers."
Over the past five years, plant breeding innovation and investment in local processing facilities have paved the way for a local sesame industry to develop.
Tony Matchett, an agronomist with 25 years of experience, has been there every step of the way. He now operates Australia's only sesame seed processing plant, Savannah Sun, which this week delivered seeds to Anchor. It's the first restaurant in Australia to serve the product, grown in the Northern Territory and processed in far north Queensland.
"I really favour the idea of having premium food produced locally for Australians to consume,' says Virnik. "It makes a healthier society, [there's] better nutrition and health, more engagement with our food, more work for farmers."
Sesame seeds grow in fibrous pods that are prone to splitting, leaving seeds scattered all over the ground. "There's often six million tonnes of sesame hand-harvested around the world, which doesn't suit Australian farming systems," says Matchett.
Three years ago, Israeli seed company Equinom introduced a non-shattering sesame plant, a game-changer for the local industry.
The final missing link was onshore processing, known as dehulling. This removes the bitter shell surrounding the kernels. Overseas, it's often done using caustic chemicals and large volumes of water, both of which carry a heavy environmental cost and wouldn't be possible in Australia.
Research and development by Savannah Sun and bodies such as AgriFutures led to a new way that doesn't involve lye and will, in the future, recycle 90 per cent of the water used. The business is working towards scaling up this natural formulation.
When that happens, more companies will be able to tap into a domestic market which consumes at least $57 million in imported sesame seeds, oil and tahini each year. Much of the world's sesame is grown in sub-Saharan Africa, India and Guatemala.
Sesame makes sense as a less water-intensive crop for Australian farmers dealing with longer and harsher droughts. Matchett expects it will be attractive to farmers in northern Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory.
He estimates that 10,000 to 50,000 hectares of the crop could be planted across northern Australia by 2025 but he adds that, "We need to start growing 20,000 to 30,000 hectares to meet Australian domestic demand alone".
Matchett and Virnik are exploring other possibilities for locally produced premium ingredients, such as sumac (a zingy red Middle Eastern spice), cardamom, and barberries (dried berries similar to currants).
In a couple of years, these could join other crops that were previously imported but which local farmers are now growing successfully, such as saffron, capers, yuzu and garlic.
Recently, Nick Diamantopoulos of the Australian Garlic Producers foundation achieved a 20-year goal to get Aussie garlic into supermarkets year-round. He worked with growers in various climatic regions of the country to stagger the harvest throughout the year.
East Gippsland couple Brett and Justine Ward established Waterholes Garlic in early 2020 as a crop they could juggle with jobs and raising a family. Brett says they've had great support from local stockists including David Lucke's and have already sold out of their summer harvest, which only went to market in mid-January.
Local garlic has "totally different textures, totally different flavours," says Brett. "Imported garlic is usually bleached, chemically sprayed so [cloves] don't sprout. There's low transport miles if it's produced here and it benefits the Australian economy."
Virnik believes local ingredients are worth investing in. She's underwriting the cost of using Australian sesame seeds – three times what she previously paid for imports – to ensure prices on her menu don't become prohibitive.
"As restaurateurs, we have the ability to create demand which can flow through to home consumers," she says.
Matchett believes the time is ripe for a homegrown ingredient revolution. "Two years of disruption from this pandemic has shown us that the old supply chains that we rely on can break, and they need to be restructured in a more diversified manner."
Aside from the food miles and compromise on freshness, Virnik was uncomfortable with the overseas dehulling practices of imported sesame.
"By using those imported products, effectively I'm contributing to those practices that are causing that damage," she says.
She plans on introducing some new sesame desserts that she describes as "all-Australian Mediterranean" dishes: a black sesame and date mousse, and a baked doughnut with tahini cream.
Meanwhile, Savannah Sun is sending samples of its sesame seeds to several Asian restaurants and has launched a 100 per cent Australian sesame oil, available to buy online.