Last month, Australia’s largest city buzzed with excitement when top Danish restaurant Noma uprooted its staff from wintry Copenhagen to set up shop in Sydney Harbour for ten weeks. Tickets to Noma Australia sold out almost instantaneously, while 27,000 hopefuls signed up to the waiting list, speaking volumes of Sydneysiders’ zeal for fine dining and keeping up with international culinary trends.
In cosmopolitan Sydney you’ll find Polish dumplings sandwiched between Nepalese curry joints and Mexican fajita bars. But Indigenous Australian fare – food produced with ingredients native to the Australian landscape and prepared by Indigenous communities in unique ways – has been largely absent from the mainstream Australian food scene.
Confined to a remote corner of the globe, many Australians are obsessed with attracting international recognition (and shaking off Crocodile Dundee stereotypes). So it’s odd that most Aussie chefs haven’t embraced their natural fauna and history in order to create a unique culinary identity, which could set Australian dining apart.
Enter Noma. Celebrity head chef Rene Redzepi, a pioneer of the ‘New Nordic’ movement, which champions local and seasonal ingredients, has incorporated native Australian food into the pop-up restaurant.
“I’m drawn to this unique landscape; it’s so different to what we have at home. The ingredients are so different and the diversity is huge,” the chef told public broadcaster SBS Australia last year, after hiring three apprentice chefs from the National Indigenous Culinary Institute.
At Noma Australia, Redzepi draws on local herbs like wattle seed and lemon myrtle, and fruits such as lemon aspens and kakadu plum. One happy patron snapped an Instagram picture of a dish laced with crocodile fat.
It’s a nod to what Indigenous Chef Mark Olive calls “the diversity of Australian meats”, The host of the TV series The Outback Café reels off a list, which includes emu, possum and wallaby, each with their own preparation and cooking process.
But while the international attention is an undoubtable boost for Indigenous cuisine, it begs the question – why did it take a Danish restaurant to put ‘bush tucker’ on Australia’s radar?
Olive says that ‘bush tucker’ has long been undergoing a revival and Noma is simply catching the tail end of the trend.
“Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal chefs, myself included, have been exploring, researching, experimenting and using this food for decades in Australia, but I think a lot of chefs around the world will see these foods and ingredients as ‘new’.”
But Jennice Kersh, a former Sydney restaurateur who spent 20 years serving up native food in a fine dining setting, has a more cynical take. Native cuisine, for all its richness, has historically been a hard sell in the Australian culinary context.
“Australian chefs have lacked a sense of their own identity. Foraging only became popular here recently because a world-famous Danish chef started foraging in Denmark,” she said to food magazine Munchies last year.
Australia’s dark history
For activist Luke Pearson, founder of the Twitter platform IndigenousX, the fact that Australians aren’t tucking into native fare says a lot about the country’s disengagement with its own history – a history that still has repercussions for Indigenous communities. According to ‘Closing the Gap’, a recent government report, Indigenous life expectancy, employment rates and literacy levels are still below that of non-Indigenous Australians.
“Mainstream Australia finds it threatening to embrace its Indigenous cultural heritage. The invasion by the British – and the massacres and systematic oppression of Indigenous Australians that ensued – is a lot easier to stomach if you keep up the myth that there was nothing on this land, no culture, before white people arrived,” he says.
“It’s very hard to think about the violence when you’re trying to commemorate the country’s 200-year-old history. It creates a kind of cognitive dissonance where it’s easier just to sweep Indigenous Australian history under the rug and not think about it.”
“Indigenous Australian culture is internationally recognised as one of the oldest living continuous cultures, but it doesn’t have the mainstream recognition or platform it deserves. Australia needs to see Aboriginal culture as an asset, not a liability.”
When Indigenous cultural artefacts are seized upon by the mainstream, however, it raises concerns about which group ultimately benefits when food traditions are appropriated and transformed into a commercial product.
With a new generation of Indigenous chefs emerging, Olive says it’s important that Indigenous communities are included in the food revival.
“I just hope that the right thing will be done so that Aboriginal communities can participate and benefit economically from this new trend, and the supply and demand of these native foods. That means acknowledging intellectual property and the chefs themselves giving back to those they receive their knowledge from.”
While New Nordic principles have promoted the flavours of the Australian bush, the chefs behind the movement were originally inspired by another indigenous food culture, closer to home.
Greenland came under Danish rule in the 18th century. It has since achieved the status of an autonomous territory with limited self-rule, although it is still dependent on Danish financial subsidies. Together with the Faroe Islands, also a former Danish colony, the three countries make up Rigsfælleskabet, or the Kingdom of Denmark. The historic relationship between the Indigenous Inuit people of Greenland and the Danish kingdom is a troubled one, which saw Denmark confiscate land and forcibly remove children from Inuit families.
Greenland’s culture hasn’t had a major presence in mainstream Denmark, nor does Copenhagen offer any Greenlandic cuisine. But that hasn’t stopped Danish restaurants, including Noma, from paying homage to the country’s culinary traditions. Claus Meyer, fellow New Nordic trailblazer and co-founder of Noma, was inspired by Greenland’s ‘water-to-plate’ philosophy.
“Meyer was appraising the freshness and seasonality of Greenlandic cuisine before developing the New Nordic Food Manifesto,” says Søren Askegaard, professor at the Department of Marketing and Management at the University of Southern Denmark, referring to the culinary doctrine established by a group of leading Nordic chefs in 2004.
Although it might not be immediately obvious, Askegaard also says that Greenlandic food has left its mark on Danish cuisine.
“It’s likely that the ubiquitousness of prawns in Danish food is due to Greenland’s prawn stocks, since the ones found in Danish waters are more difficult to use in a variety of situations.”
He points out that Greenlandic food doesn’t easily translate to modern culinary culture or travel well, which is mainly why we don’t tend to see it on the streets of Copenhagen.
“The ingredients are highly localised, like seal and sea birds, which we either can’t hunt, or don’t have here in Denmark. Those meats wouldn’t have the same quality here if they’re not as fresh. Greenlandic cuisine is kind of like a tropical fruit that doesn’t travel – as soon you pick it, you have to eat it,” Askegaard says.
“Greenlandic food developed as a matter of survival in harsh conditions. It lacks a certain degree of refinement, particularly for the modern food consumer.”
Askegaard adds that Europeans have also been fed “horror stories” about Greenlandic food.
“Before the introduction of the modern idea of ‘freshness’ in Greenlandic food, there was little or no positive food mythology about it, only the stereotype that it’s “disgusting.” Which probably stems from classic practices like fermenting puffin meat in the blubber of dead seals for months, eating foods like raw cod gills, or eating the stomach content from reindeer and other animals.”
New Nordic principles, on the other hand, are trickling northwards, inspiring a ‘New Greenlandic Cuisine’, which aims to adapt traditional dishes to a fine-dining format.
“Local chefs have been inspired to develop culinary versions of traditional dishes, for example by trying to make whale and seal more palatable to non-Greenlanders, and further experimenting with local ingredients, like mushrooms and seaweed, which are not historically part of Greenlandic fare.”
Greenlandic culture is also attracting more attention in Denmark overall, says Kirsten Thisted, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen who specialises in the North Atlantic region. She says the relationship between Denmark and Greenland is shifting from paternalism to partnership.
“Denmark wants to maintain Rigsfælleskabet, as without Greenland, Denmark would have outplayed its role in the Arctic. Therefore Greenland is now treated much more as an equal partner after it was awarded self-government,” she says.
“Moreover, Greenlanders themselves are speaking up about stereotypes. This was rarely seen before, and it seems to have come as a surprise to the Danish media, but now its tone is shifting from one of paternalism to showing more respect.”
Tórshavn to Copenhagen
Meanwhile, the Faroe Islands are also making their way onto the Danish culinary map. This month, award-winning Faroese restaurant KOKS is opening a pop-up restaurant in Copenhagen.
KOKS, which is based in the Faroese capital Torshavn, won The Nordic Prize for best restaurant last year. Translating Faroese landscapes to the plate, Copenhageners can expect to ingest some new flavours based on centuries-old practices.
“In the Faroe Islands, we have a long history of preserving food through fermentation,” says head chef Poul Andrias Ziska. “What’s special about the Faroese approach is that we don’t add salt to the process, we simply ferment meats, anything from fish to lamb, by hanging them from wooden bars in a barn, with a three-centimetre gap between them, so the wind can pass through and ferment them. That’s only possible in the Faroe Islands.”
Despite its long history, it’s doubtful Danes know much about Faroese food. But as Ziska points out, fine-dining is still relatively new to the archipelago, which has a population of just under 50,000 people.
“10 to 15 years ago, the most exotic or interesting food you could get was a steak with a pineapple on top.”
Ziska hopes KOKS’ moveable feast will help Danes rethink their attitudes to Faroese food culture.
“Danish people have traditionally not been very fond of Faroese food, probably because they’re not used to the intense flavours of fermented foods. What we offer is a fine-dining style, so it won’t come across as too intense.” M