Native Tastes

Review: Warndu Mai

Words by Sarah Gory

Warndu Mai is an introduction and a guide to our wealth of native ingredients and local flavours, a new must-have for every Australian kitchen.

A few years ago, we went to the naming ceremony for our friends’ son. He had just turned one and as part of the ceremony, they buried the placenta and planted a tree on top of it—a native finger lime. When we went back for a visit last year, they made us gin cocktails that featured finger limes from that very tree. Sweeter than regular lime, with an almost-floral tone and pink blush to the flesh, they were bloody delicious! That was the beginning of our exploration of native ingredients. We now grow saltbush, kangaroo apples and pepperberry in our garden (along with finger lime). As you can imagine, when Warndu Mai came out we were first in line to get a copy.

In his foreword to Warndu Mai, Bruce Pascoe writes that ‘Australian history can be told through food.’ He walks us through the early settlers’ diets and the cuisines of migrants that have influenced our everyday — Chinese, Greek, Italian. With this book, though, we’re finally coming to see the beautiful and rich bounty that has been in front of us all along. 

Warndu Mai translates to ‘good food’ in co-author Rebecca Sullivan’s Adnyamathanha language, a perfect encapsulation of what this book is—a collection of over eighty beautiful recipes made with native ingredients that have deep cultural and historical ties to Indigenous Australia. Warndu Mai is also a manifesto, of sorts. It is a recipe book, a compendium of native foods, a link to Indigenous cultures and a guide to cooking and eating in a way that is harmonious with the Australian environment.  

The book is an extension of the authors’ native food label and education brand of the same name, and they bring that wealth of knowledge as well as their passionate advocacy for native ingredients to these pages. Warndu Mai is a move towards sustainable eating, towards understanding food as medicine. Here, we are offered the great privilege of sharing in the knowledge of Australia’s Indigenous people, a knowledge of the land that has been developed for over 60,000 years. 

Warndu Mai opens with a beautifully photographed guide to native ingredients, from the more common ones like wattleseed or finger limes through to bloodroot and green ants (!). The recipes that follow are fairly straightforward; the emphasis isn’t on fancy techniques but instead on showcasing the local flavours that, for most of us, are new and exciting. What the recipes do so well is demonstrate that using native ingredients need not be tricky; with just a few adjustments to your regular repertoire, you can incorporate the foods that are grown and harvested in this country. Many of the recipes are twists on beloved local classics (pavlova, sponge cake, pie), offering up native flavours in place of traditional ones. This was a deliberate approach of the authors, who sought to show that we can (re)make the foods we already love with ingredients that are sustainable and local. 

Indeed, there is plenty in Warndu Mai that can easily become part of the everyday, the Warrigal Greens, Coconut & Egg Rice is a huge hit in our family — the kids love it, too — and all of the cakes are subtle and earthy, ideal with a cuppa for afternoon tea. We’ve done the Slow-Cooked Roo Tail over the fire (sticky and delicious!) and are slowly drinking our way through the native tea guide.  

This emphasis on local flavours carries through to the way the book is curated. Rather than categorised by mealtime or ingredient, the contents are arranged according to their elements: proteins, fruits & flowers, citrus, nuts & seeds, leaves & greens. The earthy tones of the photographs reflect the contents and while it’s on-trend minimalist, Warndu Mai still feels personal and warm, from the textual colour pops to the gorgeous images of shared meals and campfires. They’ve also gone with a slightly smaller size than your average glossy cookbook — handy for mid-cooking referencing!

The one drawback is that you might have trouble finding some of the ingredients (or that they may be on the pricey side). You can always make small alterations (such as using chook instead of emu eggs), but most of the ingredients can be tracked down at specialty stores or farmers markets, and for the dry spices there’s always online orders. 

The book is, if nothing else, deeply Australian. From the jocular tone to the inclusion of vegemite and Bundy rum alongside lemon myrtle and macadamia oil. If you are Australian, or living in Australia, or visiting Australia, this book is for you. In the words of Bruce Pascoe: ‘Throw yourself into these flavours and acknowledge the glorious fact that they come from your country, no other.’


Photo courtesy Hachette Australia.

Photo courtesy Hachette Australia.

A recipe book, a compendium of native foods, a link to Indigenous cultures and a guide to cooking and eating in a way that is harmonious with the Australian environment.

Warndu Mai: Good Food

Damien Coulthard and Rebecca Sullivan 

Published by Hachette Australia

Available in all good book stores