Grocery list: Onions, carrots, kulyus, youlks, sandalwood nuts . . . ?

Host: DAFWA Aboriginal Business Development Project
Written by Daisy Goodwin – Development Officer, DAFWA.

Ever wanted to diversify your property but you didn’t know where to start? What can you grow? Will it be worth it? How much land will I need? Well this is just too hard. But there may be a new solution for some, particularly indigenous landholders. The answer lies in native bush food: Sandalwood tree nuts (native super food you say?), Kulyu (tastes like sweet potato, yum!), and Youlk (imagine a sweet eucalypt flavoured radish!).

In ‘Dark Emu Black Seeds’ by Bruce Pascoe, we are told of how indigenous Australians were not simply the hunter-gatherers many perceived but skilled agriculturalists and some of the first in human history (2014). Pascoe describes how many native vegetables such as the Murnong, a tuber similar to Kulyu have disappeared from Australian soils, until now.

Native plant agronomist Geoff Woodall has domesticated the youlk and the kulyu on his farm, which is said to have the worst soil in the district at Arthur River in the Great Southern region, and is working with Indigenous landholders to begin growing them commercially. The youlk grows in poor, sandy soils which are typical in many areas of WA.

Woodall ran trials with the kulyu however they are more suited to warmer conditions, such as the Mulga country in WA’s Gascoyne and Murchison. His youlk crops weren’t always successful either. At first, the crops were damaged by frost and their tubers grew too deep. An issue Woodall has fixed by building raised garden beds. This method is not very labour intensive and is cheap and simple to set up. These raised beds would work well for many indigenous groups to diversify and value-add to their property or use for their own consumption.

The Youlk.

Bundybunna Aboriginal Corporation, which runs two broad acre properties south of Mullewa, sowed a trial crop of the kulyu and planted Australian sandalwood with the long term aim of harvesting nuts which can be used as a bush food or processed for oil and high quality mulch. The Aboriginal Business Development (ABD) project has been helping to test whether these native bush foods can become commercially viable crops.

Australian sandalwood nut/seed.

Bundybunna Aboriginal Corporation Chair Leedham Papertalk said “Expanding into new food crops such as sandalwood and kulyu, along with other horticultural produce, provides an opportunity to better engage the community, build jobs, and diversify the farm business. We are the first in our area to try this . . . I hope this will have an impact for the Corporation and the community. Many of our local people haven’t tasted a bush potato and this is part of educating the community about native bush tucker . . . ”

ABD officer Tony Gray, introduced Bundybunna Aboriginal Corporation to Woodall and Chef Paul Iskov, who runs ‘pop-up dining’ focused on Australian native produce.

Woodall said the work by Bundybunna was signalling an exciting phase in the development of kulyu, after a decade of research. “Kulyu has potential to be a new ‘staple’ food, it’s a vegetable . . . similar to a sweet potato with a crunchy texture and white flesh, and it is crunchy even when cooked.

Iskov showed the group a simple technique of boiling the kulyu and frying it in a pan with caramelised butter. “There hasn’t been much of the product available so we are trying to use it where possible,” Mr Iskov said. “To have a native tuber with such a unique flavour and texture which is found naturally in our backyard is fantastic, and having a group at Mullewa who want to farm it is even better.”

Iskov and the group.

The possibility of utilising traditional knowledge and bringing back these native foods for commercial and cultural benefit is very exciting. The fine food industry is also excited by these products and the opportunity of using traditional native foods. There are up to a dozen communities on farms owned by the National Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) who are working on forming a collective to grow and market the vegetables.