Witchetty Grubs, Blackberries & Wattle Seeds Down Under

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A clod of dirt caught between my front teeth, earthly particles burying my taste buds under the distinctive flavor of ground soil. When Geoff passed around the plate of raw Wichetty grub and dared us to take a piece, he described it as a traditional Aboriginal snack. “Very high in protein, tastes just like chicken.”

Guffawing with typical Australian good humor, Geoff squished a segment of grub between thumb and pointer finger. “On the count of three: one…two…luckiest person gets the brain…three!”

There are certain foods you’re fortuitous enough to try just once. And the exploding brain of an obese native bug tops the list.

Australian cuisine, ostrich eggs

But the rest of Australia’s indigenous and exotic foods, so often misrepresented by Vegemite and “shrimp on the barbie”, are far easier to try. And – unlike my introduction to the Witchetty – pleasantly unexpected.

I didn’t always consider Aussie meals, tucker, to be an ethnic cuisine; at first, I didn’t consider it much of anything. Greasy chips, English-style roasts on a Sunday, mince beef pies and sausages drowned in tomato sauce.

Yet the danger in categorizing a country’s national dishes so simply is that we, the Visitor, miss out on its more subtle and unique local palates. Down Under, you have to dig a bit to discover the tastes that shape this island.

Flavors of summer and sea, from fresh Pacific oysters to Barramundi fish and crisp, bright native limes. Quandong fruits, with their heavy round pits and the tart flesh that melts into jams and chutneys.

If you’re caught in a Melbourne rain storm, nothing comforts better than a crumbly chocolate Tim Tam dipped into a cup of black tea. After roasting through a Western Australian afternoon, caramel ice cream infused with Murray River salt lowers your body temperature as quickly as air conditioning.

Australian cuisine, Pacific oysters

Learning to shuck Pacific oysters. Fowler’s Bay, South Australia

Kangaroo, wallaby, crocodile and emu appear in unfamiliar shapes on restaurant plates. Crusted in wattle seed or spiced with Kakadu plum sauce, each bite brings the rugged Outback directly to your tongue.

And then there’s my favorite – Pavlova. Though Australia and New Zealand fight lightheartedly over this desert like they do over sporting events and the origins of Crowded House, it’s a regional dish that reminds me of my first backpacking adventures in this part of the world.

Australian cuisine, bush blackberries

Picking wild blackberries in the bush. East Coast, Tasmania.

The knife slices through meringue crust, exposing soft, sugary insides. Unlike the Witchetty grub, one bite is not enough. I scoop the escaping passion fruit off the plate and back onto my fork, devouring the syrup and cake combination.

“It’s a Kiwi specialty,” my Kiwi boyfriend reminds me.