What's for lunch?

I'm standing in The Royal Botanic Garden and the Domain on what is, by Sydney standards, a temperate day at 26°c, pondering how I would feed myself if I'd just arrived in the (so called) new world and there was no New World. The supermarket kind, that is, - or cafes, restaurants and food trucks.

Like most 21st century urban dwellers, I have no clue about what I could eat in the Cadi Jam Ora – First Encounters Garden. Besides, isn't all of Australia's flora and fauna out to get us? It's the sort of dilemma faced by those – willing and not – who arrived as part of the First Fleet in 1788.

If only they'd listened to, observed and been more willing to credit with some smarts the people they encountered when they arrived... Given that indigenous Australians thrived here for at least 60,000 years before Europeans rocked up, the answer to 'what's for lunch?' is plenty.

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Cadi Jam Ora also includes a 52-metre sculptural storyline, which explores the indigenous history of Sydney.
Cadi Jam Ora also includes a 52-metre sculptural storyline, which explores the indigenous history of Sydney.

You just have to know what to look for and, once you do, it turns out you're surrounded by a well-stocked wild food larder indeed. Luckily, I'm with Terry Crawford, an Aboriginal education officer, who can show me the bush foods and plants that could be lunch while dispelling a few myths about how Australia's first people fed themselves.

Crawford, from Brewarrina, a town nearly 800km west of Sydney, is from the Paakantyi (also known as Barkindji) tribe so he begins my lesson by acknowledging we're standing on land traditionally home of the Cadigal (also sometimes spelt Gadigal) people of the Eora Nation.

We've long been taught that indigenous Australian were nomadic hunter-gatherers who didn't farm; increasingly, archaeological evidence tells an entirely different story of people(s) who built permanent structures including dams and fish traps, practised fire-stick farming, selectively bred certain plants and positioned them in specific areas for optimum growth, irrigated crops and kept a watchful on rubbish in middens to know what had most recently been eaten and, therefore, what to avoid lest that food source become depleted.

Not only that, indigenous Australians invented the world's first man-made flying object, the boomerang, which could bring down a fair-sized kangaroo (encouraged, perhaps, onto a patch of savannah-like ground which, in turn, had become rich in grasses thanks to aforementioned fire-stick farming).

It points to a far more sophisticated and complex story about traditional Australian food and, if we care to listen, could even lead to a radical re-think about what's currently farmed particularly as climate change bites ever harder.

Crawford begins by showing me a green I should know, Warrigal greens. These are also known as NZ Spinach or Cook's cabbages (being rich in Vitamin C, Captain James Cook gave them to his crews to ward off scurvy).

Next, I taste nectar from the flowers of the gul-gad-ya or grass tree which, besides being the "Red Bull" of the day, says Crawford, had a multitude of other uses: stems for spear shafts and fire-making, resin that could be made into glue and fibrous leaves for fishing lines.

It's not the only sweet on offer; there are also midgen berries, native raspberries, finger limes and blue berries from the blue flax lily (Dianella caerulea). The leaves of that were used in weaving while you can make whistles from the reeds; Crawford demonstrates and usefully adds these can ward off snakes who hate the sound they make.

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Then there's Spiny-headed mat rush (Lomandra longifola) where the base of younger leaves taste a little like a cross between celery and a green pea while the seeds can be dried and made into seed cakes (and there's grinding stones found to indicate indigenous Australians were among the world's earliest bakers).

Crawford tells me that all Australian fig trees produce edible fruit, but he cautions against eating those from the Sandpaper Fig in the gardens, saying they're not the tastiest. Better use is made of the leaves which, as the name suggests, were used to polish tools and weapons.

Cadi Jam Ora also includes a 52-metre sculptural storyline, which explores the indigenous history of Sydney and can make for sobering reading about the first encounters between European settlers and the region's traditional inhabitants.

What might have been had early European arrivals taken more note of, and accorded greater respect to, indigenous Australians and the foodways they practised? Perhaps it's not too late to learn and to start taking greater note of indigenous voices, customs and rituals.

Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch. Photo/Prudence Upton
Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch. Photo/Prudence Upton

It may feel like a leap to go from pre-European farming to the Sydney Festival, three weeks of performing and visual arts events at the beginning of each year, but there's a continuum here. The festival provides a chance to see – and hear – contemporary indigenous culture and take time to consider some of the ideas being promoted.

Three weeks before I met Terry Crawford, I sat down – ironically in a café – with Wesley Enoch, an Australian playwright who's now the artistic director of the Sydney Festival. Of Murri descent, Enoch is a proud Noonuccal Nuugi man who's put indigenous work front and centre in the Sydney Festival Programme.

"My background is in actual arts, actual story-telling, so my thing about a programme is often there's a tick-a-box kind of idea. You say, 'we've got one indigenous project and that's enough' but my thing is to have a body of work that can then talk about the diversity of opinions and the diversity of what's going on.

"As soon as you have a tick-a-box kind of philosophy, then one project or one of two projects count for the whole thing whereas if you have what we have – up to 10 or so – there's more diversity of thinking, of activity, of things to see."

Favouring this strength through diversity approach, he's created the Blak Out programme of indigenous works as part of the many that play throughout the festival. It means if you're in Sydney in January, you could see (among many other things):

Australian performer Joel Bray in his one person show Bildurang, staged in a Sydney hotel roomm. Photo/Pippa Samaya.
Australian performer Joel Bray in his one person show Bildurang, staged in a Sydney hotel roomm. Photo/Pippa Samaya.

• Biladurang (it means platypus):

Joel Bray performs his one-man show in a hotel room. As a gay man meeting middle-age, a dancer toiling at the peak of his powers and a Wiradjuri man with ties to Israel and country Australia, Bray took a long look at his life and wondered, "Who am I?"

Performers from Legs on the Wall theatre company address suicide among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Man with the Iron Neck. Photo/Brett Boardman
Performers from Legs on the Wall theatre company address suicide among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Man with the Iron Neck. Photo/Brett Boardman

•Man With the Iron Neck:

Legs on the Wall theatre company addresses suicide among young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, focusing on hope and solace and embracing life after trauma. Featuring aerial performance and video design, it's a bold and tender story based on an original work by Josh Bond (Djuki Mala) who created this piece with co-director Gavin Robins (King Kong, How to Train Your Dragon).

•Blood Money Currency Exchange where Australian artist Ryan Presley offers you the chance to swap the local currency for "blood money" – aka limited edition prints. It's the latest in a series of works exploring contemporary Australian history through the lens of Aboriginal figures, with lessons to teach about dispossession and oppression.

Marliya from Gondwana Choirs, young Indigenous women singing in English and Yindjibarndi, are part of the Spinifex Gum concert. Photo/Daniel Pockett
Marliya from Gondwana Choirs, young Indigenous women singing in English and Yindjibarndi, are part of the Spinifex Gum concert. Photo/Daniel Pockett

•Spinifex Gum: For one night only

(January 25) at the Sydney Opera House, Musical snapshots of life in the Pilbara, north Western Australia, performed by the Marliya from Gondwana Choirs, young Indigenous women singing in English and Yindjibarndi. Joining the choir are Felix Riebl and Ollie McGill of The Cat Empire, who wrote and produced the music, and special guests Briggs, Emma Donovan and Peter Garrett.

ALWAYS, the outdoor sculpture by local Bangarra artist-in-residence Jacob Nash, stands at the Barangaroo Reserve during the Sydney Festival 2019.
ALWAYS, the outdoor sculpture by local Bangarra artist-in-residence Jacob Nash, stands at the Barangaroo Reserve during the Sydney Festival 2019.

•ALWAYS, the large scale outdoor sculpture

by local Bangarra artist-in-residence Jacob Nash, featuring the declaration 'ALWAYS': always was, always will be, at the Barangaroo Reserve.

Barangaroo Reserve also hosts Vigil, the night before Australia Day (in 2019, Saturday January 26) where a fire will be lit and space given to reflect on the impact of colonisation in Australia. Bayala, indigenous language lessons, are also a feature of the Festival and obviously popular as there's already a waiting list.

"It is culture which is a slightly different way of thinking about things from visual arts to performing arts," says Enoch. "It's the idea that if you have a multiplicity of projects, you can create an image of diversity which, I think, is stronger.

"The year 1967 is a really good example where all of indigenous Australia had to speak with one voice to make law changes happen but that one voice is not actually how it operates. We are more than 500 different language groups so the more diversity we can show, the more truthful we can be of the different experiences: urban, rural, people based on traditional process, people using more contemporary approaches and the different collaborations that happen as well."

What: The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney Aboriginal experiences see rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au

What: Sydney Festival
Where & when: Venues all over Sydney, January 9 – 27