We meet in one of the more elegant eateries of Collingwood’s Smith Street. Outside it is cold, wet and miserable. Inside, marble counters are covered in delectable cakes and pastries; pasta dishes and other Mediterranean delicacies are piled high behind the deli glass. As we sit, purple and white wisteria flowers hang overhead, and I sip my ginger-lemon tea. We are a small group of friends; northerners who have headed south of the continent. From Adelaide to Perth, and a strong contingent from northern Queensland. Me: I was born in Adelaide, a few years after my parents moved down south from Darwin; the youngest of the brood.
“We carry with us our culture, our way of speech, our language we have saved from the effects of colonisation, our traditions and our food.”
Now on the eastern seaboard, Melbourne specifically, we are here to chase our dreams, work hard and enjoy life. We carry with us our culture, our way of speech, our language we have saved from the effects of colonisation, our traditions and our food. Imported dugong, barramundi, mango and turtle—all frozen and packaged in the homes of our relatives—sent on planes to our eagerly awaiting mouths. Unpacked and cooked, the chilli we make complements, causing the treasures of the north to sing in our mouths before being tempered by the neutrality of the rice we always have at hand.
Food is a part of who we are. Aboriginal-Asian communities descended from multiple generations of blackfella women and men who built relationships and families with Asian people from a variety of different countries. Malaysia, China, the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia. Larrakia, Yawuru, Waiben: Darwin, Broome, Thursday Island. In my case, an Aboriginal great-grandmother and Chinese great-grandfather, then Aboriginal-Chinese grandmother and Aboriginal-Filipino grandfather. Lastly, Aboriginal-Asian father and Chinese-Malaysian mother. Rice is an everyday staple, different from the bread of southern Aboriginal families who live with the legacy of the sugar/flour/tea ration days.
Susu, the word many Aboriginal people use for breast milk and breasts, is also found in Malaysia and Indonesia where it means milk in the local Bahasa language. Whether it was our word first or theirs, I do not know. Long before the Europeans came, the relationship between northern Aboriginal communities and Asian people was already well-established and the lines continue to be blurred.
“Antithesis to the way that cultural diversity is typically consumed by the plate, our food is not found in restaurants; available only in our homes, at our celebrations and beside our mourning rituals.”
Antithesis to the way that cultural diversity is typically consumed by the plate, our food is not found in restaurants; available only in our homes, at our celebrations and beside our mourning rituals. Chicken vermicelli is perhaps Filipino or Chinese in origin and each family has its own tradition in how they make it. Ginger, shiitake mushrooms, vermicelli and chicken pieces on the bone all form part of my family’s recipe. Other families put potato and carrots in theirs; no bones in their chicken at all. While some may eat it with bread, my family eats it exclusively with rice, and for my cousins, it’s the star dish of their annual Christmas meal. Bluchung is often served on the side—a chilli condiment homemade in special-purpose blenders to stop the strong flavour permeating any other foods. A potent mix of chilli, shrimp paste and aromatics—sometimes giblets, depending on family tradition. The bluchung is fried in the backyard to avoid the acrid sting of the frying chilli fumes.
Before I moved to Melbourne, curry chicken was served at my farewell in Adelaide. I remember that day well. A staple in almost every Aboriginal-Asian family household, curry chicken has spread across the country to become an everyday meal in most blackfella homes, whether Aboriginal-Asian descendants or not. Eaten with rice or bread, made with homemade curry paste or store-bought curry powder, everyone has their own take on the classic curry chicken. A good sing-a-long with the guitar: a mix of country music, old Aboriginal songs and other covers—my aunty enjoys herself at my farewell. She tells me it reminds her of the old days in Darwin when the Torres Strait Islands’ own Seaman Dan used to travel west—probably further on to Broome too—performing for the mob along the way. As she says his name, I am instantly soothed, imagining the soft croon of his voice, the tropical island lilt of the accompanying ukulele and the rich blues rhythm of his guitar.
“Numus is not something I know how to make, only how to eat. I turn to my friend and say, “that is something I will have to learn how to cook.” And I know I will—to keep my connection to my culture alive.”
A friend asks why we have no numus to eat at the goodbye party and I am jolted back to my farewell. The mention of numus makes my mouth itch; thinking of the sting of its sour chilli flavour. Thought to be derived from a similarly named and similarly composed Japanese dish, white fish is sliced and pickled in vinegar and lemon or lime juice. Onion, garlic and chilli are added to pack a punch. My uncle used to cook up a damper to accompany ours. With a hard crust outside and a soft warm inside, numus juices are easily sopped up by a damper straight out of the oven. Numus is not something I know how to make, only how to eat. I turn to my friend and say, “that is something I will have to learn how to cook.” And I know I will—to keep my connection to my culture alive.