Some years ago, while working at a large local primary school, I placed a large bunya cone on the staff room table and listened to the ensuing conversations.
“What’s that?” asked one person.
“it’s a kind of bush tucker,” said her companion. ”But they are really poisonous. You have to soak them in running water for three weeks before it is safe to eat.”
At this the office lady, who had overheard the conversation, scoffed. “It’s a bunya nut! They are perfectly safe to eat raw or cooked. My father is a real Bunya “nut” and he knows the location of every bunya tree in the whole district!”
Who is right? The office lady is quite correct. Bunya nuts are a very safe and nutritious food. If you wait long enough, there is always a “Bunya Nut” to set you right.
Most locals of South East Queensland know that the cones of bunya tree (Araucaria bidwillii) was a very important food source for Aboriginal people in former times. It has persisted as a free food source into the present day, with some very large mature trees gracing the skyline of many towns. Some years ago, research was carried out on the food value of the bunya nut by the CSIRO. The nut was found to be actually closer in composition to a cereal, with 20-30% protein and 60- 70% complex carbohydrates. The oil content is too low for a true nut, at only 1-2%, so I sometimes refer to it as a “kernel” rather than a “nut”. As it is high in protein and free of gluten, with a low GI, it is a very palatable and digestible food source. Legend tells that Aboriginal groups returning from the Bunya gatherings looked healthier and sleeker than when they arrived. People sometimes say that the Bunya kernel has not much flavour, and this is possibly a fair comment, but the advantage is that Bunya kernels can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes.
A problem people face when preparing Bunya as a food is the difficulty of extracting the kernel from the tough outer coating. One reliable way is to cut the nut in half with a pair of sharp garden shears or pipe cutters. The half kernel can be easily prised out with a knife. If this is done before cooking, it significantly reduces the cooking time. Alternatively, the extracted kernels can be placed in a food processor and will readily form a kind of meal which can be used in cakes and biscuits. One reliable guideline is to substitute bunya meal for half of the wheat flour in any favourite cake recipe. The cake will be a little heavier and more moist, so experiment to your own taste.
On the savoury side, a recipe that has been tried and tested many times is Bunya pesto. As most readers will know, pine nuts are an expensive ingredient in pesto, so substituting bunya nuts for pine nuts makes sound economic sense. Here is a recipe to try.
2 bunches of fresh basil leaves
2 cloves of garlic
300 ml macadamia oil
Juice of a lemon or lime (use 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar if fresh citrus is not available)
300g peeled bunya nuts (pre-cooked for 20 minutes after peeling)
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
Put the basil, garlic and macadamia oil in the blender or food processor. Add cooked (and cooled) bunya nuts, parmesan, salt and pepper, and blend in short bursts. After a few bursts the mixture will form itself into a ball. Serve warm or cold as a dip with rice or quinoa crackers. This mixture can also be used to stuff capsicums or other vegetables, although in this case you may prefer to use feta cheese rather than parmesan.
It is an undertaking to gather, shuck, peel and prepare bunya foods. However it is really a kind of seasonal ritual with which we need to become familiar, like getting a Christmas tree or hunting for Easter eggs. Finding bunya trees and gathering the cones is a great adventure, but remember to keep everybody clear of the tree’s perimeter during the falling season, as the cones are very heavy and prickly. Often tree owners are happy to share in their abundance. When you are preparing a bunya dish, you are taking part in an activity that dates back to time immemorial and taking steps along the path of reconciliation with the custodians who cared for this country so well.