Q&A: Mindy Woods, Indigenous foods advocate

Mindy Woods, Indigenous chef-restaurateur, two-times MasterChef contestant, TV host and Australian culinary ambassador, is a native foods and sustainable horticulture champion. She was also the Gala Dinner keynote at the 2022 Future of Food Summit.

Proud Bundjalung woman Mindy Woods swapped a career in physiotherapy for one as a chef, becoming Culinary Advisor, then CEO of the Lotus Group of restaurants before a successful stint on MasterChef series 4 brought her to public attention. Following the show, Woods hosted a TV series on South-East Asian food traditions; was invited by the Australian Government to guest chef at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai; and honed her knowledge of eco-friendly food production studying sustainable horticulture. Earlier this year, she returned to the MasterChef kitchen for the ‘Fans and Favourites’ season.

Woods has a strong desire to connect people with Aboriginal culture through food, and to encourage use of the world’s oldest living ingredients. Her Gala Dinner keynote illuminated how aeons-old traditional knowledge and Indigenous crops contribute to sustainable food systems, now and into the future.

She was also on hand at the pre-dinner drinks with a display of Indigenous ingredients from her local area, NSW’s Northern Rivers and North Coast region, happy to explain each ingredient’s uses to delegates.

“I went out and picked some of our local foods before I drove up to Brisbane,” she said. “It’s good for people to touch and taste the foods.”

1 Tell me about your connection to Country and what it means to you…

“I live on Country; I’m really lucky. I’m blessed that this is my ancestral country. Our borders go right up to the Logan River in the north, to the McPherson Range in the west, right down to the Clarence River at Yamba in the south, and of course, right down the eastern coastline, all the way down from the Gold Coast, through Byron Bay, which is home for me, to Yamba. It’s a beautiful rich land with an ancient culture and history attached to it that I’m very proud to be able to share the connection, the stories, and hopefully protect it for the future.

“Some of my fondest memories are from when I was a little girl and nan, who had 11 children of her own, would take all the grandkids down to the beach at the rising of the sun. We just thought we were having fun but she taught us about Country and about connecting with our culture.”

“And back in the early days, the only way to feed the 17 kids she had living in her little three-bedroom house in Lismore was to go out on Country. And learning those things from my nan – and am still learning today, even though she’s passed over – are some of the most important lessons in my life.

“Because I realise now that we need to protect this country for future generations. And if I want to be a good ancestor for future generations, my purpose – and I’m lucky it’s my passion – is to connect people to the First Nations food and culture.”

2 What sparked your interest in native ingredients – ‘bush foods’? Did you have a mentor?

“My nan was a key influence – she’d have us kids down at the beach digging up pippies to have a feed or going and collecting oysters, or picking pigfaces for the karkalla or, as we call it in local lingo, yuli. And I didn’t realise that by doing those things, nan was also teaching us how to collect on Country. I still remember sitting on the beach with Nan, over an open fire, eating pippies or crab – local seafood. That was her way, and the way she connected with her mob, her family.

“But it comes from the entire mob – we were always eating as a family. It’s one of those things with First Nations cultures, and with many cultures around the world – you eat as a family. There were no TVs or computer screens or mobile phones; it was sitting together, sharing stories. I think we’re all craving that sense of connection right now – not only to our environment and communities, but connection to humans as well. And food’s a great way to bring us together. It’s a very intimate connection.

“And people don’t realise that food is also a way our people formed connections with the land.”

3 How did you go from training as a physiotherapist to becoming involved in the world of food, and then becoming a chef and restaurateur?

“I was the first in my family to go to uni, and I was determined and stubborn enough to keep pushing to get a Masters degree in Physiotherapy from University of Queensland. And I had a wonderful career in physiotherapy and helping people in their healing. And now I’m doing that through food – at the same time helping to protect Country.”

4 What prompted your interest in sustainable horticulture & when/where did you study it?

“After I did the first season of MasterChef I was motivated to find out more about how to grow some of the Indigenous ingredients I love to cook. So I went back to study – this time studying horticulture, and sustainable production systems. There’s a piece of land, Mannabunda farm, near Byron, that the local elders want to revive. A lot of my elders don’t have access to their land anymore. And the biodiversity in the area is so exciting.

“The idea has lots of support from the Northern Rivers community. So if we can revitalise that farm, we can use that beautiful fertile land to grow some of these native ingredients commercially. It’s also a chance for our people to reconnect with Country.”

5 What did you learn from your studies in sustainable horticulture and how does it connect with the Indigenous approach to edible plants?

“I’m a mad busy woman and when I went back to my Country, my elders gave me a tap on the shoulder and I thought. What am I going to do now? I’ve been running seven restaurants down in Sydney, but what’s my next option: so I found a beautiful spot in Byron to open my restaurant, Karkalla, and I thought the only thing I could possibly do that was genuine to me and my culture was to do native foods.

“And when I started to try to source native ingredients on a commercial level, I realised that this booming industry had so many gaps in it, and was largely represented by non-Indigenous people. I thought, I’ve got to be a part of the change in this. Cos I know there’s growing demand for native foods. And from an environmental point of view, we need to start growing these plants – they don’t need pesticides or herbicides; they don’t need irrigation. There are so many reasons we should start growing native foods, and propagating them at scale, but I needed to know how to do that, and how to go about it. So in addition to running the restaurant I started studying sustainable horticulture and bush foods. Sadly, since COVID, the course has been pulled, but I’m keen to help get it up and running again. It’s not just important for our mob; it’s important for all Australians – for environment, for food security, and for culture.”

“There’s such a need for this, and not enough education systems supporting it. This is the direction we need to go in. ’Cos those old European farming systems don’t work here, and they don’t work for very good, practical reasons. We need to understand what our country needs, and the ways that will work for our land and for our climate.”

6 What are some things Australia’s original inhabitants can teach white people about food and sustainability?

“A lot of people just think, Bush tucker’s bush tucker, but when you actually look at it from a country-based level, according to clan and tribal groups, there’s great diversity across Australia as a continent – environmentally, and in terms of the native foods available in different parts of the country.

“I’m a saltwater and rainforest woman, you know: they’re the foods that I love to cook with and connect with ’cos they’re from my country. You go out to the Central Desert region and there’s a whole different type of cuisine, and a culture attached to it.

“We also have our seasonal calendars – obviously, I can speak only for my Nation, but I think it’s really important to note. We use what’s available locally and seasonally.

“Our foods sometimes have 2, 3, 4 or 5 cultural uses: the stems of the hibiscus plant, for instance, were used to make fishing line, the bark was used as an antiseptic, and then of course you could eat the flowers.”

“Up to 75 per cent of the native species growing in our little rainforest. back behind Byron Bay, actually had a cultural use. And we’re just starting to tap back into that ancient knowledge. And to realise the importance of it. Cos that’s sustainable living.”

“We were always taught that you never took more than you needed at any one time: You never took a berry before it was ripe; you always left something behind for the wildlife – because the food wasn’t just there for the humans, it was there for the wildlife, too. And we needed the wildlife ’cos they were also a food source, a part of that whole circle. We used every bit of that plant or animal, too.

“So when you look back, you learn so much from these ancient knowledge systems. And to move forward, we actually have to look back, at those practices.”

“Nowadays, we buy too much and we waste too much. We’ve become out of tune with buying and eating seasonally, and locally. Indigenous people eat seasonally: we know that nature gives us what we need at the right time.

“That’s what I try to do in my restaurant. And I know that if I can do it for my restaurant, we can certainly do it in our own homes.”

7 What’s your view on commercialising Indigenous foods and medicinal crops – OK if the profits feed back into the Aboriginal communities?

“It’s so important to me: First Nations foods can’t be separated from Country and culture. I think a lot of people don’t realise just how diverse our country is and that each mob and Country has distinct foods and ingredients that they should propagate and commercialise. We certainly need to encourage more mob to get access to land to grow these ingredients – access is certainly a weak link in the chain.

“I think our governments need to put some regulations in place – reforms and structures similar to the European ‘appellation’ system. Such as the regulations in place for the wine grape industry in France to protect their artisanal produce. Italy has similar regulations. It protects their local producers. And it adds to value – financial and cultural.”

“So there are many pieces to the puzzle, but if we can work effectively together and then lobby the government to put some mob-endorsed regulations into place to enable the benefits to be shared, we can give back to mob and Country.”

8 What Indigenous ingredient(s) do you cook with most and why?

“There are so many…but I absolutely love lemon myrtle. It’s such an easy and versatile ingredient. I use it in any recipe that calls for lemon juice, lemongrass, a bay leaf or kaffir lime. It works in South-East Asian recipes and curries. And it has the highest citral content of any ingredient in the world. So it’s also a huge immune-system booster, and is anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory. So it can also be used as a medicinal tea. There are so many benefits to it.”

9 What’s your favourite Indigenous-flavoured dish?

“I’d have to say a good pippie curry, cooked over an open fire. It reminds me of my childhood.”

10 As keynote speaker for the 2022 Future of Food Summit Gala Dinner, what did you bring to the table?

“Australians are great travellers; we go overseas and experience the foods of other cultures, and we embrace other cultures’ foods in Australia – but we fail to really embrace First Nations foods in our own country. And I think that from a cultural, social and environmental perspective, First Nations foods are such an important connector. They’ve also got cultural and historical significance, and are a part of our identity. And I’d really like to bring people in on that story, so they are inspired to get out there and connect with native foods.”

“The Gala Dinner is about connecting over food, which is such a special and such a beautiful thing.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to connect, as a group – and as a nation – and to better understand Indigenous culture through enjoying its food. And to connect them with a knowledge system that still has relevance today.”