The Indigenous Food Pop-Up You Need To Know About
Chef Zach Green has never tasted one of his signature dishes, and he never will. That’s because in Yolngu culture, everything in the world is divided into two groups (or moieties) called Dhuwa and Yirritja.
“Part of the Yirritja dreaming is the crocodile or baru, and because that’s my dreaming I can’t eat it,” he says.
“I’ve got permission from elders to be able to cook it and prepare it and then be able to share that story. But if I went to taste that crocodile, I’m disrespecting the senior elders of Yolngu country who have adopted me into community. Baru is the totem of all of my grandmothers, so if I eat it I’m disrespecting my grandmothers in Arnhem Land.”
Instead, Green tastes the laksa before he’s ready to add the meat, and works with other chefs who can act as his proxies. It’s just one of the many ways that Elijah’s Kitchen is not your average restaurant.
Green, who grew up in Melbourne, is a Gunditjmara man whose grandmother was a part of the stolen generations. He didn’t know about that heritage until he was twelve years old, and more recently still he discovered that his grandfather was a Palawa man from Flinders Island. These days he lives in Darwin with his former partner Leila Gurruwiwi, a Yolngu woman, and Elijah’s Kitchen is named after one of two children the pair lost due to miscarriage.
It’s very much a family business – the pair’s nieces and nephews work front of house at the pop-up restaurant in Darwin, serving the food and sharing some of the stories connected to the food. Sometimes these are about the ingredients and sometimes, as with the crocodile laksa, they are a way to educate diners more broadly about indigenous culture.
“People say don’t mix business with family,” Green laughs, “but it’s a joint effort – if I didn’t have my family involved in Elijah’s, it wouldn’t be possible.”
His extended family also helps to forage and catch the food, and when I meet him on a Thursday morning he’s waiting for a cousin to bring him some mud crabs that he will turn into croquettes with lemon aspen aioli that night. He heads out to collect ingredients as often as he can, including the green ants for his green ant cheesecake and the menu changes each week depending on what is available – often it’s not finalised until Thursday morning. To ensure he’s working with ingredients when they’re at their very best, Green follows the six seasons recognised by the Yolngu rather than the imported European calendar divided into four seasons.
Hitting the road
Over the Dry season, Elijah’s Kitchen has operated as an open-air restaurant overlooking the water at Darwin’s East Point, but once the rains start that set-up will be wildly impractical. Rather than trying to find a permanent site, Green will take the restaurant to Sydney, Melbourne and Perth over the summer months.
Don’t expect to see crocodile laksa on the menu, though. Each location will have a unique menu, because Green’s aim is to focus on ingredients and traditions that are native to each specific area rather than Australia as a whole. It’s a result of his focus on a pre-colonial vision of the country, when hundreds of interconnected language groups were spread across the land.
“People think Aboriginal culture is only one culture, but if you do your research and investigate more, it’s many cultures within one,” he says – “different foods tell different stories.” Even an ingredient that’s present across most of the continent means different things to different groups – “you could go to any aboriginal mob in Australia and you can get a whole different story from the same ingredient.”
For that reason, Elijah’s Kitchen will also have a new front of house team in each location to tell those stories, and there’s a lot of planning involved – Green started discussions with traditional owners in May about what ingredients would be available and how the pop-ups will look.
This season in Darwin has been a huge success, with large crowds most weekends and plenty of repeat customers. But for Green, the greatest measure of that success is the number of extended conversations he’s had with locals who had never engaged significantly with indigenous culture previously.
“You have the Tiwi Islands over the ocean, it’s an hours flight to Arnhem Land, a couple of hours drive to Kakadu and obviously we’re on Larakia country… But you go into the city and you don’t see much celebration of the culture that I love, that I’ve grown up with. And a lot of people when they come to Elijah’s, they get a different perception of how to celebrate Aboriginal culture.”
Elijah’s Kitchen will be in Sydney in October and November, Melbourne in January and February and Perth in February 2019.
Published 08 September, 2018