Bunya nuts would have to be one of the most under-appreciated Australian bush foods. I’ve been enjoying an abundance of bunya nuts and have been surprised by how delicious and versatile they are. I’ve eaten bunya nuts every day for more than a week and thanks to a stash in the fridge will continue feasting for a few more weeks.
Feasting on the fruit of the majestic Bunya Pine (Araucaria bidwillii) is nothing new. Thousands of Australian Aboriginal people would gather in the mountains of south-east Queensland during bumper bunya nut seasons. Tribes came together from afar to feast on the nutritious nuts, exchange stories, trade, socialise, and resolve issues.
Tribes would leave nourished and connected after feasting for many weeks.
The last great bunya gathering was in 1887. The tradition was revitalised in 2007 and the Sunshine Coast Bunya Dreaming festival is now an annual event. I love the idea of feasts being used to build community and revitalise culture.
Despite growing naturally only in Queensland, huge old Bunya Pine trees can be found in parklands across the east coast Australia. The ornamental qualities of this majestic giant, which can grow up to 45 m tall, saw it planted in many parklands and botanic gardens.
Twenty-five years ago, Jorge Tlaskal planted a couple of Bunya Pines in his garden at Bulga in the Hunter Valley. He waited 24 years for his trees to produce nuts. I was fortunate to help Jorge collect and process the last of this season’s cones.
In late summer Bunya Pine trees drop huge cones the size of a bowling ball – and almost as heavy. So it’s best not to loiter under trees when gathering cones.
How to open bunya nuts
To get at the nuts you need to pull the cone apart and peel the tough husk away from the seed. It’s best to do this as soon as you can as the husk becomes harder to remove as it dries.
The nut is encased in a super-hard shell. Nuts within intact shells can be stored in the fridge for weeks. The longer you store, the sweeter they become. Aboriginal people would store them in dilly bags placed in running water and would also ferment or sprout them by burying them in holes covered in mud or dirt (a nice overview of Australian aboriginal storage and uses can be found here).
Opening the hard shell is a challenge. You can gently crack the shell with a hammer or rock and roast in the oven or on coals until the shell splits in two. Or you can boil in water until the shell softens and splits (pictured above).
Or there’s Jorge’s ingenious method:
Jorge quickly and easily cuts the shells in half using a pair of garden loppers held in place using a vice.
Within minutes we cut through a bucket of nuts.
The nut can then be easily removed from the shell with a teaspoon.
A pair of sharp garden secateurs works just as well, but is a little more time consuming.
I've read one mention of the cotyledon in the centre of the nut (pictured above) not being edible. Most sources claim the entire nut is edible - which makes sense as there is no mention of the Australian aboriginal removing the cotyledon during preparation. Indeed, they presumably preferentially ate the cotyledon (which becomes the first first leaves of a seedling) when they sprouted the nuts.
I removed the cotyledon the first few times I ate bunya nuts. Then I ate them with the cotyledon - and noticed no noticeable difference. I no longer bother removing the cotyledon.
The nuts are safe to eat raw but are much tastier cooked.
They have a unique flavour and texture, similar to white sweet potato or chestnut.
There’s a myriad of ways to cook bunya nuts
I like eating them simply stir-fried in olive oil with loads of garlic and a sprinkling of salt. Or boiled and served with a dollop of butter.
They can be baked in pancakes, biscuits, breads and cakes.
I made delicious flat breads - influenced by how they were traditionally eaten by aboriginal people: ground and made into a paste which was roasted in hot coals to make a bread. To make these mini flat breads I processed raw nuts to a fine paste, added a little yoghurt, and fried small patties of the mix in a cast iron pan. Served with loads of honey they were delicious.
Bunya nuts are also a delicious addition to porridge. I soaked the nuts overnight with buckwheat, oat groats, dates and spices and cooked briefly in the morning. Delicious. The bunya nuts reminded me of macadamia nuts.
Or used in pasta sauce, casseroles, soups and stir-fries.
Bunya nuts are particularly good boiled and served as an alternative to pasta - juts like you would serve gnocci.
They are also a great addition to a quick meal of pan roasted vegetables or as a side for eggs.
Planting Bunya Pines as a perennial food tree
The bunya nut is so versatile I’m considering planting a few Bunya Pines - kind of like an extreme permaculture perennial food forest. I can imagine the family feast 24 years from now.
Bunya pines can live for an amazing 500 years.
I like the idea of my descendants 17 generations from now – enjoying fruit from a tree I planted. My great great-great-(you get the picture)-grandchild could collect nuts from my tree.
That’s a dream worth having.
Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 9th March 2015.