Note: ground, dried bush tomato is called ‘akudjura’
If there’s a brave new frontier in the spice trade, it’s most certainly in Australia. Wild-crafted spices like bush tomato and mountain pepper are the newest things to hit spice shelves in years. Interesting that Aboriginal peoples’ spice racks may predate those of the rest of the world by millennia.
Entrepreneurs in the spice trade discovered the potent bush tomato Down Under while investigating the Aboriginal diet. With a taste that starts as sun-dried tomato but ends sharper and less sweet, the bush tomato was historically seen as a staple, not a specialty spice, by the indigenous population. Some samples can even taste like caramelized sugar or dried fruit, but the finish typically brings it back to the savory end of the spectrum.
Native to Central and Western Australia, the bush tomato has a strong connection with the mythology of the Warlpiri tribes and Anmatyerr people of Central Australia. Like many Australian native plants, bush tomatoes thrive after bushfires, the initial prolific fruiting steadily declining over a few years until rejuvenated by the next bushfire.
Regarded as a staple, bush tomatoes that had dried on the shrub in low humidity desert conditions were gathered and ground with water to produce a thick paste which was formed into large balls and left to dry in the blazing sun. The high acidity characterized in the tangy flavor and rich vitamin C content acted as a preservative, making storage over long periods of time possible and these balls were often wedged into the forks of trees for later use. Although the Australian Aborigines used bush tomatoes primarily for sustenance, our current inquisitiveness and desire for diversified taste experiences has led us to appreciate bush tomatoes as a spice, used in small quantities to enhance the flavor of a wide range of foods in everyday meals.
The bush tomato shrub, a relative to the potato and tomato, is a hardy looking perennial with woody stems bearing long sharp spikes at 2_314 in. (5-8 cm) intervals. Soft, down-covered, grayish-green leaves and young rust-colored leaves set off attractive violet flowers in the shape of a five-pointed star. The fruits are around 3/4 in. (2 cm) in diameter, purplish-green when young and paleyellow when ripe. As the sticky fruits dry, they shrink to 1/3 – 1/2 in. (11.5 cm), the color darkens to chocolate-brown and a chewy, raisin-like consistency develops.
Bush tomatoes ripen in the wild in the central desert and the fruits are allowed to dry naturally on the plant before gathering. This process is essential if they are to be safely eaten with no harmful side-effects because during the drying process the level of alkaloids is reduced. Dehydration also concentrates the flavors in bush tomatoes and creates more full-bodied and complex flavor notes in the same way as drying in the sun modifies the flavors of many familiar spices from around the world.
Bush tomatoes have a distinct, pleasant ‘caramel mingled with sun-dried tomato’ aroma with comforting ‘baked’ background notes reminiscent of a wholemeal cookie. The flavor is initially caramel-like, yet after about 30 seconds develops a somewhat bitter, lingering aftertaste which leaves the palate unexpectedly refreshed, similar to green tomatoes. Ground bush tomatoes are referred to as akudjura, the color varying from light, sandy orange-brown to dark brown depending upon the amount of rainfall the plants experienced while the fruits were developing.
Purchasing and Storage
Gathering your own bush tomatoes is not recommended unless you have an experienced gatherer to help identify the edible varieties. Some related species are not edible and contain toxic amounts of the alkaloid solanine. When buying whole bush tomatoes, you will notice the color can vary considerably, however this is generally not an indication of quality, simply an effect from the amount of rain during the growing season. Most importantly the consistency should be similar to a raisin, any softer than this is a sign they have not been sufficiently dried. The powder, akudjura, will sometimes form clumps due to the high levels of oils present, once again as long as the powder does not feel ‘moist’ to the touch some lumps do not affect the quality for culinary applications. Both bush tomatoes and akudjura are best stored in an airtight container and protected from extremes of heat, light and humidity.
Culinary Uses of Bush Tomato
The unique flavor of bush tomato is best used in small quantities because using too much will cause the bitter sharp notes to dominate and overpower the fruity, sweet, caramel flavors. Whole bush tomatoes can be added to long, slow-cooked dishes such as soups and casseroles. Akudjura, the powder, is often combined with brown sugar and used as a rub for lamb and can also give a country-baked taste to cookies and apple crumble. A savory bread flavored with bold herbs rosemary and thyme can marry well with bush tomato, either baked within or soaked and used as a topping. Even a spread made with olives and garlic can take advantage of the strong, raisin-like character that blooms from ground bush tomato.
Use akudjura ato to flavor casseroles, beef stews or wild game. Or sprinkle it on focaccia, antipasto and chutneys. It also works well as a coating for grilled fish, such as salmon or tuna.
It combines particularly well with ground coriander seed, watdeseed, lemon myrtle and a little salt for rubbing onto white and red meats before grilling, barbecuing or stir frying. A tangy pepper steak spice can be made by pounding black and white peppercorns, mustard seeds, salt and akudjura in a pestle and mortar. Sprinkle over steak and barbecue.
desert raisin, desert tomato
Native names: akudjura (ah-KOOT-joo-rah), akatjera, kutjera, akatyerre, kampurarrpa, and kati kati.
Italian: pomodorina selvatico Australiano macinato