I’m an Island girl, from Mer in the far-east Torres Strait. I’m from the Komet People – that’s our tribe – and Wanpun, which is a gecko. That’s my totem.
Almost all of our food came from the Island. We grew our own vegetables, fished every day and learned the circle of life. Growing up with a spear in my hand seems unreal, but that was my beginning.
Dad made me my own spear and if it ever got bent out of shape, I’d have to fix it myself. Before the sun rose, we would head out to the reef holding a kerosene lamp for a torch to catch anything that had been trapped in the lagoons overnight. I remember trying to spear octopuses before they slithered away, or finding a giant clam, ready to cook in coconut milk.
The creamy, sweet taste of coconut always makes me remember my aunties and grandmothers sitting in their colourful aw gemwalies (Island dresses), moud merring (gossiping) with big smiles and koquam (hibiscus) flowers in their hair. They would skin yams and scrape coconut with a madu (a wooden board with a metal edge), and prepare banana leaves to wrap damper and fish, all while singing our traditional songs.
Blue swimmer crab with red pepper sauce
When I was in my late 20s I discovered I was allergic to a lot of foods, such as milk and tomatoes. I developed this recipe because I really missed eating Italian-style red sauce; it uses capsicums instead of tomatoes. It’s also my wife’s favorite, and one of the first things I ever cooked for her.
Serve this with the saltbush damper below.
3 blue swimmer crab
6 red capsicums
4 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp chilli paste
1 tsp whole pepperberries (available online and from some specialty grocers)
2 tbsp tomato paste (concentrated puree)
40ml vegetable oil
500ml fish stock
1 tbsp dried saltbush
5 spring onionssliced roughly
Handful of sea parsleychopped (also known as sea celery, available online, and in plant nurseries)
Clean the crab – open your crab from the bottom, then pry open its head to find and remove the filters.
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Place the crabs in the boiling water for four minutes, then move them to a bowl of ice to cool.
Roast the capsicums whole in the oven at 180C for 30 to 35 minutes, then peel off the skin and discard the seeds. Puree the capsicums in a blender.
In a large pan or wok, fry the garlic, chilli, pepperberries and tomato paste in the vegetable oil over a medium heat for seven minutes, then add the pureed capsicums, fish stock and saltbush.
Add the crabs to the sauce, cook for three minutes, then add the spring onion and sea parsley and cook for another three minutes.
Saltbush and warrigal greens damper
This is your dinnertime damper – and a good opportunity to throw in any green herbs you might have lying at the bottom of your crisper. The saltbush adds an almost sourdough-like depth of flavour.
450g self-raising flourplus extra for dusting
80g butterat room temperature, plus extra to serve
1¾ tbsp dried saltbush (available online and from specialty grocers)
100g warrigal greensthinly sliced (available fresh from some fruit shops and in plant nurseries)
50cm sheet of banana leaf
Preheat the oven to 180C.
In a bowl, add the flour and butter and mix together using your hands until fully combined. Add the saltbush and warrigal greens and mix through.
Add 375ml water, a little at a time, and mix with your fingers until you have a nice sticky dough.
Place some flour on your work surface, then knead the dough until you have a bread dough-like consistency. Roll into a log, then set aside.
Before using your banana leaf, you need to release the oils to make it flexible and bring out the flavors. Hold the banana leaf over an open gas flame and move it across the flame in sections until the oils seep through the entire leaf. If you do not have a gas flame, place it in a dry non-stick frying pan for a few seconds on each side.
Place the dough in the center of the banana leaf. Wrap it, folding over each end, and roll it up like a burrito. Then wrap in aluminum foil using the same method.
Place on the oven shelf and cook for 50 to 60 minutes.
Serve with plain butter.
The usual way to eat pipes is to place them on a hot plate until they open up, then eat them straight from the shell. This super quick recipe uses tamarind – lots of people don’t realise how delicious tamarind is! Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty here and feel your meal.
300g fresh tamarind pulp
2 garlic clovescrushed
½ tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp curry powder
½ tsp salt
2kg pipisin shell
500g warrigal greensthinly sliced (available fresh from some fruit shops and in plant nurseries)
Start by pouring 250ml warm water over the tamarind pulp one hour before you need it. Hand-mush the pulp to get more out of the tamarind juice. Break up the pulp as much as possible with your fingers. Set aside.
In a large pan or work, fry the onion and garlic in the oil over a high heat until cooked.
Add the curry powder, salt and the pipes. Stir well for a couple of minutes.
Strain the tamarind water directly into the pan, discarding the pulp. Add the warrigal greens at the end. Cover and steam for three minutes.
Fresh squid ragu
This is a rich tomato-based entree or dip that makes a great start to a meal. The bush tomato adds extra depth of flavour. You can serve this hot or cold with taro chips or fresh bread.
1kg whole squidcut into 2.5cm slices (you can leave the tentacles whole if you like)
1 garlic clovecrushed
2 large onionsdiced
1 tbsp vegetable oil
500g very ripe roma tomatoesroughly chopped
Pinch of salt
1 tbsp ground bush tomato (available online and from specialty grocers)
4 mint leaves
4 tbsp tomato paste
Sea saltbushto garnish (optional)
Fresh bread or taro chipsto serve
Boil the squid in a pot of salted water until partly cooked – about seven minutes.
In a large pan, brown the garlic and onion in the oil over a high heat, then add the tomato to the pan with a pinch of salt, the bush tomato and mint leaves. (If you prefer, you can skin the tomatoes before cooking. Pour some boiling water over them, simmer for 10 minutes, then remove the skin before dicing.)
Add the squid meat and tomato paste to the tomato sauce and cook, covered, for 45 minutes until tender.
Serve garnished with sea saltbush, if using, and with some fresh bread or taro chips.