Aboriginal-led catering service Murnong Mammas serves up indigenous ingredients in Castlemaine

Kutjera, quandong, murnong: these are not ingredients you would be likely to find in the average Australian’s pantry.

But before the arrival of Europeans, it was foods like these – the bush tomato, wild peach, yam daisy - that sustained Australia’s first peoples.

Now the flavours of such ingredients are being introduced to the palates of the wider community thanks to the work of initiatives like the Castlemaine-based Koori catering service, Murnong Mammas.

Murnong Mammas was established in 2014, in a partnership between Castlemaine District Community Health’s Aboriginal service Nalderun and adult education provider Continuing Education.

The initiative is named for the yam daisy, a common indigenous food found in this area.

For Nalderun, the initiative was an effort to get more Aboriginal women into meaningful employment.

Nalderun co-ordinator Kath Coff said employment initiatives aimed at the Aboriginal community were too often tokenistic, and as such, the organisation wanted to establish something that would provide women with jobs they actually had interest in and enjoyed.

She also explained that the quickest way to effect change in families was to ensure the parents were employed.

Meanwhile, Continuing Education chief executive officer Jane Gehrig was trying to attract more members of the Aboriginal community to the centre.

“I said, the quickest way to get them through the door is to employ an Aboriginal person,” Kath said.

That there was a gap in the local market for such a catering service also helped give shape to the initiative.

Murnong Mammas caters various occasions for such organisations as Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, the local hospital and the council.

They use native ingredients in a contemporary way, cook Melinda Harper explained, creating fusion dishes that blend these indigenous foods with ingredients more familiar to the wider community.

She said this was a process of experimentation and learning, with the women involved sharing their knowledge and skills.

Murnong Mammas also holds a monthly ‘pop-up cafe’ that has been running since last year, where they serve lunch to members of the community for a set price.

Mandy Fox, one of the Murnong Mammas employees, said the reception to their food at these lunches had been really positive, with people reporting that they enjoyed the food, and showing interest in the ingredients.

Murnong Mammas shows no signs of slowing down, with plenty of ideas in the works.

The women hope they will be able to grow more of their own foods in the Continuing Education indigenous garden and with the help of other institutions like local prisons, to make their operation more sustainable.

They also want to produce and sell chutneys, jams, body products, candles and the like made from these ingredients at local markets, and hold regular gourmet dinners.

All the women said they would also like to cook more regularly, as well as bring more Aboriginal women into the fold.

Kath said part of the reason the initiative had done well so far because of the willingness of Jane, from Continuing Education, to let Nalderun take the lead in determining what would work best for their own people.

From her end, Jane said it had been “fantastic”, and for her it was really about the family-orientated aspect of the initiative.

For Sarah Frost-Ridgeway, Murnong Mammas’ success is also because of the women’s passion for what they do.

“We are good, and we cook with love,” she said.

Murnong Mammas is more than just a job for Sarah and her workmates.

Their children occasionally help out, making it a family affair, and it has been credited with boosting the health of the women, in body and mind.

Sarah was one of the first women employed in the Murnong Mammas, Kath having known her as an “amazing cook”.

Sarah said she had always enjoyed cooking and, with five children, had tried to make the food in her home interesting.

She used to work for the University of Melbourne, and after leaving that job, said she “needed something to do more than anything”.

For her, cooking with Murnong Mammas doesn’t even feel like a job, more a place to spend time with friends and do something she loves.

“I’ve had quite a few jobs, and I’ve never felt as passionate about a job as I do about this,” Sarah said.

It was through her that her friend Mandy also became involved.

She was invited to come along and check it out, but it wasn’t until after she started volunteering for Murnong Mammas that she even discovered she was Aboriginal: her mother was part of the Stolen Generation.

She laughs that she always attributed her love of cooking to what she thought was her Maltese heritage, but now knows it’s because she’s Koori.

Mandu said her mental health had improved since she became involved with the group. It was a nice atmosphere, she said, with the women all looking out for and helping one another.

“I found when I came here, I was a part of something for the first time in my life,” Mandy said.

The Murnong Mammas’ pop-up cafe is held on the last Thursday of the month at Continuing Education. To book, call 5472 3299.