Food from the sea

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have relied on the sea to provide food for thousands of years.  Before Europeans came to Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had a wide variety of food to choose from. 

The types of foods eaten were dependent upon the season and the geographic area where people lived.  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people only took what they needed and were selective about the sex and maturity of animals taken in order to allow resources to replenish and prevent wastage. 

Today, food from the sea is still important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who continue to practice the many complex ways of collecting food and preparing meals using their traditional foods.

Fishing and collecting marine resources is an important part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and diet.  Creeks, rivers, beaches, islands, coastal and sea areas provide barramundi, bream, jewfish, catfish, cod, eels, grunter, prawns, crayfish, oysters, periwinkles, stingrays, sharks, crabs, turtles, turtle eggs, dugongs, bird eggs, bird droppings (used as fertiliser in garden beds), clam and triton shell amongst many other things. 

Dugongs and marine turtles are significantly valuable because they strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' culture and demonstrate connection with traditional sea country areas.  In remote coastal areas they provide food to communities where a nourishing diet is essential but often very expensive to attain.

Sharks and stingrays

Past and present coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seasonally harvest stingrays and sharks from the sea and estuaries.  The Aboriginal tribes located in Lockhart and Hopevale on the east coast of Cape York for example, prefer to eat specific types of ray.  Some of the favourite types of ray include cowtail ray, thorny ray, long-tailed ray and mangrove ray.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use indicators in the environment to determine the best time to harvest their food sources.  For example, for some tribes on the east coast of Cape York, the first thunderstorm of the wet season or the sighting of Torres Strait pigeons are considered the time to harvest stingrays. 

The livers of stingrays and sharks are highly prized by some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and considered sacred objects of the highest degree.  It is known amongst many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that the liver of a stingray is suitable for eating if it is oily and pinkish white in colour. 

It is also known that stingrays and manta rays with two spines are inedible.  The 'young' and 'fat' livers are valued as a delicacy. The liver of these animals contains iron and vitamins, providing strength to those that eat it and is a particularly important food source for babies and elders.

Examples of food preparation

In the Torres Strait and on the mainland, underground ovens called kup-mari (pronounced cup-ma-ree) are made to cook food. 

A shallow hole is dug in the ground and filled with rocks, wood and dry leaves are placed in a dome shaped arrangement to help make a big fire that will heat the rocks.  Once the majority of the wood is burnt and the rocks are heated, some of the rocks are set aside and the food that has been wrapped in banana and coconut leaves (or in modern times a combination of the leaves followed by aluminium foil) is placed in the centre of the pit. 

The rocks that were set aside are then placed on top of the food to help it cook evenly.  Once this is done more leaves are placed onto the pit along with hessian bags, then sand to lock in the heat. 

Food is removed after several hours.  Cooking times differ depending on the type of food being cooked and the temperature of the rocks.