Food from the sea

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

They also chose foods according to the season and the geographic area where they lived, took only what they needed, and were selective about the sex and maturity of animals taken to allow resources to replenish and to prevent wastage.

Fishing and collecting marine resources and preparing traditional meals continue to be 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

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seasonally harvest stingrays and sharks from the sea and estuaries, with some Aboriginal tribes in Lockhart and Hopevale on the east coast of Cape York prefering to eat specific types of ray. Favourite types include cowtail ray, thorny ray, long-tailed ray and mangrove ray.

Some prize the livers of stingrays and sharks, which are considered sacred objects. They also eat the ‘young’ and ‘fat’ livers of manta rays, which contain iron and vitamins and are an important food source for babies and elders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also know that the liver of a stingray is suitable for eating if it is oily and pinkish white in colour, while stingrays and manta rays with two spines are inedible

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.

Examples of food preparation

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

To make the oven, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people dig a shallow hole in the ground and fill it with rocks. They then place wood and dry leaves in a dome-shaped arrangement to make a big fire and heat the rocks.

Once the majority of the wood is burnt and the rocks are heated, they set some of the rocks aside and wrap the food in banana and coconut leaves (or a combination of leaves and aluminium foil), placing it in the centre of the pit.  

They then take the rocks that were set aside and place them on top of the food to help it cook evenly. They also place more leaves and hessian bags on the pit, as well as sand to lock in the heat.  

They remove food after several hours. Cooking times differ depending on the type of food being cooked and the temperature of the rocks.