Food slow-cooked in an Indigenous earth oven is served by a volunteer in Sydney’s Hyde Park. Photograph: Sharon Hickey/City of Sydney
A traditional Aboriginal earth oven steams, roasts and barbecues food all at the same time – and the results are worthy of the finest open-air restaurant
To the untrained eye, an Aboriginal earth oven appears to be a simple mound of sand. But get close, and it’s warm to the touch and emanates a wonderfully smoky fragrance of meat that has been marinated in native Australian spices.
David Beaumont is a community engagement co-ordinator from the City of Sydney and a Wiradjuri man, “born on The Block in Redfern”. Before dawn on Monday he, along with members of catering company Goanna Hut, which specialises in bush tucker, built two traditional underground ovens in the heart of Sydney’s Hyde Park.
Beaumont talks me through the oven’s construction: a shallow pit, with a base grid of Gymea lily stalks, heated by burning hot rocks. That heat is sealed with a mixture of wet hessian bags and sand. “It steams, roasts and barbecues the meat all at once. Now I don’t know one man-made machine that can do that and have the food come out exquisite,” he says.
Without the temperature gauge of a typical oven, it requires some finesse on the part of the operator in timing the cooking and rotating the rocks to get an even spread of heat. It’s a perfect embodiment of the “slow cooking” movement, he says.
Where possible Beaumont uses natural material – as he did when he was taught the method 10 years ago by a Torres Strait islander elder. But Beaumont is no purist. “Culture is ever-evolving and you tweak things,” he says, comparing his practice to the contemporary Indigenous dance company Bangarra.
“They’ll perform new dances with new music, but still draw on that inner spirituality in a contemporary world. Earth ovens are no different.”
The ovens were built as part of Naidoc week, an annual celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander culture. By midday several hundred attendees, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have lined up, eager to pile their paper plates with food.
The ovens are dismantled and the meat and vegetables pried out of their foil cocoons. Roast lamb emerges dripping in the sweet juices of bush tomato; the chicken is infused with lemon myrtle; a particularly tender slice of pork bursts in my mouth with the taste of native pepperberry.
Beaumont appears proud to see so many satisfied diners.
“Sometimes we struggle to understand what it means to be, as Tony Abbott says, ‘Team Australia’,” he says. “As First Nations people we have made so many contributions and achievements over tens of thousands of years to this continent that is now called Australia and we want to celebrate that with people.
“For the past 200 years we haven’t been able to do that, but we’re doing that now.”
How to build a traditional Aboriginal earth oven
Dig a shallow pit between 1.5 and two metres in diameter and about 40cm deep (the grass can be removed carefully with soil and roots intact, then protected with wet hessian bags and returned when finished). The size of the pit may vary depending on the amount of food.
Add a 4cm layer of fresh sand to the base of the pit before building the fire. Assemble the fire by scattering a layer of rocks, then adding wood and more rocks until it reaches about half a metre high.
Light the fire and allow it to burn down for between one and two hours. Monitor the fire and make sure the rocks stay within the fire pit. This process heats the rocks, which are then used to cook the food.
After another two hours the rocks should be very hot. Any excess wood can be scraped aside. Spread the hot rocks over the base of the pit to distribute the heat evenly.
Place green wood, which has a very high water content and will not burn, over the hot rocks to act as a barrier between the food. This will prevent them from burning and allow the heat to circulate through the food once the pit is sealed. Place some hot rocks on the food to keep the heat even throughout the pit. These ovens feature four layers, with the larger cuts of meat on the bottom and smaller cuts on top, and a small amount of hot rocks spread in between for heat control and aeration.
Lay large, fresh, green leaves over the food to provide a protective layer and moisture to the pit. Preferably banana leaves for the first layer. The Hyde Park one used clippings from trees.
Add a layer of hessian that has been soaking in water for several hours over the green leaves. This helps keep the heat in and sand out. The hessian needs to be placed from the base of the pit to the top in a circular fashion so the sand falls away from the pit and not into it when it’s time to remove the food. Make sure the hessian covers the whole pit, including flowing out from the base.
Create a seal around the base of the pit, before covering the whole pit with clean sand. Finally, make sure the whole pit is covered with sand and there is no smoke leaking from the pit.
In our oven, the food takes between three and four hours to cook. When it’s ready, scrape the sand back very gently with a shovel so it doesn’t pierce the wet hessian below. Peel away the hessian and leaves very carefully so no sand falls directly on to the food. Rake hot rocks away with a shovel and extract the food.