Yerrabingin: Bringing Indigenous thinking to food and design
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;
Story

Yerrabingin: Bringing Indigenous thinking to food and design

Stories/663 , Issues/First Nations
Eveleigh NSW 2015
27th Mar 2020
Yerrabingin: Bringing Indigenous thinking to food and design
Education and environmental consciousness is at the heart of their work.

On a recent trip to Sydney, I found myself at Yerrabingin House, a rooftop garden in Sydney’s inner-city suburb of Eveleigh. The walk overtook about five minutes from Redfern station as the afternoon gave way to an Autumn wind and a teasing rain. 

As I passed the Yerrabingin impression in the foyer designed in iconic Aboriginal motifs, I unknowingly stumbled upon an event they were holding for chefs, cooks and food enthusiasts. Or as it would seem, for people like me who just happened to visit their garden that day. 

I hovered over a long table looking at the various dishes of wattle, honeycombs, limes, and plums as many attendees excitedly discussed the native ingredients on offer, while others congregated with a drink in hand on the open rooftop garden looking over Sydney’s urban skyline. 

During Australia’s recent catastrophic bushfire season there were stories circulating applying Indigenous knowledge practices to caring for country and for combating the fires. Indigenous knowledge is not just limited to practices such as cultural burning, however.

Yerrabingin, a start-up based in Sydney, is bringing Indigenous culture and knowledge to landscaping design, food, and cocktails.

Christian Hampson, a co-founder of Yerrabingin, tells me that the name comes from his grandmother’s native language and means ‘we walk together’, a fitting name in times of urgent need for collective action.

“We started the company to look at bringing Indigenous knowledge to design thinking. We look at how we can solve problems. The newest problem is that we don’t currently have enough native food being used on rooftop farms. We have created a permaculture model that creates a space that showcases food plants and also puts them into spaces that are currently unused”, Hampson says. 

The philosophy underpinning the rooftop farm is that you can create both foods in urban landscapes but also biodiversity for animals like birds and insects. Beyond this, there is an educational motive that informs Yerrabingen’s work. 

“There is an opportunity to teach people about Indigenous knowledge around land and environmental management. Our culture is embedded in environmental consciousness as are many Indigenous cultures around the world. You’re talking about wisdom around the landscape, what happens with climate and about managing landscapes that are tens of thousands of years old.”

Tyson Yunkaporta, in his recent book Sand Talk, explores the ways Indigenous thinking can address world issues by emphasising the high context culture of Aboriginal thought. According to Yunkaporta high context cultures “demand dialogue and complex agreements…[and] use a lot of non-verbal communication and leave many things unspoken due to commonly shared understandings and established consensus about the way things are done.”

This requires a certain negotiation of how Indigenous knowledge is not only conveyed but used. Whilst the native food industry is worth tens of millions of dollars annually, Christian Hampson points out that only three percent of that is being provided by Indigenous companies. For Yunkaporta, Indigenous knowledge is a synthesis of various types of ‘mind’. The ‘pattern-mind’, for example, is about seeing entire systems and the trends and patterns within them, whilst the ‘story-mind’ is about the role of narrative in memory and knowledge transmission.

In total, Yunkaporta outlines five types of mind which come together to make up a certain resource of Indigenous understanding, rationalisation, and application. But he is careful to disclaim that these aren’t the only terms by which to interpret such native knowledge. On Indigenous food, he is circumspect of “award-winning Aboriginal-themed restaurants” which he sees as inauthentic. 

“Aboriginal cooking today continues to reflect the core culinary principles of our old people—using what is available, balancing animal and plant food…seeking foods in the right season and cooking them slowly as we would in a ground oven or bed of ashes.” 

The underlying interrogation about Indigenous knowledge, whether in food, medicine or environmental management, remains one of ownership. At Yerrabingen, those involved in the native garden feel a certain custodianship over such spaces. “They don’t only look after the plants but they share the knowledge about those plants with people”, says Hampson. 

Yerrabingin is working with a number of prominent chefs to bring authenticity in native plant use for cuisine and empathetic design. They also hold various courses such as their popular native forage cocktail course. 

“The great thing about this course is that while you are making cocktails you are learning about particular species. You are seeing them in the environment. It’s a way to have a journey around Indigenous knowledge.” 

As Australia wide lockdowns and social distancing measures become ever more stringent in the fight to combat the spread of Covid-19, Yerrabingin, like most business start-ups, are going to find it difficult, if not impossible, to operate. The good thing about the type of native plants Yerrabingen cultivates is that they are more resistant and use less water, and consequently don’t require as much attention. 

At a time when the importance of Indigenous knowledge is gaining some commercial prominence, it is incumbent that such knowledge continues to be given its place in the fabric of Australian knowledge of country. That recognition can and must continue. 

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