Acacia trees are widespread throughout Australia, their seeds a source of food for generations of Aboriginal people. The most widespread of the acacias is the Acacia aneura, commonly known as the mulga.
The seeds of all the acacia can be used, though the mulga was most commonly used because the plants were most abundant, and the seeds larger. The mulga was to the Australian aborigine as the acorn was to the North American Indian.
My first introduction to the mulga seed came from watching a Bush Tuckerman show, produced for Australian television. Bush Tuckerman is the name Australians have given to Les Hiddens, the host of the program who travels throughout Australia, showcasing wild foods, survival skills and Aboriginal lore.
Aboriginal people were shown collecting and winnowing the seeds from their pods, grinding the seeds to meal, then making a thin dough by adding water. A fire is allowed to die down to coals. Then, the mulga dough, in the form of a large pancake, is placed on the coals to cook. This pancake cooked in the ashes is known as damper.
The mulga tree is gray-green, with three seeds growing up to 3 cm. in length forming in each of the pods. Some accounts have the seed ground up and eaten without cooking. Others roasted or soaked the seed, and cooked it first. It seems that all Aboriginal people used these seeds, though the specific methods of use varied from group to group.
All acacia seeds can be used for food, and the term “mulga” is most properly used only with A. aneura. Other common mulga relatives are the witchetty bush (A. kempeana) and wattle (A. coriacea). An analysis by the University of Sydney found that all the acacia seeds were exceptionally rich in nutrients, with higher energy, protein and fat than crops such as wheat, rice, and even some meats, according Jennifer Isaacs, author of “Bush Foods.”
Here in Southern California, we don’t have true mulga trees, but we have at least 20 species of acacia, most of which have naturalized and are now found even in wild areas.
I recently decided to try some of the “wild mulga” found from the acacia trees growing wild in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco. During a Wild Food Cooking Workshop that I was conducting, we hiked to a large stand of the acacia trees which were full of the ripening pods. This was the variety commonly known as the silver wattle tree, or Acacia dealbata. We spent about 20 minutes collecting a bag full of the pods.
Back at our camp, we figured out ways to winnow the seeds from the husks, since they do not readily separate. We filled a large salad bowl with the pods and began by crushing and rubbing the dry pods between our hands. The bulk of the dry pods were then removed by hand.
Finally, we were left with the more difficult task of separating the seeds from the dry chaff. Normally, seed winnowing is an easy task, accomplished by gently blowing the chaff out of the seed. After another 20 minutes, we ended up with approximately a half-cup of the black seed.
Using a stone grinder, we reduced the seed to a powder. Surprisingly, this acacia flour was yellow. We added a bit of wheat flour (so it held together) and water. We then shaped one fat biscuit, which we cooked over the coals of our campfire. We had also prepared some biscuits made with acorn flour and Toyon berries and did a taste comparison.
Once the biscuits were cooked, we each eagerly tasted the mulga biscuit. It had a pleasant nutty flavor, somewhat like a poppyseed cake. Everyone preferred it to the acorn biscuit. It would have been absolutely delicious with honey or jam.
Though it took us quite a while to gather, winnow and grind the seeds, we reasoned that it was taking us longer because we were still learning. Done in bulk, the collection and processing of acacia seed might be economical.
In spite of the time it took to make just one delicious biscuit, we all felt it was worth the price to learn a new bush tucker — one that doesn’t require a trip to Australia to enjoy.
Note of caution:
Though apparently most acacia seeds are nutritious and can be used for food, I’ve found a few references that state “some are believed to be toxic.” Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to come up with any details, such as the species known to be toxic, or the type of toxicity or if cooking reduces toxicity. The emphasis in Australia is using this plant as animal feed, not human feed, so there seems to be scant data about human toxicity (real or rumored). If any readers have any specifics on this, please write and let me know.
Christopher Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “Foraging California,” “Enter the Forest,” “ Extreme Simplicity” (with Dolores Lynn Nyerges), and other books. Contact him through the School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041. Visit self-reliance.net and christophernyerges.com.