Tree scale, it’s just like cornflakes

Insects may have only recently made their way into convenience foods, but they’ve been part of traditional meals in Central Australia for tens of thousands of years. And some insects taste good, even sweet.

Small white scale insects on a gum leaf

The scale, or lerp, from the River Red Gum is edible and tastes sweet.

River red gum tree scale was my insect food of choice on a recent trip to Central Australia. It’s sweet, and a little crunchy. “Try this, it tastes like crunchy nut cornflakes”, said my friend, a teacher from Alice Springs. I pulled a few white scales off the leaves and passed them on, “Do you want some scale insects?”. My neighbour looked a little shocked – I think the line about cornflakes was probably more enticing.

According to Margaret Kemarre Turner’s Bush Foods from IAD press, the river red gum scale is called Ngkwarle aperaltye in the Arrernte language. The Ngkwarle part refers to the group of foods this bush tucker belongs to, which includes honey, nectar, tree gums and leaf scales.

Arrernte (pronounced Aranda, with emphasis on the first syllable) is spoken in parts of Central Australia. I visited the community of Ntaria-Hermannsburg, whose most famous former resident is probably Albert Namatjira. At Ntaria School, Arrernte is taught along with English, which gives Arrernte children a better opportunity to be bilingual and take pride in their language and culture.

A chalk board with words and drawings

A chalkboard in the old school in the Hermannsburg Historic Precinct shows visitors some Arrernte (Aranda) vocabulary.

Margaret Kemarre Turner’s book is intended for both young Arrernte people and visitors who want to know about local foods. It’s in both Arrernte and English, and it has line drawings by Shawn Dobson to help identify the foods. Turner describes which bush foods remain popular today or are rarely eaten, as well as whether particular things eaten especially by children or when you’re sick.

A page of a book

Bush Foods describes foods from Central Australia and how to collect and eat them in Arrernte and English.

If you’ve ever wondered how many types of witchetty grub there are, when’s the best time to catch a possum or which wattle seeds you need to cook before eating, then you should read Margaret Kemarre Turner’s book.

A river red gum with white scale insects all over the leaves

A river red gum tree covered in scale insects.

She recommends that if you’re after more than just a taste of the river red gum scale, you should collect it on a sheet so you can gather it into a ball.

There was a lot of scale on trees when I visited in late September, and the Central Australia springtime is very windy so it was blowing off trees onto the ground in little white flakes. If you saw so much sweet crunchy insecty goodness going to waste on ground, wouldn’t you be tempted to reach for your nearest gum tree and taste just a few more scales?

Insects can be surprisingly tasty. Maybe if cricket chips take off as a savoury snack, sweet tree scale shouldn’t be so far behind. Anyone for insect biscotti with their coffee?

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