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Niyoka bundle’s Indigenous fusion food is paving the way for girls

January 1 | 4 minute read

Niyoka Bundle Hero 16x9

Words by Georgie Abay

Originally published on | June 5

Here at MECCA, advancing equality is a key focus of our social change initiative, MECCA M-Power.

In our MECCA M-Powered interview series, fearless people from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of changemakers.

Cooking and culture have always gone hand-in-hand for Gunditjamara and Yuin woman Niyoka Bundle. “When I was young,” she says, “I was very lucky to experience our old ways of cooking and hunting and being taught by our elders. We would go on cultural camps or family camping and there we would eat red belly black snakes, goanna, emu, kangaroo.”

At the time, she had no idea she was planting the seed for a highly successful culinary career. Now the co-founder of Pawa Catering, dishing up exciting fusions of native ingredients with Western-style foods (kangaroo pie, anyone?), Bundle and her chef husband have cooked up a business that’s gone from strength to strength. But not without a few close calls.

When Melbourne’s long lockdowns saw events cancelled – and their catering too – Bundle did what so many business owners had to: she pivoted. Taka Gin, using native lemon myrtle, and then take-home pizza kits with a lineup of delicious native ingredients, saw the business emerge on the other side thriving.

And now, they're ready to come out swinging. There’s a new partnership providing catering across Arts Centre Melbourne venues and more big goals for the company, as well as their mission to give back to their community. That starts with a model that trains and employs Indigenous people. And Bundle is also pushing back against the male-dominated culinary world, saying that young girls need to know that nothing is impossible: “You can start from nothing. I know – I did.”

It’s important to keep giving back, no matter who you are.
Niyoka Bundle

Her earliest memories of cooking

“I love cooking and anything to do with food,” Bundle tells MECCA. “I remember I had a cookbook from a very young age, where I would collect recipes and inspiration and keep it in this folder. My all-time favourite to cook was pasta – spaghetti bolognese or carbonara was (and is still) our go-to! I used to go to my grandpa's house and cook recipes from my grandmother's handwritten recipes. She passed away young, so I used to cook her recipes to make him happy, and I think that's where my passion came from.”

Discovering native ingredients

Bundle calls using native ingredients “a learning experience” and reveals how she evolved her fusion approach: “I learnt to use native ingredients by combining Western cooking and adding in our native plants and herbs. My husband is an amazing chef and when we got together food experimentation using native ingredients was something we did often.”
I had to create work for myself that would bring in income for my family, but also keep me busy.
Niyoka Bundle

The ingredients she swears by

Curious about the culinary powerhouse’s personal favourites? You’re not alone! We asked, she answered: “Native herbs and fruits such as warrigal greens (native spinach), saltbush and lilly pilly fruit.”

Bundle uses these ingredients in innovative ways, telling us, “Warrigal greens or saltbush, they are versatile and can be used just like replacing salt; lilly pilly [can be used] as a sweetener, adding a sweet-tart taste in desserts. My favourite would be native lemongrass, it's amazing and fresh.”

First impressions of Indigenous fusion food

As with any groundbreaking concept, the reception was not always entirely positive – and preconceived expectations had to be overcome. “Sometimes our kangaroo pies were not always received very well,” recalls Bundle. “But once people gave them a go, they couldn't resist. They are probably our best finger food.”

She adds, “I think that, because our food is a fusion of modern and native, we are able to create food that appeals to people's taste without going too crazy and serving snake, like I have had. It's about bringing people together through food, so we want it to be an enjoyable learning experience and show people how easy it is to incorporate into everyday cooking.”

Having Indigenous people be involved in our business is a natural thing for us as we use native food.
Niyoka Bundle

Pivoting during Covid-19 lockdowns

It’s an all-too-familiar story – a burgeoning business is starting to take off, then a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic arrives to disrupt, well, everything. Like many business owners, Bundle flew into action: “Once I realised I would not be working, I had to create work for myself that would bring in income for my family, but also keep me busy. We pretty much started our side projects straight away,” she reveals.

The first step? Brainstorming! “My husband and I brainstormed and tested drink and food recipes and thought, ‘How can we get these to the public – and fast?’ We made a lemon myrtle iced tea and we thought it would go well with gin; we had seen the rise of craft gin and the interest and use of native ingredients in the spirit industry. It was a risk, but we are so happy we followed our passion and created an amazing product [Taka Gin].”

And where did the inspiration for the native fusion pizzas come from? “Our pizza kits came about by us also making pizza a lot in lockdown – but also trying to give that food experience to people at home,” says Bundle, adding, “When you cook and enjoy the food, it’s an experience you can do by yourself or with people you love. It can make all the difference, especially in lockdowns. They became quite popular and during lockdown we were able to deliver native fusion pizza kits and native fusion gin to locals in Melbourne.”

Her mission to train and employee Indigenous people

Strengthening her community is something that is central to Bundle’s business, and her identity. “This is one of my main missions for our company. I think as Indigenous people, it's built in us to give back to our community,” says Bundle. “I think if I can pass on the lessons and experiences I have learnt, then I would love to be able to do that through food. Having Indigenous people be involved in our business is a natural thing for us as we use native foods, so it goes hand-in-hand.”

She adds: “It’s important to keep giving back, no matter who you are.”

Build relationships and look for connections, rather than [thinking about] how it will benefit you.
Niyoka Bundle

Finding role models started with family

Bundle’s says her family has inspired her over the years, telling MECCA: “I have many great role models, but my grandparents were very influential to me growing up. They helped me be strong and work hard for what I want. I remember always wanting to make them proud, so to this day, that is in the back of my mind,” adding, “I think seeing my mother and father always creating something new or working on some amazing project also shaped the person I am today.”

Working in the male-dominated culinary industry

It goes without saying that Bundle is operating in the male-dominated industry of hospitality, and it hasn’t been without its challenges.

“Working as a kitchen hand and not a chef, males were always in charge, and it was hard as you would get sexist or not-so-nice comments,” she reveals. “They also expected you to fail, as the work is hard.”

However, her experiences also had some positive outcomes – and the culture of the industry seems to be changing for the better. “Like other industries, you also get the ones where they will take the time to teach you. It does require thick skin. I think these days, there is a lot more protection towards workplace equality and more and more women in charge,” says Bundle.

Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs

When it comes to those looking to follow in her entrepreneurial footsteps, Bundle has some sage advice: “Having a connection to your community and other business founders is a great start,” she says, adding, “Build relationships and look for connections, rather than [thinking about] how it will benefit you.”

Her second most important tip? “Being one step ahead and preparing for the unknown – and above all, starting strong will get people's attention.”

A lasting legacy for girls of tomorrow

Finally, Bundle has a truly inspiring message for young women in particular: “I want [girls] to know that nothing is impossible. You can start from nothing. I know – I did. You just have to start, make the step. Be strong and know who you are, nothing can stop you,” she says.

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