Native flavours abound at Karkalla Byron Bay

Karkalla - Byron Bay
Karkalla - Byron Bay

Karkalla is a breath of fresh air in Byron Bay and, with a trailblazing menu inspired by the oldest ingredients in the world, it’s not just the sea breeze

Australian pigface is a popular garden plant with eye-catching pink flowers. It’s also a delicious Indigenous ingredient traditionally known as karkalla – and the inspiration for chef and Indigenous restaurateur, Mindy Woods’, award-winning Byron Bay restaurant of the same name.

“The name Karkalla was inspired by my nan, Margie Felton – a beautiful Widjabul Wia-bal woman of the Bundjalung Nation, in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales.” Mindy explains. “It was the first native food she taught me about when I was young.”

Beyond this perennial succulent’s pretty – and delicious – attributes, Australia is home to, roughly, another 6,500 ingredients that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. More chefs are clueing into the unique and delicious edge Indigenous Australian ingredients can lend to their dishes. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed the satisfying ‘pop’ of biting into a sea blite – an edible coastal succulent delicious when steamed, stir-fried or blanched; or had the pleasure of munching on a crunchy indigenous ice plant. But few chefs have done so with such knowledge, or such commitment, as Karkalla’s Mindy.

Her female- and Indigenous-owned-and-run restaurant is rightfully making waves in the foodie world, thanks to an unusual menu that puts local, seasonal and native ingredients in the spotlight. A beacon of sustainable hospitality, Karkalla pioneers a style of ultra-local dining in Australia that is taking the slow food and farm-to-table movement much further.

When Mindy opened Karkalla in 2020, her mission was clear and simple: to connect both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people with First Nations culture, knowledge and history through food, increasing awareness and encouraging wider use of the oldest foods on Earth. “Our cultures and food culture are as rich and diverse as the many countries and cultures found throughout Europe, and I love to educate people on just how rich and diverse our cultures and foods are. We hope to break down the prevailing stereotype that native food is just food for survival, as it has been considered since colonisation, and give it the world class treatment it deserves,” Mindy explains.

For Mindy, food is not just the way to a person’s heart – it is the way to art, culture and Country, and they are inseparable. If Karkalla’s ethos fuels connection, then its menu will fuel a new appetite for native ingredients, in all their delicious glory. If the cuisine could be summed up in one phrase, it would be ‘ancient ingredients, modern flavours’. “We interpret more widely known dishes and ‘indigenise’ them through the creative use of our many native foods, fruits and spices, says Mindy. “Our menu is inspired by the oldest ingredients in the world and interpreted in a modern way – bridging the old world and the knowledge of our ancestors into the modern landscape in which we now live.”

Dining at Karkalla is an immersive experience, where meats are cooked and served on hot coals, or on locally sourced paper bark, myrtle and tea tree. The menu, designed to be shared, is seasonal, and changes depending on what ultra-local ingredients – sourced from regenerative and organic farmers throughout the Byron Bay region – are available. This can mean guests often experience a new selection of dishes every time they dine, even within the same month.

“The Northern Rivers of New South Wales, which is the ancestral home of my people, was and still is a native food bowl. We are from a place where rainforest and rivers meet the sea and it is bountiful in its food offering,” explains Mindy. “Food that grows on Bundjalung jagun is not the same as that grown down on the cold Country or central desert Country.”

There is a Southeast Asian spin to the menu, thanks to Mindy’s childhood years spent living in Malaysia, and she utilises native ginger, lemon, anise and cinnamon myrtle, warrigal greens and native peppers to create native versions of that global Thai favourite, green curry. “It’s one of our signature dishes and people are blown away by its vibrancy in colour and flavour,” says Mindy.

“We often feel powerless in our ability to positively impact or help improve our environment, but we have immense power in our choices as consumers and business owners to positively impact the environment.”

‘Small plates’ to whet your appetite include the likes of Sashimi of the day, macadamia, native nam jim (dipping sauce) and ooray (a berry native to Queensland) rice crisp’, while ‘From the sea’ and ‘From the land’ dishes include King fish wing native salt & pepper, bush tomato xo butter and Kangaroo pie with native massaman. From the garden, there’s sourdough damper with wattleseed and bush honey and kipflers with native salsa verde, among plenty of others.

The element of surprise when it comes to the menu is all a part of the experience. What won’t be a surprise is how much you’re likely to enjoy dining at Karkalla. The restaurant was named Critic’s Choice at The Good Food Guide 2023 and received an AGFG Chef’s Hat – the first female indigenous chef to earn this esteemed accolade. In 2024, Mindy will release her first cookbook, inspiring people to embrace native ingredients in their home cooking.

“Our ingredients are world class and deserve to be embraced and celebrated for their uniqueness of flavour, incredible nutritional value and, importantly, their connection to Country and culture,” Mindy says. “We come from the oldest food culture in the world – that’s something to be proud and excited about.”

Dining on-Country

In 2024 Karkalla will be creating unique on-Country cultural and dining events to immerse diners in the riches of Cavanbah’s (Byron Bay) ancient land. Dining under the stars, under the canopy of the rainforest or seaside along the pristine coastline will be on offer.

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