Week 2, Semester 2
By Tyson Holloway-Clarke
I don’t get the chance to head to the Top End that often. I barely make it back to Tasmania most university breaks, so heading up to the Northern Territory is normally not on my radar. But last year in the last stretch of my thesis research I flew north to stay with family. I was hopping between different places pretty frequently. I went from Darwin, to Groote Eylandt, to Nhulunbuy, back to Darwin, down to Alice Springs, and finally back to Melbourne. I managed to spend good quality time with my aunties and uncles and my dad, and visit a lot of places from my childhood. It was all very familiar and comfortable, but something was missing. (Most notably my mum and my sisters, but something else too.)
In the last hours of my visit to Nhulunbuy, I spotted my uncle’s salty plums. They weren’t dangling out the bottom of his shorts, they were in a sealed plastic bag in the pantry. Salty plums are a rarified Chinese confection that you seldom find in the south or east of Australia. They also happen to be a staple for blackfellas in Queensland, the NT and in Western Australia.
When I first went to boarding school, I was given a jar full of multiple varieties of salty plums available from the Chinese grocers. Most commonly these plums come in the brown or red varieties in small packets of a dozen or so, and are Chinese in origin. In the NT you can buy them by the kilogram, in much larger loose packaging. My uncle had two 2kg bags of red salty plums, my personal favourite, sitting in his pantry. He spotted me looking at them and said he was hoping I wouldn’t spot them, before handing them over. When I got down to Alice the same exact situation happened with my dad, but rather than giving me his, he went and bought more. They both knew that I couldn’t get these back in Melbourne, and that they would last me months. They are so rare down south that I felt like Schapelle Corby with a camera bag instead of a boogie board. Giddy with gratitude, I snapped a photo and sent it to a bunch of the blackfellas back in Melbourne. When I arrived back in Melbourne, , people needed salty plums and I was Walter White. Sure enough, I had to share them and after a week or so they were all gone.The mob wanted a taste of home too.
Salty plums are not for the faint of heart. They are viciously flavourful and cannot be eaten like most confectionery. One might describe salty plums like the Chinese-Aboriginal child of the cinnamon challenge and chewing tobacco. For the uninitiated, the salty plum can be more violent and offensive than Vegemite.
Instructions for consuming are as follows;
If you do it properly, your mouth will be stained bright red and orange like the burnt earth of the Top End. I am yet to find another food that can neutralise the salty plum on the palate. -Your only respite is to wash your mouth and brush your teeth. Be warned though: salty plum with toothpaste is a particularly nasty combination.
Despite the fierce and confrontational nature of the salty plum, they remain a cultural icon and a taste of home. I had found what my nostalgic trip north was missing. Thongs, boardies, sleeping in the lounge at my uncle’s place, searing heat, oppressive humidity, and a bright red-orange tongue and teeth.