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The Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia – Series 5 Episode 2 (2004)

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clip An ancient trade education content clip 1

Original classification rating: G. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

Another well designed item in this always interesting series. Reporter Joanna Savill talks to the crew who dive for the elusive trepang, interspersed with a little history, while later in the program, we visit a Chinese Australian chef, to discover the secrets of cooking with this exotic sea creature.

Curator’s notes

Fishing for trepang – sometimes called sea urchin or bêche de mer – is perhaps the oldest trade in Australia. There’s evidence that the Maccassans of Celebes would come to our shores from well before the 17th century in search of this great delicacy.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows SBS reporter Joanna Savill on a small boat talking with a diver who harvests trepang (also called sea cucumber) off Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory. The catch is transferred to the mother boat and another trepang fisherman states that from the 1700s, before white settlement, traders from the Celebes sailed to Australia to harvest and process trepang before selling it to China. The fisherman claims that contemporary methods of harvesting and processing trepang are similar to the early methods. Today, however, the trepang are gutted and boiled on board the boat, then transported to Melbourne, where they are cleaned and dried in a factory before being exported to Asia.

Educational value points

  • The sandfish (Holothuria scabra) shown in the clip are a variety of trepang. Trepang are also known as sea cucumber, because of their shape, or bêche-de-mer (beast of the sea). They are actually worms that belong to the holothurian family and are distantly related to sea urchins, which are also edible, and sea stars, which are not. Trepang gather in muddy water on the sea bed, bury themselves in the sand and consequently are difficult to catch.
  • For many years Macassan trepangers, trading fishermen of Macassan, Bugis, Butonese, Timorese, Malukan and Papuan origin, sailed from the south-western corner of Sulawesi in Indonesia to the Arnhem Land coast of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley coast of Western Australia in search of marine produce. The actual date of the Macassan trade is disputed although some claim that it began around 1720. Their large boats were called praus and at the height of the trade 1,000 men and 50 vessels visited the northern coast of Australia annually. They fished for trepang and gathered turtle shell and pearls from December to April.
  • There is a range of evidence of the Macassan visits to northern Australia. The Yolngu community adopted the dugout canoes brought by the Macassans in preference to their own traditional bark canoes, enabling the Yolngu to fish for sea turtle. The visits by Macassans were recorded in oral histories, songs, dances and rock and bark paintings by Aboriginal communities, and the remains of kilns that were used to process trepang still exist. Tamarind trees in the Northern Territory originate from seeds brought by the Macassans.
  • Macassans traded with Indigenous Australian communities for the right to fish in their waters and to use Aboriginal people as divers. The Macassans established processing camps on the coast where they boiled the trepang to clean it and then preserved it by smoking. The trepang was exported via Singapore to China, where it is considered a delicacy. These days trepang is boiled then freeze-dried before being exported to China and other Asian countries.
  • Trepang can change their shape, and they move using tubular feet and a muscular action of the body wall. Their length varies from 10 cm to 50 cm, and they are able to contract to half their length. The trepang has an endoskeleton, which is an internal support structure, just below its leathery skin. It ejects long sticky threads when threatened by a predator, and when it eats at the bottom of the seabed it cannot breathe through its mouth, so it breathes through its anal vent.
  • Groote Eylandt, which means 'Big Island’ in Old Dutch, is the largest island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Groote Eylandt was named in 1644 by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, captain of the ship Arnhem, after which Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory was named. The traditional owners of Groote Eylandt are the Anindilyakwa people.
  • The Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia is a food, travel and lifestyle television program, a genre that has grown rapidly since 2000 and that has attracted large audiences. 'Lifestyle’ shows cover such subjects as health, cooking, travel, gardening and renovation. These shows cost less to produce than drama, which explains their popularity with Australian television networks. The long-running Burke’s Backyard (1987–2004) was the pioneer of this style of show in Australia.

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