High on the menu at silver-service restaurants, cockles, pipis or “kuti” — as they are known in the Ngarrindjeri language of South Australia’s south coast — are in demand.
- Aboriginal people have been harvesting cockles for tens of thousands of years near the Murray Mouth
- They have started a business called Kuti Co, after the Ngarrindjeri word for the mollusc
- A kiosk at Goolwa Beach has been transformed into the Kuti Shack
Harvested for tens of thousands of years from the state’s beaches, kuti has long been a staple fodder for local Aboriginal families.
In more recent years, the mollusc has been commercially harvested for human consumption and as a high quality bait — a process the Ngarrindjeri community were largely left out of, until now.
Kuti Co is a purely Ngarrindjeri-run company, started with the help of $5 million over four years from the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation.
Kuti Co chief executive and Ngarrindjeri leader Derek Walker said kuti had an important connection with local Aboriginal people’s history and culture — and now business.
Diving into meaningful employment
Kuti are found on the shoreline of the isolated and narrow Younghusband Peninsula, situated over the rolling sandhills of South Australia’s Coorong, south of the Murray Mouth.
“We look for the ripples in the water, so the cockles make the ripples on the sand and you just look for that,” Kuti Co team leader Clinton Walker said.
For hours at a time, the crew shuffles in the shallows, seeing and feeling for the kuti buried deep in the sand.
Machine harvesting is an option, but Mr Walker and the Kuti Co team said the raking approach was more sustainable.
“You can’t beat it — just going out on the beach, working,” he said.
“Sometimes it gets cold; [it] depends if we’re doing an afternoon tide that goes on during the night.”
Kuti Co is providing meaningful employment working on country for six local Ngarrindjeri men.
“A hundred years later, here we are, you know, fishing on our country, which has got to be good, doesn’t it?” Derek Walker said.
After a long day of harvesting, kuti are graded and purged in seawater overnight at Goolwa PipiCo.
Kuti Co has become a major shareholder in Goolwa PipiCo, where it is hoped another 20 Ngarrindjeri people could find employment.
“It’s far more than just a commercial arrangement we have with them; it’s about getting people back on country,” Goolwa PipiCo chief executive Tom Robinson said.
“It’s just such an important thing for the community to see people back harvesting pipis that they’ve been harvesting, or kuti as they call them.”
Kuti of a silver-service quality
What was a simple kiosk selling ice creams and hot chips has become a cafe called the Kuti Shack at Goolwa Beach, where amateur shufflers search for cockles.
Educating the community is an important part of the business, where kuti are on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The cafe has become a space for locals and tourists to come and share language and culture.
“And we can say ‘it’s pipis or cockles, but that’s what the locals call it and they’ve been harvesting and eating it for thousands of years’.
“And, you know, that makes people think and it’s really important.”
Ms Button said kuti was a hit with locals and tourists but there was still a lingering stigma around the molluscs.
“Some people you have to really convince; they think it’s a bait product — you know, ‘that’s the cockle and it’s bait’ — and then as soon as they eat it, it’s not, it’s succulent and it tastes like the ocean,” she said.
“It’s not hard to convince people and they come back, or they buy some to take home and cook.”