When Nornie Bero opened snug Yarraville cafe Mabu Mabu (and before that, a South Melbourne Market stall of the same name), it was with a simple but important mission: to introduce Indigenous foods to a wider audience. And she did it with an accessible menu that sprinkled saltbush, strawberry gum, wattleseed, lemon aspen, pepperberry and other native ingredients through eggs, tacos, fried chicken, waffles and kangaroo-tail bourguignon.
But chef-owner Bero, who’s from Mer Island in the Torres Strait, will soon have a much bigger platform for her Indigenous-food advocacy. In July, she’s opening an all-day restaurant and bar in Federation Square, on the land of the Wurundjeri people.
“It’s going to be right in the city, it’s going to be a lot more visible to people,” she tells Broadsheet. “We want people to understand native ingredients and use [them] in everyday cooking, and that’s still the message we want to bring forward.”
It’ll be called Mabu Mabu Big Esso – “mabu mabu” is a Torres Strait Islander saying that means “help yourself”, while “big esso” is slang for “the biggest thank you”, Bero says.
“It’s about saying thank you that Australia is our home,” she adds. “And it’s also about thanking people for coming and experiencing the different way we do things.”
As in Yarraville, native ingredients and dishes will be championed. But instead of a brunch-y menu there’ll be one better suited to afternoon and evening dining.
Expect a stronger emphasis on sustainably caught seafood and Islander culture – that might translate to crayfish harvested by divers in the Torres Strait, cooked into a bisque with karkalla (a succulent also called pigface and beach banana) and pepperberries; a bucket of king prawns with native succulents; traditional namas, or coconut-cured fish; or blue swimmer crab in a hot pepperberry sauce. Bero also wants to “make yams sexy” as part of her range of vegan dishes.
Unlike at the cafe, which will continue trading, it’ll be all about communal dining here. “I want people to come in and actually share the dishes – it’s all about bringing your mates and sharing food, having conversations over your meals. That’s the experience we want to go for,” Bero says. “Mabu Mabu means ‘help yourself’ and that means a big table of food.”
In keeping with Bero’s ethos, the drinks list will be all-Australian, from the wines and beers (Stomping Ground will be on tap) to local spirits infused with native ingredients.
The new restaurant – across from Acmi – will have a modern feel, with murals by Indigenous artists and music from Blak musicians as part of its “Island Radio”.
There’ll also be a retail space where you’ll be able to shop Mabu Mabu products (including hot sauces, seasonings, spice mixes and native spiced chai) as well as wares from other Indigenous-owned and operated businesses.
“I’m just trying to put Torres Strait Islanders on the map because we have such a beautiful culture and I want to be able to bring that here too,” Bero says. “I think it will make a big difference, having us here in the Square – we’re just trying to bring a bit of colour.”
Mabu Mabu Big Esso is slated to open in Federation Square in July.