Making native ingredients part of the national cuisine

For the co-founder of Mabu Mabu, the secret to running a successful restaurant is knowing that good food is about much more than taste.
Mabu Mabu hero

Mabu Mabu started life at South Melbourne Market in 2018, and almost straight away went on to become one of its most popular spots. The deli-style market stall churned out food that put native ingredients front and centre, cooking with a variety of indigenous fruits, herbs and spices – from pepperberries and wattleseed to macadamia chilli paste and organic sriracha. 

One year on, having proven there was high demand, Mabu Mabu expanded to a permanent site in Yarraville, becoming one of Melbourne’s first Indigenous-owned and operated cafes and catering businesses. A mural by the Indigenous artist Coffin Birth (Charlotte Allingham) hangs on one of the brick walls. While the menu has changed, the native ingredients have, of course, stayed. Brunch might be sop sop, an island dish of yams and taro braised with coconut; for dinner, maybe ‘bush tacos’ with desert-spiced emu fillet. Mabu Mabu is alcohol-free, so customers might wash down their food with Brisbane-Indigenous-based non-alcoholic beers from Sobah.

In the early days, Mabu Mabu’s co-founder, Nornie Bero, said, ‘If you’re going to go into business, it has to bring something.’ And for her, the purpose of the business extends far beyond Mabu Mabu’s four brick walls. She is on a mission to make native ingredients part of Australia’s contemporary national cuisine. One day, she wants to see native ingredients used in every kitchen in Australia. To kickstart that effort, she’s also launched her own range of sauces and native spices – from desert herbs and cinnamon myrtle to saltbush and bush tomato seasoning. Collaborating with other Indigenous businesses is also something that Nornie is passionate about, as is employing people from diverse backgrounds. 

Migrants from Europe, Asia and Africa have settled in Australia over the centuries. And with more than 140 ethnic groups, Melbourne is home to some of the most culturally diverse communities in the country. The past 10 years have seen a rise in chefs who work to keep recipes as authentic as possible, or who specialise in using indigenous Australian ingredients in their dishes. More generally in the food industry, tying food to cultural heritage has become an important trend. But for many in the food world, it remains just that: a trend. Recently, lots of chefs and restaurants owners have been called out for taking parts of a specific culture and commodifying and trivialising them with increasing frequency. 

Not Mabu Mabu. In fact, it would be hard to find a more purpose-driven restaurant. Nornie’s mission is everywhere you look. ‘Mabu Mabu’ itself is a saying in the Torres Strait, where Nornie hails from, that means ‘help yourself’. Across Mabu Mabu’s website and Instagram, Nornie repeats the message: ‘Mabu Mabu acknowledges the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are based in Narrm (Melbourne); the Wurundjeri and neighbouring Boonwurrung Peoples of the Kulin Nation, and we pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging. Sovereignty was never ceded.’ Elsewhere: ‘Mabu Mabu acknowledges the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who have been gathering, growing, harvesting and using Indigenous ingredients for over 60,000 years on the lands now known as Australia, in particular our chef’s cultural heritage; the Komet Tribe of the Meriam People of Mer Island in the Torres Strait.’ 

Food does more than fill a rumbling belly, then. Like at Mabu Mabu, it can address much more important issues in urban communities. Nornie is finding success by holding what so many restaurants pretend they have but actually crave: authenticity.

‘We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are based, and we pay our respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.’

Here are three more Australian companies focused on the local community.

The Farm

The Farm supports ‘micro-businesses’ – from Three Blue Ducks, which runs the restaurant, café and produce store, to The Bread Social, where the ingredients are Australian, bio-dynamic and local.  

FBi Radio

A Sydney-based independent broadcaster, FBi (Free Broadcast Inc) has been around since 1995 – it promotes local music and culture initiatives and supports the local indigenous community. Its website states: ‘We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we broadcast and pay our respects to elders past, present and future.’ 

Rescue Brand 

Rescue Brand, which sells affordable personal hygiene and medical products, is ‘dedicated to employing the unemployed’. During the crisis, it has donated products to at-risk communities through a partnership with the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Association. 

This article was first published in Courier issue 36, August/September 2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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