When you visit Mama Blu's Kitchen at a small strip of shops in Elwood, Melbourne, the signature jerk chicken comes with a story.
It's one that's put on the plate by chef Stephanie Kamener and told by her partner in business and life, Martin.
With just two sets of hands running the restaurant, Martin is front-of-house. He explains that jerk is the last remnant of the Indigenous Arawak people. Maroons (escaped African slaves) adopted their cooking technique when they fled to the mountains. "Caribbean food is actually extraordinary," he says.
"The more you go into it, the more you go into the flavours that exist and where they come from. It comes from India, it comes from Africa, it comes from the Mediterranean, it comes from Asia.
"It's an untold story because no one really cares about it in Australia, but you can taste it. What Steff brings to it is that knowledge of how to cook it."
Steff was born and raised in England to parents who emigrated from Kingston, Jamaica. She met Martin when the pair worked at Clarke's Restaurant in London. After the couple made the move Down Under, where Martin grew up, Stephanie's resume of Michelin-starred restaurants landed her jobs with Stephanie Alexander, Michael Bacash and at the old Stokehouse.
"The more you go into it, the more you go into the flavours that exist and where they come from. It comes from India, it comes from Africa, it comes from the Mediterranean, it comes from Asia."
The Kamener's first venue was in Hawthorn: Blue Rhythm Cafe, which they closed to focus on the Babble on Babylon cafe in Elwood. When Steff and Martin adopted a little boy from Ethiopia they sold it to focus on family but Steff continued to make her chilli sauces and chutneys.
While hunting for a kitchen she found the current home of Mama Blu's. The council required the shop to be open to the public (not just a commercial kitchen), which led to Mama Blu's opening on Wednesday and Thursday nights. During the week they lease the kitchen to other small operators, from a ready-made-meal business by a local school mum, to another group who just started a Taiwanese bubble tea store.
Mama Blu's customers are split between locals and those who want to try something different. Martin praises a group that spins a dial, and whatever letter of the alphabet the hand lands on dictates the cuisine of their next dinner – in this case 'J' for Jamaican.
However, the Caribbean population is noticeably absent. Martin says it could be because they see he's Caucasian. But he also thinks it's because people from the Caribbean may not go out to eat food from their culture.
"I don't think Caribbean people go out looking for Caribbean food, I think they generally have it at home when there's a family gathering."
It's this share-style of Caribbean food that Steff brings to the table. Although shy at first, once she starts talking about the food she grew up with, she doesn't stop. She reaches for a can of ackee, a staple Caribbean fruit that can be poisonous if the wrong part is eaten. Later she'll serve it with saltfish that has strong, umami flavours reminiscent of South East Asia's ikan bilis.
Steff's shrimp in Creole sauce packs a punch, while a dish called "run down" is a vegan's dream: okra, corn, tomato and kidney beans cooked with chilli, plantain and spring onion in coconut.
Goat is cooked on the bone in a traditional curry and jerk chicken comes with an array of Mama Blu's homemade chilli sauces.
"Steff cooks, that's what she does," says Martin when she's out of earshot. "If she's not doing it, she's anxious. I always deem that she's an artist and in my mind, she's not just good at it, she's exceptional."
Mama Blu's Kitchen
61 Glenhuntly Road, Elwood
Wednesday & Thursday 6pm – 10pm
From the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, this deep-fried flatbread is a Caribbean favourite. With our vegan-friendly chana (chickpea) curry and cucumber chutney, it is heaven on a plate.
This is one of the most iconic Caribbean dishes, right up there next to jerk chicken. If you haven’t tried Caribbean food before, curry goat has to be one of the first on the list. You won’t regret it.
Indulgent and highly addictive, these fried dumplings are a staple of the Caribbean plate – warm and crunchy, yet soft in the middle. They’re also one of our favourite things to eat all day, every day, with everything.
Clap-hand roti is great to mop up tasty curries and sauces. Clapping helps release the air pockets and makes these Caribbean flatbreads lovely and light and flaky.
Sweet potato gives an added dimension here – extra moistness, extra sweetness and a touch of earthiness too. You could use steamed mashed pumpkin if you prefer, substitute wholemeal flour for plain white or, if peanuts don't float your boat, scatter any other nut over the top.
“The sight of fresh coconuts everywhere in Barbados took me right back to my childhood visits to the Caribbean. That’s why I like using freshly grated coconut in my butter, but desiccated works just as well. To grill the corn, I remove some of the outer layers of husk, then grill them in the green leaves to stop the kernels from charring and drying out. I then peel back all the husks, brush them with the coconut-butter and grill them again until golden and lovely.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food
Bananas are ubiquitous on this Caribbean island and have a natural affinity with brown sugar, one of Jamaica’s most famous exports. The first printed recipe for banana ice-cream is thought to be from Caroline Sullivan’s The Jamaica Cookery Book, published in 1893, and is not too dissimilar to the one we feature below. We’ve roasted the bananas for some smoky depth, and the muscovado and rum provide delicious, dark caramel notes.