“I’m an Island girl, I’m a Torres Strait Islander born and raised. I’m lucky that my father raised me there, a single father, who was awesome about making sure I learned about tradition and culture,” says Nornie Bero, who is from the Komet tribe of the Meriam people of Mer Island. “It’s a sustainable way of living. Everybody grew and fished for what they'd eat.”
Bero has channelled her passion for her rich culture into a business, Mabu Mabu. It first started as a Torres Strait Islander deli at South Melbourne Market, before morphing into a Yarraville cafe that’s all about Indigenous ingredients, serving dishes like kangaroo-tail bourguignon and purple yams.
This month, she’s taking the next step in her mission to make Indigenous ingredients mainstream, opening a restaurant and bar Big Esso in Melbourne’s Federation Square.
“Big Esso means ‘thank you’, the biggest, biggest ‘thanks’ that you could get. I wanted to name it that because I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to everybody that's ever supported us, and showcase how thankful I am for the amazing country that we live in,“ she explains.
At 130-seater Big Esso, Bero is making “Australia the hero”, with a strong focus on where she’s from. “We're going into a lot more of my Island flair there,” she says. You can expect a lot of seafood like prawn buckets with native succulents, namas (cured ocean fish) and chilli crab in pepperberry sauce, as well as native meats like crocodile and wild boar. Vegan fare will also be aplenty, from Mabu Mabu’s popular damper to yam dishes. “I’m trying to bring the yam back because it’s very delicious. It’s one of my missions to bring it to menus everywhere,” she says. Comforting semur chicken could also make an appearance on the menu this winter.
A small shop will feature products from other Indigenous businesses like Haus of Dizzy, as well as Mabu Mabu and Big Esso’s range of spices, teas and sauces.
“We want people to actually walk away and try them themselves. We want to make sure that native ingredients are getting into every Australian kitchen."
The restaurant, which is set to open on Saturday, July 31, will have a modern Melbourne feel, while incorporating traditional elements into its décor. Bero has surrounded herself with artists like Lisa Waup and Aretha Brown who have created original pieces for the venue.
At 130-seater Big Esso, Bero is making “Australia the hero”, with a strong focus on where she’s from. “We're going into a lot more of my Island flair there,” she says.
“I really wanted to make sure that everybody gets a bit of something. I didn't just open Mabu Mabu for myself, I opened it up for a community and that village feels – what I’m doing is making my village a lot bigger,” she says.
It was important for Bero that her food remains accessible, so dishes will cost around the $20 mark. Being in the CBD, right by the city’s busiest train station, the restaurant will be in a prime position. The location also has special meaning, next to Birrarung Marr, a gathering and celebration space for Indigenous people, and the Yarra River, which used to be a major source of food.
“I wanted a platform where we could really showcase what we do in a bigger and broader way – and also really show what Indigenous businesses can really achieve,” she says. “I also wanted to bring a bit of colour into the city.”
Yarra Building, Federation Square
Corner Swanston and Flinders streets, Melbourne
Daily 11 am – late
The smoky flavour will be carried by the rich coconut base. This dish is usually served as part of a kai-kai, a quintessential Torres Strait Islander shared meal.
This sticky, baked pumpkin and coconut dessert is thickened with manihot (or cassava) root, and on Poruma in the Torres Strait it’s harvested and treated to make a flour.
Namas is a popular dish in Badu, Torres Strait and has been since it was born via Japanese influence from the pearling era.