Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2023

Mabu Mabu: An Australian Kitchen Cookbook (2022), by Nornie Bero

This is a cookbook review with a difference, because

  • I need to source the ingredients before I can do some of the recipes that I most want to try; and
  • the author’s story is more than just the usual yada-yada about learning to love cooking with #InsertCherishedRelative.

Nornie Bero is a Momet woman of the Meriam People from the island of Mer in the Torres Strait Islands.  Readers with long memories may remember that back in 2019 I attended a NAIDOC Week event at Beaumaris Library where Nornie presented a cooking demonstration using bush food ingredients.  That, of course, was before the pandemic.

Nevertheless, Mabu-Mabu is thriving.  With 20 years’ experience as a professional chef, Nornie is the head chef and business owner of a bar and kitchen called Big Esso by Mabu Mabu at Federation Square.  (You can see the catering menu here.) Her mission, to put First Nations ingredients in kitchens across Australia, has morphed into an online shop where you can buy an amazing range of Australian native ingredients, just some of which you can see below.

Born in Queensland but raised in the Torres Strait Nornie grew up in a single parent family, part of a working household on Moa:

growing produce, weeding and cooking.  My earliest memories are of Dad teaching me how to make damper when I was barely able to see over the stovetop. (p.18)

She knew what hard work was from a very early age.

Every morning I’d wake up when it was still dark and help dad make pumpkin buns that I would deliver to the locals before school. He paid me in marbles. (p.18)

She learned traditional ways of harvesting from the reef:

Growing up with a spear in my hand seems unreal, but that was my beginning. Dad made me my own spear and if it ever got bent out of shape, I’d have to fix it myself. Before the sun rose, we would head out to the reef holding a kerosene lamp for a torch to catch anything that had been trapped in the lagoons overnight. I remember trying to spear an octopus before it slithered away, or finding a giant clam, ready to cook in coconut milk. (p.18)

They moved to Horn Island, where she took the ferry to school on Thursday Island until her father’s poor health made it necessary for her to be billeted out with her Grandma Aba for high school in Cairns and then in Townsville. She failed cooking at school, and left at sixteen to do farm work, progressing to kitchen work in a pub, learning the skills that meant she could always get work in a pub.  And then she set off for Melbourne…

Moving away from home is still one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I arrived in Melbourne excited to experience the city, from the vibrant culture to the amazing food, but I had to find a job, fast.  I had no idea how hard it would be for a young woman, let alone a woman of colour, to find work.  This was the late nineties, and the kitchens were ruled by men.  It was a challenge just to get in the door, but once I did, I was in for life.  I made sure I stuck with the hospitality industry no matter how tough it got because I just loved it. (p.27)

From small beginnings with a spice stall at the South Melbourne market and then a cafe in Yarraville, Nornie has gone from strength to strength.  Her mission is to take Indigenous ingredients out of fancy restaurants and into every kitchen.  

Just like organic produce, native ingredients shouldn’t be an expensive treat.  Everyone in Australia should be cooking with native fruit, veg, spices and meats. (p.43)

There’s a whole chapter on the ‘Native Pantry’.  Some of these are readily available, and some less so, but there is a chapter on places where you can source them.  They are grouped by:

  • Succulents: Aragetti, Karkalla, Samphire, Seablite.
  • Plants and herbs: Aniseed myrtle, Cinnamon myrtle, Crystal ice plant, Hibiscus, Lemon myrtle, Native thyme, River mint and Saltbush (both growing in our garden), Seaberry saltbush, Sea parsley and Warrigal Greens.
  • Seeds: Pepperberry and Wattleseed (both in our spice drawer, and we use them a lot).
  • Eucalyptus: Peppermint Gum and Strawberry Gum.
  • Nuts: Bunya nut, Sea almonds and easy to find Coconut, and Macadamia nuts ,
  • Fruits: Bell fruit, Bush tomato, Davidson plum, Desert lime, Finger lime (growing in the garden), Illawarra plum, Kakadu plum, Lemon aspen, Lilli pilli (we have a huge tree), Muntries, Native wild currants, Quandong, Riberries, Sorbee and Wongai.
  • Yams: Cassava, Taro and White sweet potato; and
  • Meats: Crocodile, Emu and Kangaroo.

So then the recipes.

The first collection is grouped by the flour used to make them.  There are variations on domboi (dumplings), dampers, scones and banana bread.

Then there’s Island to Mainland: meat and poultry recipes like you’ve never seen before such as Pulled Wild Boar and Saltbush Pepperberry Crocodile.

Ocean: all kinds of tempting seafood recipes, such as Tamarind Pipis, Samphire Razor Clams and *chuckle* the Smelly-but-yum-using-everything Blatchan.  It’s a prawn paste!

Larder is a collection of butters, pastes and sauces flavoured with seeds and plants and so on.

Sweets includes a Wattleseed Caramel Pannacotta, Lemon Myrtle Cookies, a Hibiscus and Quandong Frangipani Cake, and a Quandong Christmas Cake.  The layout of the recipes is clear and easy to follow, and the font is a good size too.  Most recipes are illustrated with full colour photos, and there’s an index.

This is a beaut cookbook and I’d like to buy it but I see from the website that it’s out of stock.  So keep your eyes peeled for a secondhand copy!

Author: Nornie Bero
Title: Mabu-Mabu: An Australian Kitchen Cookbook
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books, 2022
ISBN: 9781743797280, hbk., 210 pages
Source: Kingston Library



  1. What a wonderful book. So interesting. I would love trying some of those teas she sells also.


    • I want to try her restaurant, but I haven’t been into the city since the pandemic…

      Liked by 1 person

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