Cookbooks are the cheapest and quickest way of travelling. Escapism through a chopping board and the hob as you explore the world from the kitchen. Some routes are more well-grooved than others with Thailand, China and India being particularly well-represented. You would however, struggle to find more than four titles on indigenous Australian food because well, to my knowledge there aren’t many more than that.
Mabu Mabu is the latest and if we take distance travelled as an indicator of value, then this book is a steal: buying it in the UK will whisk you 8860 miles away to Mer Island, a tiny place in the Torres Strait off northern Australia and the birthplace of Nornie Bero, author of Mabu Mabu and owner of the restaurant that shares its name.
The book opens with a tribute to Bero’s cultural heritage, the indigenous people of the islands of the Torres Strait and an acknowledgement of the lands her Ancestors have lost to imperialism. Mabu Mabu though is much more of a celebration of the ingredients and recipes of these islands rather than mourning anything lost. A vivid colour palette and attractive flat design bring a brightness and energy to the pages and the recipes on them.
The first three chapters are dedicated to Bero’s life, the creation of her restaurant and her use of food to educate and share her upbringing with others. The latter three covers ingredients and recipes with lists of interesting, unfamiliar foods and spices to those of us living on this side of the world. It’s here however, we find a fairly critical issue for a cookbook review: I can source almost none of them. My idea of a good time is spending an hour or five in my local international supermarkets finding new ingredients to cook with. Imagine my delight at being asked to find wattleseeds, crystal ice plant, karkalla, seaberry saltbush, lilli pilli, muntries and quandong. Imagine my despair at completely failing.
Turning to online suppliers didn’t bring much more joy. It would be quicker and more cost effective to fly to Australia than to have purchased every ingredient needed for Saltbush Pepperberry Crocodile. Replacing them is an option but also very much not the point. Swapping out ingredients more accessible for a European palette is how we ended up needing a book like this in the first place.
I did manage to cook a few dishes without any trouble though: Pumpkin Damper, a chunky unleavened bread served with golden syrup butter; Semur Chicken, a salty, hoppy and fragrant stew poured over vermicelli noodles, and Sop Sop, a sort-of hearty simmered mash of root vegetables and coconut milk. All were interesting, some delicious and most tasting vaguely familiar by using ingredients found in South Asian and Oceanic cuisines.
However, it’s ultimately a book for a part of the world much sunnier than here, where the ingredients are accessible in major supermarkets and can be appreciated in the ways they were intended. Which leaves this review to be continued. These ingredients feel exotic now but at one point, so was lemongrass and I can now get that from my local corner shop. It takes books like this to raise different ingredients into the collective consciousness and gain wider usage. For now, Mabu Mabu will sit on my shelf until perhaps one day, I can pick up a packet of quandong and a kilogram of emu from my local Tesco.
Suitable for: Australian-based cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Not rated as we just couldn’t test the recipes properly
Review written by Nick Dodd a Leeds-based pianist, teacher and writer. Contact him at www.yorkshirepiano.co.uk