Big Esso by Mabu Mabu, Melbourne

Where: Big Esso by Mabu Mabu, Fed Square Melbourne

What: An expansion of how native ingredients and bushfoods are incorporated into a restaurant’s menu on the terms of a First Nations chef

Who: Mini Magdonna, Mon-tadella, Mushy, Marvel Maven

Bloat score: 1 – Had to loosen my belt a notch

Time and time again, there’s debate about what constitutes Australian food. Vegemite, fairy bread, meat pies and sausage rolls, lamingtons and pavlovas are often cited. To Adam Liaw, Australian Chinese food is an inextricable part of Australian cuisine.

“That cuisine is unique to Australia and extremely clearly defined. You won’t find it in China, or in other Chinese diaspora countries. It’s as much a part of Australian cuisine as spaghetti bolognese, fish and chips or chicken schnitzels. More, actually, given its longer history.”

And then there’s the moniker ‘modern Australian’, first coined in 1994, which so many restaurants that defy neat categorisation sit under. There’s Aru, the 2023 Good Food Guide’s Restaurant of the Year, with its duck sausage sanga and pate en croute with flavours of banh mi. And then there’s Southeast Asian melting pot Sunda, with its macadamia satay and cassava congee. Popular Carlton local Henry Sugar, with its vegemite butter focaccia and turkey breast ballotine with native thyme stuffing, is also modern Australian, or in its words, ‘contemporary Australian’.

But if we’re to truly consider what food is so-called Australian on a continent with a rich 70,000-year culture and history that precedes the brief yet extremely destructive 200 or so years of colonisation, we have to foreground the native ingredients and bushfoods that have sustained First Nations communities for millennia. Enter Big Esso – Mabu Mabu, helmed by Torres Strait Islander chef and restaurateur Nornie Bero, which spotlights Indigenous food and culture by Indigenous people for Indigenous people. Finger lime, saltbush, pepperberries, warrigal greens, wattleseeds have been incorporated into Australian and international restaurants’ menus (most notably Noma’s 2016 pop-up in Sydney) for a while now, but it’s so refreshing to see an expansion of the same few native ingredients that typically feature. Each dish at Big Esso contains three to five native ingredients – they’re not an afterthought or an adjunct, they are the dish.

I first sampled Big Esso’s fare when a group of kind friends arranged for a delivery box to be sent for my 2021 lockdown birthday, and then again for a dine-in experience as soon as lockdown lifted. Both times, I was blown away and luckily got a chance to visit again a few weeks ago for this Wheeler Centre event with Nornie Bero, Alice Zaslavsky and Jaclyn Crupi.

It was a set menu lunch and our table was blessed to have a vegetarian in our midst, meaning we got to try twice as many dishes. Love people with dietary requirements (who follow them, ahem). An important thing to note is that all vegetarian dishes at Big Esso are simultaneously vegan – plant eaters are well-catered for.

First up were the corned beef croquettes with pickled karkalla aioli ($16), which our waitstaff described as spam croquettes – music to this spam lover’s ears. The croquettes were crisp and immaculately fried on the outside, soft and pillowy within, with a generous drizzle of the karkalla aioli, which was creamy and smooth.

Karkalla – which apart from being part of the sauce, appeared in its raw form atop the croquettes – is known colloquially as pigface and beach banana. A succulent most commonly found among sand dunes and on cliff faces off the coastlines of Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania, it has a fleshy, crunchy texture and a lightly salty flavour. First Nations people eat the karkalla fruit both in its dried and fresh form (cooked karkalla is often used in jams, jellies and cakes) and pair the leaves with meat, eat them raw, or use them like medicinal aloe vera.

I love the inclusion of corned beef in Big Esso’s menu. As Bero says in this interview with Delicious, ‘Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of money to pay for food, so my dad invented “corn beef in a can five different ways”.’ This representation of a commonly used low-cost ingredient at an affordable price point is especially pertinent with the increasing number of non-First Nations chefs in fine dining restaurants utilising bushfoods and native ingredients in their cooking.

‘That most Indigenous people cannot afford to eat at the bulk of restaurants serving native foods is a common complaint,’ Sam Vincent writes in this article in The Monthly on how colonisation has shaped Australia’s food identity.

Our vegetarian friend got a plate of cassava and Warrigal greens croquettes ($16) instead with a saltbush chimichurri aioli (thankfully there were four – far too many for her, to the happiness of the non-vegetarians who wanted to sample). The same crisp breading gave rise to purple filling on account of the cassava, which was sweet and earthy in equal measure.

Next was the standout dish of island-style coconut-cured kingfish with chilli and coriander accompanied by taro crisps ($26). The kingfish was a soft, slippery melange of freshness and heat and the savoury crisps were perfect for scooping them up.

The alternate option for our vegetarian friend was the eye-catching saltbush butter-glazed purple cauliflower with pickled shallots and muntries ($22). The cauliflower had such good crunch, and was bathed in this thin, silky sauce. Muntries are a native berry plant, similar to blueberries except they have four times the antioxidants.

Known as emu apples, muntaberry, monterry or native cranberries, muntries are a highly valued fruit to First Nations communities in Victoria and South Australia – particularly the Ngarrindjeri people of the Coorong in the south-east of South Australia. They have the flavour of a spicy apple and are consumed dried; baked into pies, muffins, puddings or cakes; cooked in jams or sweet and savoury sauces; eaten raw in salads and cheese platters; and paired with meat.

As an entrée at Big Esso, you can choose between the saltbush or pumpkin damper ($9), but we luckily had the option of both. Slathered with golden syrup butter, this dish was tantamount to a dessert.

Bush damper originated within a tradition of bush cooking that stretches as far back as 40,000–60,000 years. It was made by collecting seasonal seeds – traditionally Spinifex seeds – alongside grains, legumes, roots and nuts and grinding them into a flour. Water was added to the dough, which would then be flattened and cooked under ashes.

The richest dish of the day came next: kangaroo tail and pepperberry bourguignon with an island fried scone ($24). The French beef and vegetable stew, typically braised in red wine, had been reimagined with a different cut of meat and the spicy, peppery native berry – if I were to compare kangaroo tail to meat I’ve eaten, it most closely resembled oxtail. The meat, browned and caramelised in parts, fell easily off the bone and I loved the mushrooms peppered throughout the lustrous sauce. The scone was pleasantly dense and tinged with a sweetness.

‘You don’t often find kangaroo tail in the meat aisle at the supermarket, but Aboriginal people all over Australia have been eating the tail for tens of thousands of years,’ writes Bero in Broadsheet, where you can also find the recipe for this dish. ‘They know the tail has some of the juiciest, most tender meat around.’

‘On the islands I come from, when we cook an animal we make sure we eat the whole thing – waste not, want not – and so at Mabu Mabu, we make our pepperberry kangaroo bourguignon with the tail, because sometimes the best bits are the bits other people don’t want.’

As we were feasting on kangaroo tail, our vegetarian friend was delivered a huge plate of charred radicchio, pickled carambola, desert lime and crispy saltbush ($18). I was admittedly too full by the time I turned my attention to this plate to try much of it, but I did sample a slice of pickled carambola, which I know as starfruit, something I grew up eating a lot in Malaysia. It was strikingly tart and expertly cut through the richness of all the other dishes.

Similar in appearance to pulled pork was the shredded wild boar (otherwise known as feral pig) cooked in pig’s blood and native lemongrass, interspersed with Warrigal greens, and topped with crisps ($32) – similar to the presentation of the coconut-cured kingfish. The boar was pleasantly smoky; I loved how the dollops of light, creamy labneh complemented the earthiness of the dish.

To illustrate the breadth of Bero’s take on First Nations cuisine, which incorporates ingredients that have become culturally Indigenous but aren’t native to the continent, Vincent writes: ‘Many Indigenous groups don’t even have a word for “feral” and have incorporated the meats of invasive game species into their diets more readily than non-Indigenous people.’

What I didn’t end up photographing, but which may have been my favourite dish of the night was another vegetarian substitute: the chilli brussels sprouts, crispy shallots, caper berries and desert spiced macadamia cream ($21). Warning: these balls of heat aren’t for the faint-hearted, and the two yts on my table struggled (I’m loath to admit it, but even I felt the chilli tickling the back of my throat) but if you can stomach heat, the roasted brussels sprouts were explosive little morsels of umami.

Harking back to my previous visit to Big Esso in 2021, I went with Mini Magdonna (the performing songstress formerly known as The Doc), Marvel Maven, Mushy and Mon-tadella (who has since rebranded from Monemoiselle to account for her deep, abiding love for Italy’s popular cured sausage).

Big Esso’s cocktails are well worth a try. Marvel Maven enjoyed his Green Ant-tini, made with Seven Seasons Green Ant Gin with ants as a garnish, but expected more ants to be in it. We ordered a few of the same things I enjoyed a few weeks ago, but also additional things that are no longer on the menu. Luckily, the bucket of charred king prawns with spiced sea succulents and a housemade native cocktail sauce (market price) still is. The prawns were incredibly fresh and a treat when dipped in Big Esso’s house hot sauces (particularly the pineapple one).

It’s true what they say – crocodile tastes like chicken, which is to say it’s fairly mild, innocuous and takes on whatever form and flavours it’s cooked in. Big Esso’s deep-fried tendrils of saltbush and pepperberry fried crocodile ($25) were moreish and hard to stop eating. In comparison to chicken, I’d say crocodile is ever so slightly more fibrous.

It’s not common to see yam on Australian menus, and although it is often associated with North American Thanksgiving fare and Southeast Asian cuisine – yam basket, anyone? – Australia has native varieties of the root vegetable too.

‘There’s a long, agricultural history with the plant in this country: from the Djitama (bush yam), a round root that can be found in northern parts of the country and is toxic unless cooked correctly, to the Karrbarda (long yam), which grows from a long climbing vine in rainforest areas,’ writes Sophie Verass in SBS.  

‘One member of the Australian yam family, the yam daisy (also known as murrnong), was once a major food source for Indigenous Australians and is now being reintroduced into the culinary mainstream. Could it become a breakthrough ingredient and achieve gourmet fame?’

Big Esso’s rock-baked yam ($22) was earthy and mildly sweet, taking on the zing of the lurid Warrigal greens chimichurri that was drizzled atop.

No longer on the menu, Big Esso’s elongated razor clams spooned over with a creamy, rich sea urchin bisque was a savoury delight and a table highlight.

Also a collective favourite were the bush tomato pippies with samphire, sea parsley, macadamia and charred lime ($25) – thankfully this is still on the menu.

Also sadly no longer on the menu was the perfect blackened okra with a macadamia cream – I love okra so much.

The desserts have since changed, but we enjoyed the two that were on offer the night we visited – a creamy coconut panna cotta complemented by the tart floral sweetness of spiced hibiscus flowers and hibiscus syrup, and a wattleseed and chocolate pavlova with strawberry gum cream.

Somewhat curiously, my bloat levels after both visits were muted, despite me no doubt ingesting plenty of FODMAPs in the process.

Federation Square usually elicits a groan when one thinks of its eating options – I read Gemima Cody referring to Chocolate Buddha as last ‘firing on all cylinders in the early noughties’, which could not be more accurate – but Big Esso is turning it into the eating destination we all deserve.

Big Esso by Mabu Mabu is open Tuesday to Thursday 11am to 10pm and Friday to Sunday 11am to 11pm.

Author: Sonia Nair

Sonia Nair is a Melbourne-based food writer who persists with her love of everything deep fried and spicy, despite being diagnosed with a histamine intolerance and lactose intolerance after incorrectly thinking she was fructose-intolerant for several years.

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