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Damper wrapped in a banana leaf.
Photograph: Mabu Mabu

Learn how to make damper with Melbourne's only Torres Strait Islander café

Mabu Mabu offers you the chance to make three types of the flatbread at home

By Time Out editors
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Mabu Mabu is a Torres Strait Islander term meaning to ‘help yourself’. It’s all about sharing and celebrating food with good company, and that’s just what Yarraville’s Mabu Mabu does. The café is currently closed, but you can now be a part of the community-minded spirit online with a virtual damper-making class.

Mabu Mabu is currently hosting  damper making workshops virtually, with the next one set to take place on Saturday, October 3. You can purchase a ticket to the live session and opt to purchase a separate damper-making kit, which comes with self-raising flour, wattleseed, saltbush, banana leaves and a recipe card, so you can try your hand at making three types of the flatbread at home. But don’t expect to have leftovers as co-owner and chef Nornie Bero warns “once you take that first bite of the damper it won’t last you the day – you’ll eat it up straight away.”

Banana leaves are used to wrap the damper and insulate it as it cooks, a method that replicates a Kup-murri, an underground oven that’s commonly used in Nornie’s home of Mer Island in the Torres Strait. 

A huge advocate for damper, she wants it to replace the sourdough starter kit phase that Melbournians went through. “I secretly want everyone to get off the sourdough, because they’re wasting their time on that… damper is much quicker to do, plus it’s awesome, easy and affordable for everyone to make, and that’s one of our main things when thinking about native ingredients. We want to make it affordable for everybody.” 

You can also purchase Mabu Mabu’s range of sauces via the restaurant’s online store, which includes the renowned pineapple hot sauce, island marinades or tomato sauces to accompany your homemade damper. Or try cooking with Mabu Mabu’s range of native spices, like dried strawberry gum, which can be used in desserts, or saltbush, which lends a rich umami flavour to soups, curries and sauces. 

“The damper classes saved us and will allow us to reopen,” Bero says. When lockdown hit, Nornie and her team decided to close and reopen as Mabu Mabu Tuckshop, and her decision to do so was heavily influenced by her father. “When my dad needed to keep the lights on and run generators for our home on the Straits, he turned half of our house into a tuckshop. He put a bamboo wall down the middle and would sell pumpkin buns, pumpkin dampers, fish burgers and more.” It was her experience of growing up needing to make ends meet by fishing in the morning before school for her father that would shape the way she does things. 

“Torres Strait Islander culture, and my culture, is very strong, and I was very lucky to be raised there,” she says. And it’s that culture that spurred her to launch Mabu Mabu’s latest tea brand, Kara Meta which translates to ‘our home’ in the Meriam language of Mer Island. “Australia is our home, and we should all be thinking of that and the spices we use and our produce,” she says.

“A lot of people don’t try native foods because they don’t know how to use them, but there was once a time that you had to use basil for the first time. So why not try some pepperberry?”  

Australiana is everywhere in her café, from the bright, tropical colours on her packaging to the golden syrup butter that she recommends eating with your damper. “It’s a real island thing to do and everyone loves it. It’s the simplest and easiest thing to make without breaking the bank.”

“When I first opened up people thought Mabu Mabu was a Caribbean place,” she laughs. “What we do is a constant education, and I’m happy to put both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture on a pedestal because I always think that culture changes through food. Eating with someone is the easiest way of changing their views on culture.” 

Sampling Mabu Mabu’s extensive list of spices, rubs and sauces at home is just one way to familiarise yourselves with Torres Strait Islander culture, which she aims to showcase in her café. Mabu Mabu’s team is also made up of a majority of Indigenous women. “I’ve been in this industry for a really long time, and before I started Mabu Mabu I’d never worked with an Indigenous person before. I tend to concentrate on women of colour in the industry too, because I want to show people that we can do it all. Be a caregiver, be a mother and be a businesswoman as well.”

Once normal trade can resume, we recommend sampling her kangaroo tail bourguignon with damper, or saltbush and pepperberry calamari in store. Or try out a virtual damper making class and be sure to pair it with golden syrup butter.

Mabu Mabu is at 13 Anderson St, Yarraville; www.mabumabu.com.au

Want to learn more in lockdown? Here are some more online classes to try at home.

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