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Semur chicken is hearty and comforting, but on the Torres Strait Islands, it’s also a dish that will quickly let you know if your relationship is going anywhere. “It’s a dish that you make for that someone who’s going to be around forever. If you bring a new partner home and your aunty asks if you’ve made semur chicken for them yet, and you say no, they’re like: ‘I don’t want to know you, you’re not going to be around forever,’” explains Nornie Bero, chef and owner of Melbourne cafe Mabu Mabu in Yarraville and soon-to-open restaurant Big Esso at Federation Square.
Bero was born and raised on Mer Island, which has a population of around 450 people. Growing up, she’d eat fresh fish from the reef, octopus, yam, cassava, wild boar and fruits like plums and quandong.
“I’m lucky that I grew up with such great food culture. The Torres Strait was multicultural before the rest of Australia was. We love everyone and we’ve mixed together. I just grew up in a very happy culture where we weren’t monetarily wealthy, but we were always fed and had a really great community life,” she says.
“If you bring a new partner home and your aunty asks if you’ve made semur chicken for them yet, and you say no, they’re like: ‘I don’t want to know you, you’re not going to be around forever.’”
Like with other traditional recipes, there are different versions of semur chicken, but the base of the dish is chicken slowly simmered in a soy sauce broth with aromates like lemongrass, ginger and chilli.
“It’s one of those dishes that every Island person makes, and I make it every time winter starts or I feel homesick. It’s even better if you leave it until the next day. It’s one of those dishes that kind of keeps on giving,” says Bero.
She explains that semur chicken has roots in many cuisines, from Japanese to Indonesian: “It’s a very multicultural dish for us. The Japanese settled into the Torres Strait and became part of our bêche-de mer [sea cucumber] and pearl culture, and then married into our families and brought their soy sauce over and then is integrated into our food.”
Semur chicken also exists in Indonesia, another country that has influenced Torres Strait Islander cuisine. The Indonesian version features kecap manis rather than dark or light soy sauce, and spices like nutmeg. It’s served with potatoes and rice instead of vermicelli.
Bero has adapted the recipe she grew up making with her dad, keeping essential ingredients like soy sauce, lemongrass and chilli. She has made the recipe her own by incorporating Warrigal greens and pepper berries, native ingredients found in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania.
She uses a whole chicken that she breaks into pieces to maximise flavour and minimise waste. “It’s one of those really, really easy dishes that you can do that won’t take up a lot of your time. You can watch Netflix while doing this.”
She recommends serving semur chicken with sop sop, a dish of yam and sweet potato cooked in coconut milk.
“It’s one of those really, really easy dishes that you can do that won’t take up a lot of your time. You can watch Netflix while doing this.”
Bero has put semur chicken on Mabu Mabu’s catering menu and serves it as a special at the cafe. Come July, the dish might also make an appearance at her new venue, restaurant and bar Big Esso at Fed Square. “It’s one of those dishes that is perfect for these cold wintry days that we’re having now,” she says.
The dish always reminds me of home, of celebrations, and family. If you brought a partner home, an aunty would always ask if you’ve made semur chicken for them yet – if not, well they’re obviously not a keeper! It’s well-known on the Islands that if you make it for your loved one, they will always stay with you.
In this Mabu Mabu version, I’ve changed it up a bit from the traditional recipe, adding some new flavours and techniques, and some fantastic native vegetables from down here in the south of Australia.
- 1 whole chicken
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil, preferably macadamia oil
- 1 onion, sliced
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 nub ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 lemongrass stalks, crushed and chopped
- 1 tbsp chilli paste
- 250 ml (1 cup) soy sauce
- 2 bottles dark beer (preferably Guinness), or replace with vegetable stock
- ½ tsp pepperberries
- 250 g vermicelli noodles
- A handful of karkalla (or bok choy)
- A handful of Warrigal greens (or silverbeet)
- 120 g (1 cup) chopped spring onion
- Chop the chicken into 2 cm chunks.
- Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat and brown the chicken (around 5-7 minutes).
- Add onion, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and chilli paste, and cook until the onions are browned.
- Add the soy sauce and cook for 10–15 minutes.
- Add the beer and pepperberries, then slow cook over low heat for at least 2 hours, or until the chicken is cooked through and falling off the bone.
- In a separate bowl, place the vermicelli in hot water until clear, then drain and add to the pot.
- Add the karkalla and Warrigal greens and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add spring onion and set aside.
- Divide the semur chicken into 5-6 portions and serve in bowls.
• You can find pepperberries at Mabu Mabu’s online shop or other bush foods stores. It’s also available at its cafe or Big Esso.