SUBURBAN SPICE ROUTES

The his­tory of Middle Eastern food in this country is a his­tory of peo­ple, move­ment and spices smug­gled in suit­cases, writes ALE­CIA SIM­MONDS.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - News -

The his­tory of Middle Eastern food in Australia is one of peo­ple, move­ment and smug­gled spices.

When Ibrahim Kasif’s grand­par­ents ar­rived in Syd­ney from Cyprus in the 1950s, they had to buy their olive oil from phar­ma­cies. An­glo-Sax­ons didn’t then see much use for it be­yond treat­ing ear ail­ments. “There was sim­ply nowhere else that sold it.” Joseph Ab­boud’s par­ents shared sim­i­lar sto­ries. Once, they told him, fam­ily friends had the po­lice ar­rive un­ex­pect­edly when they tried to bake pita in a wood-fired oven in the back­yard. Sirens wailed as za’atar-dusted bread spiced the air.

Passed down be­tween gen­er­a­tions of Middle Eastern mi­grants, these sto­ries of culi­nary de­pri­va­tion lend a heroic qual­ity to the recipes that sur­vived. They speak of a time when taste could be trea­sonous and, for chefs like Kasif and Ab­boud who run three of the most in­no­va­tive Middle Eastern restau­rants in Australia to­day (Kasif with Stan­buli and Ab­boud with Rumi and Bar Sara­cen), they re­mind them of their debts. “We have the lux­ury of say­ing, ‘oh, you’re stuck in your ways’ to our par­ents,” muses Ab­boud. “That’s be­cause they did the hard yards. They’re not stuck in the mould, in fact they broke the mould.”

The story of how Australian palates came to de­light in braised lamb or the sweet scent of or­ange blos­som is quite brief. “If you look at the Australian food scene, the his­tory of Middle Eastern cui­sine is only 50 or 60 years old,” ex­plains Kasif, “yet words like falafel, tahini or shish are all part of the vo­cab­u­lary now.”

Kasif’s choice of dishes is telling: although the Middle East en­com­passes many na­tions, its flavours mostly came to Australia with Turk­ish and Le­banese mi­grants. And be­fore An­glo Aus­tralians could en­joy their food, the gov­ern­ment needed to shift from a pol­icy of as­sim­i­la­tion to mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. Australia needed to be lib­er­ated from the tyranny of shep­herd’s pie.

But the his­tory of Middle Eastern cook­ing in Australia is much longer. It’s a se­cret his­tory that can only be gleaned through peer­ing into the homes of fam­i­lies like the Ab­bouds, look­ing into their kitchens or strolling through cer­tain sub­urbs, such as Syd­ney’s Red­fern, which dur­ing the late 19th-cen­tury was known as “Lit­tle Syria”, to un­cover the lives of those whose sur­vival de­pended on con­ceal­ing their aro­matic herbs from del­i­cate An­glo-Saxon nos­trils.

It’s Sun­day morn­ing, and I’m hur­ry­ing down rain-slicked streets in Mel­bourne to meet one of the most im­por­tant peo­ple in Middle Eastern food in Australia, if not the world: chef Greg Malouf, whose great-grand­par­ents came out from Le­banon in 1895. His brother Ge­off, owner of beloved Mel­bourne restau­rant Zum Zum, joins us at a café. As Greg and Ge­off take sips of their cof­fee they com­plete each other’s rec­ol­lec­tions of their fam­ily his­tory. “Our an­ces­tors were in hab­er­dash­ery,” Greg starts, “prob­a­bly flee­ing the up­heavals caused ear­lier by the wars be­tween the Druze and the Chris­tians.”

“They came from the very fer­tile Bekaa Val­ley,” Ge­off con­tin­ues, be­fore ex­plain­ing the in­flu­ence the grow­ing re­gion has on Le­banese cui­sine. “The spices used in Le­banese cook­ing are more sub­tle than in many other Middle Eastern cuisines, to ac­cen­tu­ate the qual­ity of the pro­duce,” he says.

For the Maloufs, though, as for Le­banese all over Australia, it would be at least an­other half cen­tury be­fore they had ac­cess to the in­gre­di­ents en­joyed in Le­banon, and even longer be­fore they were able to of­fer their dishes out­side of their homes.

The first wave of Le­banese mi­grants ar­rived at the dawn of the White Australia pol­icy, which prompted a na­tional de­bate about how to racially clas­sify them. They were re­ferred to as Syr­i­ans, be­cause Le­banon was yet to achieve in­de­pen­dence; The

Bul­letin in 1906 called them one of three “non-fusible Asi­atic races” and ar­gued they should be de­nied cit­i­zen­ship rights in Australia; The Depart­ment of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs was more con­fused: “They are of swarthy appearance with dark hair... but ap­prox­i­mate far more closely to the Euro­pean types than those of In­dia or parts of Asia fur­ther East.” For the next two decades, Le­banese mi­grants pointed to their Chris­tian­ity and their paler com­plex­ion to ar­gue for their sta­tus as white peo­ple. It wasn’t un­til the 1920s that they were, in his­to­rian Anne Mon­sour’s words, “granted sta­tus as hon­orary South­ern Euro­peans”.

But as Mon­sour re­minds us, it came at a price – they had to be cul­tur­ally in­vis­i­ble. Ara­bic foods like kibbeh and tahini were now in­crim­i­nat­ing. The walls of the do­mes­tic fortress went up.

Afew blocks from my house in Red­fern is a small Le­banese restau­rant on Pitt Street called Wil­son’s.

Old Le­banese men with creased, pouchy faces sit out­side on milk crates, gos­sip­ing be­neath a flu­o­res­cent 1970s sign that has been cracked and hastily re­paired. Hum­ble as it may ap­pear, this restau­rant, which opened in 1967, is one of the old­est Le­banese restau­rants in Australia. Sourc­ing in­gre­di­ents back then was an ob­vi­ous prob­lem for Wil­son’s, so they re­lied on trav­ellers. Quar­an­tine re­stric­tions were lax, and one chirpy news­pa­per ar­ti­cle from The Sun in Oc­to­ber 1950 gives us some idea of how food was smug­gled in: “Hanna La­houd and Chafic Younan reached Syd­ney to­day,” the ar­ti­cle re­ported, bring­ing with them “two big, closely guarded card­board boxes filled with oils, fry­ing fat, al­monds, pomegranates and veg­etable mat­ter.” There were also “cloth bags of pe­cu­liar smelling items, which La­houd and Younan in­ti­mated were pretty good to eat.” They brought their own olive oil, which “leaked through one of the boxes in a steady stream at the Cus­toms desk”.

The year 1967 was sig­nif­i­cant for Middle Eastern cui­sine in Australia for an­other rea­son: Australia signed an As­sisted Pas­sage agree­ment with Turkey – the first time it did this with a country be­yond Western Europe – and with this mi­gra­tion scheme came all the spices of the Ot­toman Em­pire. The vast ma­jor­ity of

Turk­ish and Le­banese mi­grants ar­rived in Australia be­tween the 1970s and 1990s; the Turks were promised abun­dant em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties and the Le­banese were flee­ing the Le­banese civil war and the Is­rael-Le­banon war. Many ended up stay­ing be­cause of fam­ily con­nec­tions, and it was fam­ily that in­flu­enced the kind of Middle Eastern cui­sine that Australia came to know.

“The ear­li­est restau­rants of­fered home cook­ing,” says Ab­boud. “They weren’t pro­fes­sional chefs trained in Le­banon; they were peo­ple who were of­fer­ing up the food of the house­hold.” Kasif says much the same of Turk­ish cui­sine, and that as much as he pushes the bound­aries of Turk­ish cook­ing, he still tries to “repli­cate the smells of my grand­mother’s cook­ing grow­ing up.” Greg Malouf has mem­o­ries of his brother and him­self hop­ping like seag­ulls in the kitchen door­way un­til his mother dropped a tasty morsel into his mouth. Mel­bourne chef Abla Amad, be­ing a girl, was per­mit­ted a view from in­side the kitchen. Amad learned the joys of mint and rose­wa­ter from watch­ing her mother, un­cle and “aun­ties” pre­pare dishes for

Clock­wise, from far left: Wil­son’s in Syd­ney’s Red­fern; Abla Amad at Abla’s, her restau­rant in Carl­ton, Mel­bourne; chef Greg Malouf; stuffed mus­sels at Ibrahim Kasif’s Stan­buli; an 1892 ar­ti­cle from The

Il­lus­trated Syd­ney News re­ports on “Syr­i­ans” liv­ing in Red­fern.

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