A taste of the Middle East in Sydney’s Lakemba
If falafels, shisha pipes, rosewater drinks and Lebanese pastries don’t scream ‘Sydney’ to you then you may be spending too much time in the city’s swankier, leafier, beachier addresses. Sydney visitors, and indeed residents, can experience a taste of the Middle East on their own doorstep just a short train ride away.
Sydney, in case you haven’t discovered, can be a tribal kind of place. There is the glamourous, beach dotted east, the leafy and prosperous north shore, the bohemian inner west, the parochial south and the sprawling expanses of working class suburbia and culturally diverse suburbs to the west. Sydney residents often stick to their own tribe, to the extent that crossing the harbour bridge can evoke accusations of ‘crossing over to the dark side’ – the dark side being the opposite direction to where you dwell.
More open minded and adventurous Sydney-siders are branching out and discovering neighbourhoods beyond their backyards, whether influenced by a local food show on TV or a passionate food blog, or even by joining a food tour to a particular part of the city with interesting eats.
One suburb well worth exploring is Lakemba, found 15 kilometres south west of the city. Home to a large Muslim population, Lakemba’s residents have origins from the Middle East to Africa, to the subcontinent and South East Asia. Arabic is the suburb’s most spoken language according to Australian census data, followed by English and then Chinese.
By taking a stroll along bustling Haldon Street, Lakemba’s main drag, it soon becomes apparent this is a great place to eat, particularly for lovers of all things Middle Eastern. There are Lebanese sweet shops laden with sweet and sticky baklava, halal barbeque chicken shops, delis purveying nuts, dates, and spices, and there’s even an Egyptian gift shop featuring drums and toy mosques.
Some of Sydney’s most revered (and cheap, and generously portioned) Lebanese food can be found at the legendary Jasmin’s, with similarly delicious fare at Al Aseel. There’s even a café devoted solely to falooda’s, a rosewater based milk drink of Persian origins which is popular in the subcontinent. Among the mix is a Hyderabadi biryani restaurant, an Indonesian ‘warung’ and possibly one of the city’s most unique eateries, Island Dreams Café featuring cuisine from Christmas and Cocos Islands (think Malaysian style food, with a tropical twist).
The people watching in Lakemba can be just as fascinating as the eating and food shopping; with residents hailing from all over the planet found lounging at a streetside café or stocking up on fruit at one of the market-style fresh produce shops with amazingly cheap prices. Some are getting their hair braided at the African hairdressers, while others are trawling the fabric stores for headscarves or flowing robes.
Lakemba offers a window into the world of multi-cultural Australia, and through the universal language of food (and its close cousin, shopping) offers the opportunity for some fascinating cross-cultural insights and exchanges. The beach can wait for another day.