Teresa Ooi takes a fabulous cultural and culinary trip around the Middle East – but stays in Western Sydney
Bride-to-be Gazelle Pashan steps out of a fitting room, resplendent in a traditional Afghan wedding gown: regal purple velvet trimmed with silver coins and intricate embroidery.
Ms Pashan and her bridesmaids even had her husband-to-be’s outfit tailored at the Kosh Rang Boutique.
She might easily have been in the middle of downtown Kabul – except the Afghan capital is 11,420 kilometres away.
Instead, this is Pitt Street, Merrylands, a centre for Sydney’s Afghans, Syrians, Iranians, Lebanese, Egyptians and many other Middle Eastern cultures. And we are on a Taste Cultural Food Tour, designed to give an immersive experience to anyone who wants to learn about these communities and their delicious cuisines.
Ms Pashan works in an insurance company in Chatswood and is a dinky-di Aussie. “My parents emigrated from Afghanistan more than 40 years ago – I was born at Ryde Hospital,” she said, laughing.
But she respects her roots and plans to have a hen party in traditional dress… followed by a white wedding at posh Daltone House: a marriage that spans two cultures.
Our guides for the three-hour tour are Sahar Elsemary, who has been a food guide for more than 12 years. A mother of two, she is married to her Egyptian husband who emigrated to Sydney more than 20 years ago. Her colleague Youssef is Lebanese.
What’s most pleasing is the way the local community is keen to ensure our experience is the best. Everyone wants to explain the history and tradition of what we are seeing, and mixing with so many friendly locals is an important part of these very special tours.
Taste Tours is a charity with all profits invested in training refugees and young people. The enthusiastic Ms Elsemary and Ms Youssef are bursting with stories about Middle Eastern food and customs and ever willing to share mouth-watering recipes and culinary delights.
Merrylands may look like an ordinary quiet suburb about 25 kilometres from Sydney CBD. But just beneath the surface is a cultural melting pot – quite literally.
“Why travel overseas, when you can find such hidden food gems here in Merrylands?” asked Ms Elsemary. “What’s really important is that in sharing our food stories with Aussies, we are also helping new Australians who may have started life Down Under as refugees.”
We kick off with a Syrian breakfast at the Al Shami Restaurant, opposite Merrylands train Station. Here, we share a warm dish of pita bread with chickpeas, yoghurt sprinkled with pine nuts, lemon juice and tahini, called fatteh. It is a popular dish throughout Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and it is delicious. We also enjoy Syrian black tea with cloves and cinnamon.
At the Persian Supermarket
We call in at a Persian supermarket called Ryan which has been operating in Merrylands for more than 23 years and we are introduced to barberry, a red berry that is sprinkled on top of cooked brown rice. Barberry is imported from Iraq. Ryan also sells a variety of turmeric- and saffron-coated nuts, and candy and canned okra, all displayed in neat rows.
The Great Wheat Bakery
Our next stop is the Green Wheat Bakery, where enormous tandoori bread is freshly baked every day. It is a staple for Afghans and many are taking away loaves by the dozen.
One of the highlights of the tour is our visit to the kebab takeaway, Al-Hojat, renowned for its lamb, chicken and minced lamb skewers marinated for 12 hours with onion juice, turmeric and lemon juice then barbequed for 10 minutes. The result? Delicious and tender chicken wrapped in pita bread, with a delicate turmeric flavour. As Ms Elsemary declared: “It’s the best kebab in Australia.”
It is time for lunch at Tolo Kebab House, where we feast on Afghan dumplings of minced lamb in garlic yoghurt sauce mixed with heady spices; an eggplant vegetarian dish; and Afghan palau brown rice sprinkled with barberry and slivered carrots, all washed down with hot black Syrian tea.
And the grand finale – Shiraz Ice Cream store where we sit down for an invigorating drink of pure carrot juice spiced with saffron ice cream and a hint of cardamom and pistachio. A sweet ending to an enormously enjoyable day.
Take me there
Drive: Merrylands is about a 40-minute drive from central Sydney via the A4 and M4.
Stay: Accor’s Pullman Sydney Olympic Park Hotel has a luxury winter escape for two which includes a one-night stay in a superior room; complimentary self-parking; a dinner package of 800g of White Pyrenees lamb shoulder, slow-cooked for 12 hours with Moroccan spice; a bottle of house red wine and breakfast for two with late checkout. This is part of Destination New South Wales’ Feel New Sydney campaign. From $379 per couple. Visit pullmansydneyolympicpark.com.au
Tour: Taste of Afghanistan and Syria in Merrylands – a 3.5-hour walking tour. Visit tastetours.com.au