Lebanese Cuisine in Mainstream Sydney
By Marjie Courtis
For a taste of Lebanon, you need go no further than the Western Suburbs of Sydney!
I went on a guided gourmet tour called 'Exotic Flavours of Lebanon', with Gourmet Safaris to Punchbowl, Lakemba, Canterbury and Greenacre.
This is one of a number of food tours designed by TV food presenter and author, Maeve O'Meara.
tour combined visits to retail outlets and restaurants, a visit to a
Lebanese bread manufacturer and expert commentary, on this occasion,
from Sharon Salloum. She is the chef at her own bar/restaurant in
Sydney's Darlinghurst, called the Almond Bar.
"hot" favourite of the tour was the Baalbek Bakery. In a mere ten
seconds, an open oven set to 900 degrees Celsius, popped small
spheres of dough into larger, beautifully ballooned orange-pink
spheres, creating a natural "seam" between the two halves.
their short bake-time, the loaves kept radiating heat as they proceeded
in two queues along several layers of conveyor belt, until they'd
cooled, lost most of their steam, and the balloon had become a flat
pocket bread for beautiful fillings.
It was a good
starting point to the tour, because as proprietor Dominique explained,
the Lebanese bread is "the food that binds the cuisine". This was
proven later as we used it to sample dips and cheeses, had it as a
salad ingredient in fatoush and used it as a cutlery alternative over lunch.
proceeded to a nut roasting business and delicatessen, a Halal butcher,
a Lebanese pizza shop and a supermarket that I'm sure could have been
transplanted from Beirut.
At the delicatessen we were introduced to a range of Lebanese dairy products from Grandpa's Dairy,
including fetta cheese, labna (a yoghurt cheese) and shanklish cheese
balls. We tasted the freshest and best dry roasted nuts I've ever had,
as well as kri kri peanuts, olives, tahini and halva.
smelled and sniffed pomegranate products, seven-spice powder, sumac,
rose water and orange blossom water. We looked at a wide variety of
burghul (cracked wheat), beans and legumes. We bought "big".
was served at a restaurant serving pickles, well presented bowls of
hummus and baba ghanoush, fatoush, an almond garnished fish dish called
samki harra, chicken and falafel. Delicious. Fresh!
The freshness of the food was easily explained. Lebanese customers buy in bulk and turnover through the retail outlets is rapid.
final stop was, of course, a sweet and coffee shop. The shelves
were depleted from recent eid celebrations for the end of the Islamic
Ramadan period, but still well stacked. Honeyed, pistachio'd and
baked pastries were piled high. There were shortbreads, nougats,
date and walnut slices, sugar coated almonds and chocolates.
had evocative names like "The Rose of Damascus" or "Lady Fingers", and
the shop was made all the brighter with colour-themed presentation
packs of sweets and cakes in baby blue or pink, orange, chartreuse and
numerous other colours.
These sweets and cakes seemed to demonstrate that the Lebanese culture is a celebratory one. But a newly-released book The Sweets of Araby
takes the coveted nature of sweets in the Middle Eastern culture to a
new, more sensual level. The book depicts some of the tales from the
Arabian Nights, complete with reference to desserts and sweets, and
also presents the recipes for them. In one fine tale, a beautiful
sultry eyed woman is turned down by a besotted suitor in favour of a
sweet called luqum.
Unpretentious is the word I would use to
describe most of the establishments we visited in this tour, with the
butcher being the smartest and most modern with its appetizing displays
of lamb, chicken and beef products.
The tour left me replete
with food and culturally satisfied. When I say I was culturally
satisfied, I mean that I learned a lot about the role and place of food
in Lebanese culture and saw lots of examples of the fusion of Lebanese
and Australian cuisine.
The baker, Dominique, suggested that
Lebanese bread was just right for a "post-modern sausage sizzle". The
butcher, Mohamed, suggested lamb kofta on skewers for the Aussie BBQ,
the bus driver, Peter, said the Shanglish cheese had been a hit at his
daughter's 21st birthday party and Sharon, our guide, suggested we try
pomegranate molasses as a substitute for balsamic vinegar, and as a
Our tour guide lightly lamented the entry of
Lebanese food into the Australian mainstream, mentioning the commercial
packaging of the Middle Eastern spice, sumac, for supermarket shelves
and the addition of traditional pickled turnip coloured with beetroot
juice, to the menu of a top Australian restaurant.
Gourmet Safaris' bus tours tend to cross Sydney, while their walking tours focus on a single suburb. You can choose to visit Haberfield
(Italian), Marrickville (Greek), Auburn (Turkish), Punchbowl
(Lebanese), Cabramatta (Vietnamese), Eastwood (Korean) or Petersham
(Portugese). The safaris on wheels add to these cuisines with a touch
Lebanese food is now decidedly part of
Australian food culture. As our guide said : "I used to take
labna sandwiches to school. Then it was embarrassing. Now it's cool".
When you start using pomegranate molasses in your salad dressing, you'll know you are "cool" too.
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