It’s a sad fact that although I have lived in Sydney for the past couple of years, my experience of the “burbs” has been limited to a couple of trendy inner city hotspots. With a Sunday careless and free, a friend and I decided to hit up Lakemba after reading about its Muslim-African-Indian-Lebanese-esque culture.
You know the great thing about NOT being from Sydney? I don’t know better! I had only heard short, sharp remarks about Lakemba’s reputation, its colourful past, its shading dealings.
The main street – Haldon Street – is this busy, clustered, eclectic shamble of old buildings, restaurants – their delicious smells wafting through the sidewalk, Indian supermarkets, Lebanese supermarkets, mosques, bakeries packed with baklava, ladies fingers, birds nest. The supermarkets were almost falling out the door, shelves stuffed with curry powders, flat breads, rose water, olives, dates, spices, molasses. For a place that has a bad wrap, this was not a bad start to the day at all! Before I knew it, I’d bought items that I really didn’t need, and probably wouldn’t use (well, at least for a while) – oh well, the perils of food travel.
Of course – the main aspect was indeed food. As we walked along that busy, vibrant, lively street we stumbled across a few restaurants where we, of course, needed to taste the food (all in the name of research).
First cab off the rank was Al Aseel. Knowing we were in for the long haul – a marathon effort of food tasting, you might say – we ordered smart: a mixed platter to share. Oh and this bizarre, yet really very famous, Ayran, the salted milky yoghurt drink. At our table was already a plate of the ubiquitous (and very colourful) pickles, as well as an enormous pile of the even more ubiquitous flat bread.
I don’t love pickles, but they were entertaining nonetheless. They were pretty salty, very crunchy and probably would have gone down a real treat with a cold stubby.
The mixed platter ($20) was basically several delicious pockets of bursting flavours on a plate. In the top left corner, we have felafel – it would have been nice to have more than one, but my bite was very crunchy, not too dry and not too salty. Delicious. In the top right corner, we had a fresh, herbacious, tart, juicy and altogether fabulous tabouli. The bottom left was a trio of smooth, flavoursome dips – a very garlicy garlic dip, a smokey baba ganoush and a creamy, sesame-spiked hommus – all went incredibly well with the pile of flat bread we had, as well as those meats! In the last corner, we had a trio of skewers, packed generously with chunks of chargrilled chicken, lamb and a kofta. The meats were lightly charred on the outside, juicy on the inside and otherwise perfectly cooked. All in all, a VERY satisfying platter.
The Ayran drink was bizarre. I’m a fan of drinking yoghurt and I’m generally a fan of natural yoghurt – and this is sort of what this drink tasted like, just with a salty aftertaste. The drinking process itself was fine, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the aftertaste.
Switching cultures, we came across this out of the blue Cocos Islands restaurant. They weren’t wholly open, but did have a handful of freshly made curries at the ready, as well a group of about 15 girls practicing music and singing on the drums. Cocos Islands food, as I gather, is similar to Malaysian food, but with more freshness. For $10, we shared a plate of biryani – packed with fruit and the coloured rice, a spicy chilli chicken curry and a falling-off-the-bone lamb curry. You could just tell that these had been cooking for hours and the flavour of these things was just fantastic. It was a huge plate and we couldn’t finish it between the two of us.
A further walk – and a handful of baklava later – we faced our third and final meal. Returning to our lebanese theme, we turned up at Jasmins and, of course, ordered the mixed plater ($14).
The restaurant was open only for takeaway as it was indeed the inconvenient in-between-meals time of 3:30pm by now, so we went to a nearby park / spot of grass to eat our meal. The elements were largely similar – the pickles and flat bread were there, as were the tabouli and trio of garlic, baba ganoush and hommus dips. There were two felafel – slightly oilier than the last, but equally as tasty. And the addition of a kibbeh – essentially minced lamb, in a croquette shape and deep fried. The meat in this version was in smaller chunks and slightly fattier than Al Aseel’s version, although it did have a decent piece of juicy chicken thigh that had been char grilled. I felt that the lamb kofta was a little too salty in this version as well.
Facing certain obesity, we decided to call it quits. A fantastic day indeed – I would definitely recommend getting yourself out to Lakemba for a stroll around. We could have happily fed ourselves for between $10 and $20, which is almost unheard of these days. The food quality is great, the people are friendly and you know what? They’re actually generous and proud of their culture and happy to share it.
Restaurants we visited:
135 Haldon St, Lakemba
Island Dreams Cafe
47 Haldon St, Lakemba
30B Haldon St, Lakemba