Immigrants turn Melbourne into a gastronomic hub

Immigrants from across the Middle East are making an impact in Melbourne, Australia's second largest city, helping to change food and attitudes.

Amir Kalash, originally from Iraq, prepares spinach and ricotta pasties.
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A young woman loads heavy bags of groceries into her car in a shabby Melbourne street. She is dressed modestly in a stylish fitted full-length coat. Her head is covered, her face unveiled.

"I think our food is more accepted than the people," she says. "When people see a Middle Eastern person or the hijab, they automatically think terrorist, but they are quite happy with the food." Sara Hassan, a first-generation Egyptian Australian, is one of hundreds of thousands of people whose families have migrated to Australia from the Middle East since the 1950s. They brought with them totems of their culture, and it is this culture, often articulated through food, that many of the new Australians see as a link not just to their homelands, but also as a means to connect with their new country and its citizens.

Tram 19 rumbles north from downtown Melbourne. In the heart of this cosmopolitan city, young people and tourists clamber on board. The tram moves slowly, stopping often, but it is not long before a new face of Melbourne emerges. As the carriages rumble up Sydney Road, Brunswick, signage above shops starts to appear in two languages. On the streets and in speciality shops in this little pocket of Australia's second largest city, Arabic is as commonly heard as English.

Sydney Road is on the fringe of the increasingly gentrified Brunswick area, where hip bars and edgy cafes are slowly taking over shabby clothing stores and cut-price electronics outlets. Many of the shopkeepers are first and second generation Australians, and their ethnic profile represents waves of migration from the Middle East as well as north and east Africa. This Ramadan, as during the holy month every year, the shops were busy in Sydney Road. At Madina Halal Meats, a large crowd pressed against the counter, waiting to be served. "I can get things here that I can't get anywhere else: good meat, Middle Eastern bread and pastries, sweets," one customer said.

Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Somalis and Lebanese - arguably the most high-profile Middle Eastern group in Australia - mix with other Australians. Their migratory patterns signpost key conflicts in the region. Just down the road from the Brunswick Baptist Church is an Islamic prayer room, Lebanese grocers and Middle Eastern cafes. Many of the shops advertise their food as halal. At Emirates Jewellery, chains of gold and silver are draped in the window, while modest Islamic clothing is for sale at House of Emaar in the next block. "Sorry! No Alcohol" says a sign on a Lebanese restaurant, apologising to a local population accustomed to being served liquor on an evening out.

According to the 2006 census, 340,392 people, or 1.71 per cent of Australia's population, identified themselves as Muslim, compared with 281,578 in the previous census in 2001. This equates to a growth of more than 20 per cent. Next door to Madina Halal Meats is Balha's Pastry. Tarek and Fadia Afiouni have run this Lebanese business in Sydney Road for 18 years. The couple started a cottage industry selling baklava in a small shop after migrating from Tripoli in northern Lebanon. After outgrowing their first premises they expanded to a large shopfront on Sydney Road, where authentic Lebanese pastries and breads (knafe, wared al sham, znoud al sit and ballorieh) are piled high behind a glass counter. Behind the scenes, more than two dozen staff work long hours to keep up with demand. The sweets and breads are handmade using techniques learnt in the Levant. Layers of filo are spun or drizzled with honeys and syrups while clotted cream rests in large flat trays ready to be folded into pastries.

The couple left Tripoli more than 20 years ago. Now dozens of their kin surround them in Melbourne. Migrants, who often arrive as asylum seekers and refugees, have faced a mixed welcome from Australians, ranging from generosity to cool indifference to open hostility. The country's immigration officials, meanwhile, have rolled out the welcome mat only to whisk it away, depending on the whims of their political masters. And rare, but high-profile clashes between migrant groups and Australians, have left some in the migrant community nervous.

When four Melbourne men were arrested last month in connection with an alleged plot to carry out suicide attacks against an army base in Sydney, there was concern it could lead to an escalation of anti-Islam, anti-Middle Eastern attitudes. Counter-terrorism authorities allege the men had links to Somalia's al Shabbab terror group. Late 2005 provided another flashpoint. Mobs of white Australians targeted and clashed with young Lebanese men in the eastern beach suburbs of Cronulla and Maroubra in Sydney. Now known as the Cronulla Riots, the groups had been incited by text messages. Some carried signs bearing nationalistic, anti-migrant slogans, such as: "We grew here, you flew here."

Fadia is quick to stress that while she knows people who have been subject to anti-Islam abuse or prejudice, she has never experienced this. "We have customers from all faiths and all nationalities," she says. But some in her family worry that, as Muslims, they could be the target of anti-Islam prejudice. "Every time something happens, like Cronulla or the recent [terror] arrests, we worry," says Tarek Afiouni's cousin, Azzam, as he stands outside his family's business. "But there are idiots in every country."

Instead, the family focuses on their food. "Middle Eastern food is now accepted. We get all kinds of people: Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and Saudi Arabian students and we get Australians. It's not about religion, it's about culture," Azzam says. Monica Dullard, an Australian comedian and food lover, agrees that introducing long-term Australians to more recent settlers from the Middle East through their food is an opportunity to break down prejudice. She has been running tours of the Sydney Road Middle Eastern eateries during the annual Melbourne Food and Wine Festival for the past seven years. "At the time [the tours started], John Howard was the prime minister and refugees and Muslims and anyone who was like 'other' were getting a really hard time," she says. "It was getting worse, and I thought this was something I could do and it would be great fun.

"It's been incredible. I always explain about Ramadan and their culture. People are fascinated by it. People come from all over Melbourne, all over Australia. We try to show them that Sydney Road is fantastic and the people are fantastic - so friendly and warm - and you just need to get to know them and what's in the shops, and then you will be fine and you will come back again and again. And that's what happens."

Every year during the festival in March, Dullard leads 28 sell-out tours over three weeks. "It's about breaking down the barriers and saying they are just normal people - just go in there and say hello," the Brunswick local says. "Some people come on the tour because they have never met Muslims or anyone from the Middle East. Or they have been to the Middle East and have a real affinity for it and want to immerse themselves back in it. But, either way, they fall in love with the people as well as the food."

To illustrate, Dullard relates the story of an elderly Australian man who took one of her tours. He now drives 75km from Geelong, south-west of Melbourne, every week to buy 10 haloumi cheese pies from Amir Bakery in Sydney Road. "He's about 70 or so. He gets the pies and puts them in the freezer. He has one a day then drives back on a Saturday to get more pies." Amir Bakery is run by Iraqi nationals Amir and Samira Kalash. "When we started all our customers were Arab," Samira says, as she takes a rare break, sitting at a narrow counter in the window of her small shop. "Now we get everyone - Greeks, Australians, Italians, all different people."

As she speaks, a customer approaches the counter to pay. "That's free," she adds with a tired smile. "You made me laugh, so today is free." The couple works from the early hours of the morning until 11pm to keep their modest eatery stocked with spinach-and-ricotta-filled pastries, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, kibbeh, lebnah and stuffed lamb. "We wanted a better life," Samira says. "I am glad I am here because it has given me opportunities to do something better, but we have to work hard." Amir, who served as a soldier in Iraq for 18 years, learnt to bake from his father and brother. He and his wife brought these skills to Melbourne after fleeing Baghdad more than 20 years ago.

With prompting, Samira will tell the story of her escape from northern Iraq with her young children. It is a tale of illegal border crossings and journeys on an ageing bus, by foot and by boat. The family made it to Greece from where they applied for asylum in Australia where Samira's brother already lived. Their story, like all the others who left the region destined for the West, is now part of their past, she says.

"We have to work harder than in Iraq, but we have more freedom. I thank God that I am here every day." Monica Dullard, meanwhile, has no doubt about the impact people such as Samira and Amir, as well as the Greek and Italian migrants before them, have had on Australian cuisine. "If the migrants hadn't come to Australia, we'd still be eating chops and potatoes and maybe making sausages," she says with a laugh.

Greg Malouf, a Melbourne chef and prominent food writer, is a little more explicit: he believes Melbourne has embraced Middle Eastern food more than any other city globally, outside the Middle East and north Africa. "Melburnians like exotic things and they like to travel and they are not afraid to experiment at home or go out and try new flavours and dishes. We have a strong Middle Eastern community here and that's evident in a lot of the restaurants," he says.

Key flavours and products that many Australian food lovers are increasingly comfortable with include chickpeas, saffron, coriander, yoghurt and lemon, while chefs are experimenting with sophisticated aromatic products such as rose water, orange blossom, sumac, zataar and dukkah. Malouf, born in Melbourne to Lebanese parents, has drawn on his ancestry throughout his career. With his former wife, Lucy, he has written five books, Arabesque, Moorish, Saha, Turquoise and Artichoke to Za'atar, all of which showcase Middle Eastern-inspired food and the culture of countries within the region, including Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. This month he is scheduled to travel to Iran to begin research on Persian cuisine for a new book to be published in November next year.

He is also an important figure in the Melbourne food scene. In 2007, a restaurant reviewer for the city's The Age newspaper noted that "for a time, it seemed just about every new restaurant in Melbourne had some kind of culinary umbilical to chef Greg Malouf". His latest venture, MoMo, opened in the Grand Hyatt in central Melbourne earlier this year and is the reincarnation of an earlier restaurant by the same name.

Metaphorically, if not geographically, MoMo is a long way from the rawness of Sydney Road. Malouf's dishes draw heavily on their Middle Eastern origin, but differ in their finesse and presentation: the parsley of a traditional tabbouleh salad is replaced with watercress, while Turkish coffee and cardamom are used to flavour handmade ice cream. "These are the things that mum looks at and has a little chuckle and thinks are strange," the chef admits, "but they are little twists that hopefully inspire."

He describes the cuisine as "modern Middle Eastern food", and clearly it is finding favour with its Australian audience. One of his dishes, "veiled quail covered in leaves with rice, date and rose-petal stuffing", was awarded dish of the year by the prestigious The Age Good Food Guide this month. "I decided to delve into my own heritage and look at my past and the wonderful dishes I had in my childhood," Malouf says. "I put those dishes in a more contemporary setting without playing around with them too much. I wanted to get Middle Eastern food out of greasy takeaway shops and bad cafes and put it into beautiful surroundings with cloth tablecloths and good wine lists."

Now, he says, chefs influenced by Middle Eastern flavours play an important role in the Melbourne food scene. "The Lebanese in particular have gone from running milk bars, grocery shops and fruit and vegetable shops to cafes and then to nightclubs and from nightclubs to restaurants. Many of my Lebanese friends are running restaurants. And they are not just traditional Middle Eastern restaurants; these are modern and contemporary.

"I'm very proud that Middle Eastern food is finally standing tall - it's looking fairly good at the moment. It's a wonderful exotic cuisine that's been around since day one and it's really nice to see it growing and getting the respect it deserves. "Food is a common thread that will bring anyone together. It brings families together and it brings people together."