The aroma of sizzling chicken skewers hit us first.
Wafting lazily through the rows of colourful shabby street stalls onto muddy pathways trodden by thousands of tired feet, it beckoned our appetites from afar, promising instant gratification. With the rain bucketing over us as we pushed and shoved our way through buzzing crowds that didn’t seem to end, the exotic marketplace aromas coalescing into one giant olfactory melting pot was enough of an incentive to keep going. Each step brought with it a new sensory seduction — spicy chicken curries simmering in their pots, fresh hot naan baking in the tandoor, seared kofta sticks popping and sizzling away on charcoal grills.
It felt like Beirut all over again. Or Senegal. Or Beijing.
Except it wasn’t. This was Lakemba, and boy did we know it.
I woke that morning to the sound of drums beating. With the Haldon Street Festival – Lakemba’s annual day of cultural pride – just a couple of blocks away, it’s pulse was hard to miss. Getting there was easy enough, as the destination for another I Ate My Way Through Meetup, we met at Lakemba train station. Getting through the throngs of hungry festival-goers however, huddled beneath colourful shop-front signs that promised all sorts of spicy goodies, was a challenge. As the more persistent of us ploughed through the crowds (having a pram certainly helped that cause), the less impatient ones hung around watching the cultural dances on the pop-up stage ahead.
It was a sight for sore appetites — young kids snacking on their criminally crispy all-flavours-under-the-sun Korean-inspired swirly potato sticks, tired mothers devouring their steaming spinach & fetta gozlemes and groups of giggling teenage girls delicately snipping off chunks of their Dutch strawberry pancake stacks as they ogled the male breakdancing group performing their gig on stage.
If you’d been following the news recently, you may have heard of a particularly inflammatory article suggesting that Lakemba constituted a “monoculture” in the heart of Sydney, devoid of any real diversity. That day, pushing my pram between stalls serving everything from Nepalese dumplings and Moroccan fatayer to Lebanese mixed plates and Russian blyni, that monoculture was very, very hard to find.
But back to the Nepalese dumplings. Oh. My Lord. Heaven in a pouch. Being a (terribly half-hearted) vegetarian and simultaneously having an obsession with all-things-dumpling is an impossible addiction. Dumplings from good Asian joints invariably end up containing chicken or pork (my request for vegetarian dumplings in Beijing landed me with a pot full of the shrimp-filled variety) so I tend to have really bad luck when it comes to finding these little bags of green goodness. This tiny little Nepalese stall however, was a God-send. They offered veggie dumplings stuffed full of hearty veggies boasting a hint of cumin and fresh coriander with a side of Nepalese chilli chutney. #foodporn
Right next door, the Russian stall came a very close second with crispy pan-fried blyni (crepes) teeming with a gorgeous hot potato filling that just screamed carbs. The jubilant, rosy-cheeked Russian chef behind the grill quite happily provided me with four more on request.
To complete the carbohydrate coma that was inevitable by this stage-after the deep-fried crispy potato swirl, flaky African spicy lentil fataya, barbecued butter corn, tiny bowl of chilli Bengali fushka, and a Malaysian roti, the diet was well and truly starting Monday- I had a fresh, hot puffy naan straight out of the tandoor. And it… was… amazing.
Moral of the story: you don’t need to travel very far to have the culinary world at your fingertips.
Lakemba houses one of Sydney’s multicultural food hotspots, Haldon Street, representing dozens of authentic, delicious cuisines that can all be found within a 1km radius. It’s a terribly misunderstood place which makes it one of Sydney’s best kept foodie secrets. Come down for a weekend and indulge in a hot, chewy oregano manoush for breakfast, a samosa for brunch, mixed plate for lunch, gulab jamun for dessert and finish up with a nice plate of nasi goreng for din-dins.
Or better yet, stay tuned for the new I Ate My Way Through Lakemba Food Tours to start very soon and we’ll show you around!
Don’t forget you can join I Ate My Way Through on Meet-Up to attend other food crawls or festivals like this Haldon Street Festival Meetup!
The 2014 Haldon Street Festival was held on Saturday, 23rd August 2014. For more information, go to canterbury.nsw.gov.au/Discover/Festivals-arts-and-culture/Haldon-Street-Festival
Photography by Jennifer Lam