Food News

Ful, feijoada and flat whites: the café owners combining their heritage with Australia’s smashed avo culture

Across the country, a new wave of café culture is emerging as chefs and owners bring their cultural heritage and traditions to the table.

The Fold's Saaya Takahashi, Jason, Augi and Travin De Hoedt.

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Some cafés chase Instagram trends, but Saha in Adelaide serves century-old dishes instead. “We wanted to bring our heritage into our cooking,” says Jinan Mehio, who runs the business with husband Abdoullah. These recipes have survived a lot, such as war in Lebanon and a devastating fire at Saha’s original location. They moved the café to a new site after the 2019 blaze, the fatteh, ful and manoushi remain as their grandparents’ grandparents made it: the chickpeas topped with yoghurt tahini, broad beans flavoured with garlic, lemon and olive oil and flatbreads seasoned with za’atar.

Don’t treat the whole menu as an ancient text that can’t be changed, though: Mehio recalls their mothers “workshopping” dishes at the café’s start. “It was a bit like World War III some days – hearing about how much salt should be in one dish, or how much lemon should be on another,” she says. Their parents are key to Saha: her dad’s za’atar is dusted over 10 different dishes, while her father-in-law makes the Lebanese sweets.

Like any rule-abiding café, there’s smashed avocado on offer, but tahini dressing and pomegranate molasses give it a Middle Eastern twist. This blended approach reflects the Mehios’ upbringing: her husband’s family will serve an English-style roast if you pop over, because they lived in a South Australian country town. “My dad will never touch anything like that,” says Mehio. Her father insists on Lebanese meals every day and she remembers “it was the event of the year” if she could visit Pizza Hut or McDonald’s as a kid.

Saha is the Mehios’ third café, but the first with a menu fully reflecting their Middle Eastern and Australian roots. “We’re able to be who we are every single day,” she says. “It’s so nice to be able to do that.”

At Daero Lee and Illa Kim’s Soul Deli in Sydney, Korean culture rules: the couple’s brunch menu features soybean stew for your soju hangover; the shelves display vegan bulgogi sauce, kimchi and goods by Korean-Australian designers. Even the coffee is K-style, with beans by Dan Kim’s Primary Coffee Roasters.

Soul Deli’s owners have a four-year-old son, Noah, and he’s already aware of the cultural split in his world. Korean is “grandpa’s language”, while English is his “friends’ language”. But food can be understood by everyone. “That’s the reason why we do this,” says Illa Kim. “Food is – especially for kids who grow up between two cultures – something that helps them identify with their culture.”

When other children recoil when presented with kimchi, Noah notices. “Those kids who don’t cringe, they connect culturally,” she says. And minimising that cringe factor is important to the owners.

“I’m trying to make the food ‘a soft landing’ to someone,” says chef Lee. His dishes are welcoming and Australian-influenced, without losing the Korean DNA.

“It’s not about giving someone the mellow version of something,” says Kim. The white kimchi hasn’t been tamed for Western tastes, for instance. “That’s the original way that kimchi was done before chilli powder came to Korea,” she says. “We try to show diversity, because within Korean cuisine, there’s a lot that people don’t know yet.”

Illa Kim and Daero Lee, co-owners of Soul Deli in Sydney.

(Photo: Jiwon Kim)

Like gyeran mari, an omelette stuffed with salted cod roe, or “Ottogi-style” hot cakes, influenced by a Korean brand they grew up with. Even the avocado toast is inspired by Seoul’s take on Australian cafés.

While Kim says it’s sometimes a “burden” dealing with her Korean identity, she’s proud of Soul Deli’s role in bridging cultures. Take their Korean-Australian manager, for example. “[He] never felt like he was living in Sydney as a Korean”, she says. Now the café has been embraced by locals and regulars know his name, he feels he’s finally home.

Brunch at Sydney’s Soul Deli.

(Photo: Jiwon Kim)

“We always loved this café culture that Australia has,” says Gabriel Gebaile, who runs Melbourne’s Bossa Nova with wife Gabriela. The couple grew up outside São Paulo, where there were bakeries and restaurants – but nothing in between. Their café is about “spreading the culture” of Brazil; its cuisine goes beyond the meaty, barbecue restaurants represented here.

It requires nine hours to cook but Brazil’s national dish, feijoada, is on Bossa Nova’s menu every day. There’s also a vegan version of the pork and bean stew, despite their nervousness about taking it on. “It’s definitely not a case where we can call our granny or grandad for the recipe, because there isn’t one,” says Gabriel. “Vegan culture in Brazil isn’t that strong yet,” says Gabriela. They use soy sauce, vegan butter, four kinds of mushrooms and house-smoked tofu to replicate feijoada’s deep flavours. They also offer vegan and traditional versions of coxinha (fritters) and moqueca (fish stew) to be inclusive. And, yes, selling smashed avo is a “safe choice”, she admits, but they make it as “Brazilian as possible”. Served with a special crunchy bread, it closely resembles the nation’s toasties.

Sometimes the couple feels caught between their birthplace and adopted home. “You feel attached to both places and homeless at the same time,” says Gabriela.

But when it takes 30 to 40 hours to travel to their homeland (in non-COVID) times, their café can be a refuge. As queues trailed outside the Spanish consulate next door due to an election, a homesick Brazilian family dined at Bossa Nova and left a memorable review. “They said: to us, this feels like a Brazilian embassy,” says Gabriel.

As a kid, Kantaro Okada loved onigiri, but found it “embarrassing” to take to school. Today, the Japanese rice balls are the star of 279, his queue-attracting café in Melbourne. The menu has onigiri with smashed avocado, cheese, fried chicken – even bacon and eggs, which is more traditional than you’d think. “For a Japanese person, it’s not surprising at all,” he says.

He tested 30 kinds of rice to find the best “mochi-mochi” consistency for shaping onigiri. The café specialises in pour-over miso soup, too. For Okada, it was important to serve food he’s connected to. “Because the homework is done,” he says. 279 is inspired by his longing for Tokyo’s onigiri shops and it makes his staff proud (“They are happy to see so many people enjoying what they enjoyed back in Japan”), but it’s also a tribute to his adopted city’s melting pot culture and helps him feel like a local. “I’m learning a lot about Melbourne,” he says.

At The Fold in Sydney, Augi De Hoedt serves traditional Sri Lankan hoppers as well as remixed versions with shakshuka and eggs Benedict. “Opening our own place has been one of my dad’s dreams,” says Travin De Hoedt, his son.

Travin and brother Jason would finish their shifts at Franca Brasserie, then drop by The Fold to bake pastries until 4am. Now The Fold is open for dinner, the siblings are perfecting a Sri Lankan soufflé for the menu. The Fold has affirmed Travin’s heritage and helped fiancée Saaya Takahashi connect “with my parents and our Sri Lankan culture”, he says. She’s even making cashew curry for staff meals at Sixpenny (where she works) and his background spills into his cooking at Franca, too: he baked his dad’s Sri Lankan Christmas cake for its pop-up boulangerie.

Hopper Benedict at The Fold, Sydney.

(Photo: Supplied)

When Durkhanai Ayubi was working as a chemist, she’d create Afghan toasties in her office. “This is delicious, you should sell this,” her colleagues said. Today, at Adelaide’s Kutchi Deli Parwana, she does. The spiced chickpea (nakhot) and lamb kofta wraps are both flavoured with garlic yoghurt and greens and toasted in Afghan bread.

Durkhanai Ayubi (standing, second from left) with the Ayubi family.

(Photo: Alicia Taylor)

It’s borne of her Australian office life and Afghan roots, but she refuses to split her identity into clinical categories. “There is no half-east, half-west, Afghan-Australian,” she says. Her accumulated cultural memories and human experiences are what make her cooking unique. “I’m 100 per cent all of those identities.”

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