Food & Culture

The history of Middle Eastern food in Australia

The history of Middle Eastern food in this country is a history of people, movement and spices smuggled in suitcases.

By Alecia Simmonds
When Ibrahim Kasif's grandparents arrived in Sydney from Cyprus in the 1950s, they had to buy their olive oil from pharmacies. Anglo-Saxons didn't then see much use for it beyond treating ear ailments. "There was simply nowhere else that sold it." Joseph Abboud's parents shared similar stories. Once, they told him, family friends had the police arrive unexpectedly when they tried to bake pita in a wood-fired oven in the backyard. Sirens wailed as za'atar-dusted bread spiced the air.
Passed down between generations of Middle Eastern migrants, these stories of culinary deprivation lend a heroic quality to the recipes that survived. They speak of a time when taste could be treasonous and, for chefs like Kasif and Abboud who run three of the most innovative Middle Eastern restaurants in Australia today (Kasif with Stanbuli and Abboud with Rumi and Bar Saracen), they remind them of their debts. "We have the luxury of saying, 'oh, you're stuck in your ways' to our parents," muses Abboud. "That's because they did the hard yards. They're not stuck in the mould, in fact they broke the mould."
The story of how Australian palates came to delight in braised lamb or the sweet scent of orange blossom is quite brief. "If you look at the Australian food scene, the history of Middle Eastern cuisine is only 50 or 60 years old," explains Kasif, "yet words like falafel, tahini or shish are all part of the vocabulary now."
Kasif's choice of dishes is telling: although the Middle East encompasses many nations, its flavours mostly came to Australia with Turkish and Lebanese migrants. And before Anglo Australians could enjoy their food, the government needed to shift from a policy of assimilation to multiculturalism. Australia needed to be liberated from the tyranny of shepherd's pie.
But the history of Middle Eastern cooking in Australia is much longer. It's a secret history that can only be gleaned through peering into the homes of families like the Abbouds, looking into their kitchens or strolling through certain suburbs, such as Sydney's Redfern, which during the late 19th-century was known as "Little Syria", to uncover the lives of those whose survival depended on concealing their aromatic herbs from delicate Anglo-Saxon nostrils.
Clockwise, from far left: Wilson's in Sydney's Redfern; Abla Amad at Abla's, her restaurant in Carlton, Melbourne; chef Greg Malouf; stuffed mussels at Ibrahim Kasif's Stanbuli; an 1892 article from The Illustrated Sydney News reports on "Syrians" living in Redfern.
It's Sunday morning, and I'm hurrying down rain-slicked streets in Melbourne to meet one of the most important people in Middle Eastern food in Australia, if not the world: chef Greg Malouf, whose great-grandparents came out from Lebanon in 1895. His brother Geoff, owner of beloved Melbourne restaurant Zum Zum, joins us at a café. As Greg and Geoff take sips of their coffee they complete each other's recollections of their family history. "Our ancestors were in haberdashery," Greg starts, "probably fleeing the upheavals caused earlier by the wars between the Druze and the Christians."
"They came from the very fertile Bekaa Valley," Geoff continues, before explaining the influence the growing region has on Lebanese cuisine. "The spices used in Lebanese cooking are more subtle than in many other Middle Eastern cuisines, to accentuate the quality of the produce," he says.
For the Maloufs, though, as for Lebanese all over Australia, it would be at least another half century before they had access to the ingredients enjoyed in Lebanon, and even longer before they were able to offer their dishes outside of their homes. The first wave of Lebanese migrants arrived at the dawn of the White Australia policy, which prompted a national debate about how to racially classify them. They were referred to as Syrians, because Lebanon was yet to achieve independence; The Bulletin in 1906 called them one of three "non-fusible Asiatic races" and argued they should be denied citizenship rights in Australia; The Department of External Affairs was more confused: "They are of swarthy appearance with dark hair... but approximate far more closely to the European types than those of India or parts of Asia further East." For the next two decades, Lebanese migrants pointed to their Christianity and their paler complexion to argue for their status as white people. It wasn't until the 1920s that they were, in historian Anne Monsour's words, "granted status as honorary Southern Europeans".
But as Monsour reminds us, it came at a price – they had to be culturally invisible. Arabic foods like kibbeh and tahini were now incriminating. The walls of the domestic fortress went up.
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A few blocks from my house in Redfern is a small Lebanese restaurant on Pitt Street called Wilson's. Old Lebanese men with creased, pouchy faces sit outside on milk crates, gossiping beneath a fluorescent 1970s sign that has been cracked and hastily repaired.
Humble as it may appear, this restaurant, which opened in 1967, is one of the oldest Lebanese restaurants in Australia. Sourcing ingredients back then was an obvious problem for Wilson's, so they relied on travellers. Quarantine restrictions were lax, and one chirpy newspaper article from The Sun in October 1950 gives us some idea of how food was smuggled in: "Hanna Lahoud and Chafic Younan reached Sydney today," the article reported, bringing with them "two big, closely guarded cardboard boxes filled with oils, frying fat, almonds, pomegranates and vegetable matter." There were also "cloth bags of peculiar smelling items, which Lahoud and Younan intimated were pretty good to eat." They brought their own olive oil, which "leaked through one of the boxes in a steady stream at the Customs desk".
The year 1967 was significant for Middle Eastern cuisine in Australia for another reason: Australia signed an Assisted Passage agreement with Turkey – the first time it did this with a country beyond Western Europe – and with this migration scheme came all the spices of the Ottoman Empire. The vast majority of Turkish and Lebanese migrants arrived in Australia between the 1970s and 1990s; the Turks were promised abundant employment opportunities and the Lebanese were fleeing the Lebanese civil war and the Israel-Lebanon war. Many ended up staying because of family connections, and it was family that influenced the kind of Middle Eastern cuisine that Australia came to know.
"The earliest restaurants offered home cooking," says Abboud. "They weren't professional chefs trained in Lebanon; they were people who were offering up the food of the household." Kasif says much the same of Turkish cuisine, and that as much as he pushes the boundaries of Turkish cooking, he still tries to "replicate the smells of my grandmother's cooking growing up." Greg Malouf has memories of his brother and himself hopping like seagulls in the kitchen doorway until his mother dropped a tasty morsel into his mouth. Melbourne chef Abla Amad, being a girl, was permitted a view from inside the kitchen. Amad learned the joys of mint and rosewater from watching her mother, uncle and "aunties" prepare dishes for Lebanese feasts. ''To join them in the kitchen was a way of handing down recipes from one generation to the next," she tells me at her home in Carlton, while showing me how to roll a vine leaf. And because the people who taught Amad had come from all over Lebanon, she was able to pick up regional variations which now influence her menu at Abla's. It occurs to me while chatting to her that this is probably what made Middle Eastern cuisine in Australia unique: migration collapses the mountainous divides of Lebanon and the vast border-regions of Turkey into one kitchen – it brings the recipes of numerous towns into an appetising conversation that they wouldn't have had back home.
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"The issue I have with Lebanese food is that they're not pushing the boundaries enough. We should be further ahead," says Greg Malouf, shaking his head. "Why is that?" I ask. Greg and Geoff exchange
a conspiratorial smile: "Their mothers and grandmothers, of course!" Greg mimics his most difficult customers, "Oh, my grandmother made the most extraordinary kibbeh, now what is this?" Geoff interjects: "But seriously, they associate food with memories of their family, and family is fundamental to Lebanese culture." If food is the conduit to an imagined family home and to a country left behind, then experimentation becomes an act of dishonour. Abboud's fusion Middle Eastern cuisine has long been a source of difficulty with his family. Sitting in his new restaurant, Bar Saracen, he says, "It still hurts my mother when someone says, 'Your son has a Lebanese restaurant?' She always responds, 'Well, sort of.'"
Trained in Australia and France, Greg Malouf was the first Australian chef to experiment with Lebanese haute cuisine, at O'Connells in Melbourne in 1991. "Oh, there was that dish of oysters and makanek sausage," says Geoff. "The journalists loved it." Greg adds, "'Finally something new!'" Back in Sydney, Kasif adds a historical perspective to this debate. "Fusion is just a way of describing what we are doing today," he says. "When you think of the Ottoman Empire, that's exactly what they were doing – fusion! The dumpling exists in Middle Eastern cuisine because of the nomadic Northern Chinese who came down from the Steppes in the Middle Ages. Turks also got their yoghurt from the milk introduced to them by the Chinese, not the Greeks."
After meeting with The Maloufs, I stop off at my Palestinian friend Sary's house and peruse his collection of medieval Middle Eastern cookbooks. Leafing through the pages, we spend the afternoon imaginatively crossing spice routes with merchants in caravans and dining on twice-suckled lamb with the sultans. I learned that the world's first written recipes were Middle Eastern, found on stone tablets dating from the 17th century BC. But the major Middle Eastern medieval recipe collections were written in the palaces of Baghdad during Islam's golden age, between the 7th and 13th centuries, the very moment when Europe descended into the Dark Ages. The Abassid Caliphate, like the Ottoman Empire that came after it, was gastronomically promiscuous; its cuisine was mostly Arab and Persian but also incorporated Greek, Indian, Turkish, Chinese and African. Like Baghdad, then the largest and wealthiest city in the world, the cuisine was tantalisingly decadent. I find a recipe that specifies a live fish be kept in a tank of grape juice to enhance the flavour of its flesh. Persians legitimated their power through public feasting at the palaces and sultans sought to leave their mark through the recipes they promoted in their court.
It's a sign of the continuities between Arabic cuisine and the Ottoman cuisine that came after it that the Turkish conquerors took these Arabic recipe books and housed them among their treasures at Topaki Palace and the Aya Sofya in Istanbul. From the 15th century onwards the Ottomans carried the flame of Middle Eastern cuisine, adding the stuffed vegetables, shish kebabs and baklava pastries that we see today, plus Arabic braised lambs and spiced stews. After the colonisation of the Americas, chillies, beans, corn and tomatoes made an appearance making Turkish cuisine – with its wheat and meat from the West and rice from the East – more fusion than any of our wildest mod-Oz fantasies.
I see glimpses of the chefs I've met for this story in the medieval recipes before me. In the 13th-century Book of Dishes, which measures portions by the width of fingers, I see Amad, who continues to test the readiness of yoghurt by putting a finger in the tub for 10 seconds.
The medieval recipes that ask for soy sauce remind me of Abboud and Kasif's exhortations: "We've always been experimental and fusion!" I see Greg and Geoff Malouf in the words of the 13th-century scribe Al-Baghdadi, who wrote: "Of all the world's pleasures" – in which he includes food, drink, clothing, sex, scent and sound – "the most eminent and perfect of these is food." As Greg Malouf says, "This food should not just be seen as inexpensive, it's one of the great cuisines of the world, it should be on a pedestal."
Right: A 1921 story about "good" Middle Eastern immigrants. Left: the Maloufs in 1967 – (from left) Greg, their mother May, Andrew and Geoff.