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Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Ramadan food festival, Lakemba

We caught the train from Town Hall on the Bankstown line, which takes you through Wynyard and Museum before heading out west. It was around 5pm but the train was not completely full. The sun had set and the sky was dark by the time we arrived at our destination. On Railway Parade there were stalls setting up their equipment and food in preparation for the arrival of customers after evening prayers. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims do not eat or drink from dawn to dusk (which they calculate for practical purposes in Sydney as 6pm), and we had arrived a bit early.

When people did start to arrive later, they would flood the street with their bodies as they sought out restorative meals at the small stalls set up with barbeques, hotplates and display cases on the pavements outside shops on both sides of Haldon Street. One stall even had braziers full of hot sand that were used to boil small pots of coffee for people to drink. Another man was staffing a stall with a machine for crushing fruit. He sold orange juice and carrot juice in small plastic bottles for $5 each.

The food was surprising and often spicy. We tried a dish named “chicken 65” at one stall up the end of the main drag where the darkness of the residential zone sat like a wall. The dish had this name, we were told by a woman who was buying food there, because it had 65 spices in the recipe. A small container of the dish cost $7 and it was salty and slightly sweet, coloured a bright red like some Indian food. There was also a lentil dish sold at the same stall.

A bit further down toward the station for about $8 we bought a small brown paper bag filled with vege pakora, which came with a diminutive container of yoghurt dip. There was an unoccupied table there on the pavement so we sat down to eat the food, which was in the form of fritters made with vegetables stuck together with chickpea batter, before being fried in oil. The dish was filling and had a spicy tang to it. A young woman who was sitting there next to us said that she didn’t eat the dish because she never ate spicy food. But she added that the dip was known to function to take away the piquancy of the chilli used in preparing the fritters.

In a small, brightly-lit restaurant run by Pakistanis we bought a large plate of lamb biryani for $10 from a menu affixed to the back wall of the restaurant, behind the display cases full of food, much like in a fast-food restaurant. The dish is rice cooked with pieces of lamb and is also spiced with something, though I did not ask what it was. The restaurant was well-patronised with locals eating their food at tables covered with white plastic table cloths. I had to drink some water with the meal because it was very filling and I was concerned about it getting stuck in my throat. I had been hungry.

Next, we bought some knafeh – a sweet dish made with cheese – from a Palestinian man with trays of the red confection laid out on a table in front of him that was set on the pavement. The man charged me $8 for a piece of the knafeh but when I gave him $20 he only gave me $2 in change. I was so startled by the strangeness of his banter that I didn’t ask for the rest of my change. He had told us that knafeh was originally from Palestine but that it was now a staple in many other countries.

We met some other people who were sightseeing and who had come with a group of street photographers, at a table near the train station. I bought a small bottle of pink drink for $2 from the café outside which the table was set. It was basil seed drink with lychee, made by “American Flower”. The drink was slightly oleaginous and sweet. I had been thirsty. Later, in a shop selling women’s clothing, I bought a small can of mango fruit drink for $2.50 that was made by a company named “Avila”.

Being understood was sometimes a problem. I stood at the counter in the café with the bottle of drink in my hand for a good two minutes before someone offered to take my money. As we were sitting outside in the group, a man snatched up a chair that had been unoccupied, from its place next to our table without asking permission first. He had wanted to sit down with his friends at a table nearby.

People spoke English with accents and you got the impression that they might prefer to speak in another default lingua franca such as Arabic. But in the dress shop people used English when referring to the woman managing the enterprise, calling her “sister”. Most of the people on the street were men. At a prayer hall next to the photographer’s table a steady stream of men entered a nondescript doorway that had a green-and-white sign hanging from the awning that referenced Allah and the prophet Mohammed. The men walked into the doorway, but while we were sitting there no-one walked out. One of our party remarked on this fact.

There were plenty of small children with their mothers and fathers on the dark street. I saw a little girl trying to drag her father in one direction while he stood immobile on the pavement. Another father held the hand of his small daughter as they walked down the street. There were lots of young men, including some who swaggered with all the confidence of youth. One who was hurrying along the footpath called out “habibi!” (“friend!”) in Arabic as we walked past, on our way finally to the station to catch the train back to the city.

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