A small truck rumbles to a stop behind me, its exhaust belching fumes. I’m standing with a small group on a pavement in Haldon Street, Lakemba listening attentively as our guide struggles to make herself heard above the street traffic.
Ramadan in Haldon Street Lakemba
The sun has set, on this last Sunday of Ramadan and Haldon Street is full of people who have come to Lakemba to break their fast. Shops and restaurants are open, their bright lights spilling onto the pavement.
Apart from me, none of our group has visited Lakemba before. They look around, observing people sitting at tables and chairs on the pavement or waiting to cross the road. Women wear hijabs and the occasional niqab while some men wear skull caps and long tunics. “We could be in another country” says one woman.
We’re here to learn about the customs and traditions of Ramadan and to taste foods particular to the most sacred month in Islamic culture.
Her hair tucked away beneath a white scarf covering her head and neck, Alaa is from Syria. Although she’s tiny, her distinctive yellow Taste Food Tour shirt stands out and we’ll easily spot her as she guides us through the throng from one food stop to the next.
Alaa explains that “Ramadan is the reason we’re here”. During Ramadan, Muslims come to Haldon Street for Iftar (to break their fast). “It has become very popular [not only with Muslims] in the last five years and in 2019 the council closed the road” she adds.
Ramadan Nights Done Differently
In 2021 Council cancelled the popular Ramadan Nights Markets for the second year in a row. That didn’t stop local businesses from continuing the tradition of selling food specific to Ramadan. Alaa tells us local businesses decided to “keep the tradition of [food] stalls”.
The Island Dreams Café specialises in cuisine from the Christmas and Cocos Islands. Their chicken satay sticks, available only for Ramadan, have a sweet and crunchy peanut flavour. “Ooh this is nice” says one guest “there’s a bit of lemongrass” says another.
Breaking the Fast during Ramadan
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. “We don’t even drink water” explains Alaa adding “We’re lucky here in Australia as the days are shorter and cooler. In Syria where I come from, the sun rises early and sets later and it’s hot”.
Iftar is a social occasion. “Because we don’t eat or drink, food becomes more special and we like to share [food] with friends and neighbours” continues Alaa. Iftar can look different in different countries. In Syria Alaa says “we rarely go out, we cook”. They share home cooked meals with friends and family at home, whereas “in other cultures, they rarely cook, just drink water [to break the fast] and go out to eat”.
Diversity in Lakemba
Lakemba is home to Muslims from around the world. The diversity of the food on offer reflects that cultural mix.
At Ananda Sweets and Bakery, a Bangladeshi establishment, a woman stirs the thick soupy contents of a huge aluminium pot. Wearing a pretty grey headscarf edged with silver coloured beads she coyly turns her head when I ask to take a photo.
The ‘soup’, haleem, is a spicy lentil, chickpea and goat stew flavoured with ginger and chilli only available during Ramadan. Alaa tells us that people eat haleem during Ramadan “as the ingredients are digestive and allow them to stay full for a longer time”.
“It’s so lively here” exclaims one of our group as we try to keep out of the way. Walking to the next stop, my daughter points out the name of a grocery store, AGA Groceries and Halal Meat, a play on the old IGA that used to occupy the space.
By the length of the queue lined up at the camel burger stall, these burgers are popular. Like many other stalls up and down the street, this one has nothing to do with the shop behind it. The Lebanese stall owners rent space from the shop each year to set up their burger stall.
The burger is juicy and moreish but I hold back on a second serving as I know there’s more to come.
“Gosh the garbage trucks are busy” someone observes as garbos work tirelessly to empty bins along the street. With so many people around, bins quickly fill up with takeaway containers.
Zakat during Ramadan
A woman sits on a milk crate nearby. She’s wearing a black chador and holds a sign explaining why she needs money.
One of the five pillars of Islam (the others are profession of faith, prayer, fasting and pilgrimage), Zakat is the giving of alms. Alaa explains that as people aren’t eating as much during Ramadan there is more money available for Zakat and beggars (this woman isn’t the only one) know this.
Indonesia, Lebanon and Pakistan
I choose a silky melt in the mouth tofu dish and a spicy soya bean tempeh from the display at the Indonesian family restaurant, Warung Ita. Alaa describes the food as authentic and “not westernized”. I wouldn’t know, but I do know that it’s worth a return visit.
At the Lebanese Al Manara, Alaa hands us each two toothpicks. One for a falafel and the other for a piece of tangy pink pickled turnip. This falafel “is the best in Lakemba” Alaa assures us.
The Kashmiri Chai from Ali Dine Inn has a dusty pink colour almost like Milo. I enjoy the sweet spiced milky flavour.
Using scissors, Alaa cuts slices of murtabak to share around. A Malaysian chef makes the savoury ‘pancake’ folded over a meat filling from his pop-up stall.
In answer to a question, Alaa explains that people often break their fast with water and dates which are high in sugar and energy. The dates prepare the body for eating after a day of fasting.
We end the tour with something sweet. At another pop-up stall, large flat round trays of knafeh stand behind a display counter. People line up for a slice of the Palestinian sweet with its stretchy creamy cheese filling topped with semolina and chopped pistachios. At the same shop (we’re back at Al Manara where the knafeh men have ‘popped up’) a man stirs a pot of thickened sahlab or Middle Eastern milk pudding. We are too full to even contemplate trying the hot sweet milky drink.
We’ll be back
Alaa has introduced us to food from around the world, all in one suburban Sydney street. She’s opened our eyes to the customs and traditions surrounding Ramadan.
A guest admits that she wouldn’t have felt safe coming to Lakemba before the tour, “but now I’ll come on my own.” I think we all have plans to return.
If you like exploring independently take a look at my post on Lakemba and my list of ‘self-guided food tours’. If you prefer to go on guided tours, I have written up a number of Taste Food tours of Cabramatta (here), Aussie Produce (here) and Afghanistan and Persia (here).
- Island Dreams Café – 47 Haldon St
- Warung Ita Indonesian restaurant – 1/168 Haldon St
- Ali Dine Inn /Flavours of Pakistan -158 Haldon St
- The Fresh Paan Corner – 4/166 Haldon st
- Al Manara – 143 Haldon St
- Ananda Sweets – 34 Railway Pde