“That will put hairs on your chest” exclaims the woman opposite me. She’s taken a sip of thick black coffee from a finely decorated cup. “It’s called Syrian coffee in Syria and Turkish coffee in Turkey” says Ali standing nearby in his spotless uniform. He is the chef, and with his Korean business partner, part owner of the Al Shami Syrian restaurant.
Taste Food Tour
We are on a Taste Food Tour in the Western Sydney suburb of Merrylands. I’m looking forward to discovering dishes from Syria, Afghanistan and Persia.
Our guide arrives in a flurry, apologizing for her lateness and saying in a rush, “Ali has provided you guys with coffee, Oh my God, Good on him”.
Introducing our Taste Tour Guide
Wearing a colourful hijab and long black cardigan, Parastou “like Paris with ‘to’ on the end” introduces herself and delves straight into her story. She describes her long and difficult journey to Australia and how she’s studying a Masters of Teaching thanks to a scholarship.
When first approached to join Taste Tours, Parastou didn’t understand the concept of food tours. Brought up “in a shy way” and “to respect elders” she never expected to be leading a group of people and introducing them to the food she knows and loves.
A social enterprise, Taste Food Tours supports diverse local communities by providing training and employment opportunities. A resident of Merrylands, Parastou says proudly “Each tour guide is an expert in their own suburb” adding that she now openly shares her story and loves public speaking.
Al Shami Syrian Restaurant
At Al Shami we are treated to a traditional Syrian breakfast. There’s fatteh, (a delicious dip from chickpeas and yoghurt garnished with fried dried bread), pickles, falafel with tahini, fresh tomato onion and mint and warm flat bread. I arrived hungry, but must pace myself.
Outside a halal butchery, we learn that the word halal means lawful or permitted. In relation to meat it describes the way in which the animal is slaughtered. When someone mentions Mecca, Parastou opens an app on her phone. She uses “MeccaPro” to find the direction of Mecca when she prays.
Persian Grocery Store
Little gems of cultural knowledge add to the appeal of this tour. In a Persian grocery store Parastou stands in front of a wall of clear plastic bins filled with nuts. She explains the importance in her culture of offering nuts to guests. She will always serve at least three types of nuts on a partitioned plate.
Parastou offers us a taste of her purchases. Taking a teaspoonful of “sour and salty mixed berries” another guest grimaces and purses her lips, the taste not at all to her liking.
A group of obvious strangers being led by a woman in a hijab draws attention. Locals turn and look, wondering who we are. One man emerges from the Persian grocer with a container of jellied lollies, insisting “take, take, take”. Parastou takes a handful to share around saying “it is impolite to refuse”.
Tandori Bread Bakery
Lining up outside the narrow shopfront of the Tandori Bread Bakery, Parastou shares another personal story. To survive in Indonesia, her mother began baking Afghani bread and making yoghurt. Others followed suit starting a cottage industry.
Spooning an orange coloured jam onto strips of still warm flat bread, she challenges us to guess what vegetable the jam is made from. Guesses of pumpkin and sweet potato are wrong. It’s carrot jam, and rather pleasant.
We share a plate of delicious steamed lamb dumplings (mantu) topped with yoghurt dressing and powdered dry mint in an Afghani Restaurant. When a sweet aroma drifts across from the kitchen, I ask what is cooking. The waitress looks confused and then answers with a smile. “It’s the air freshener”.
Bina’s Mini Mart is an unscheduled stop – for a cup of take away Masala tea. Dispensed from a machine, the tea is rich and spicy with a strong ginger overtone.
Traditional Afghani BBQ
Next, we’re handed a portion of chicken kebab grilled on a traditional Afghani BBQ. It’s very tasty, but I haven’t paced myself well. I’m full and there are two more tastings to go.
My daughter buys packets of round flat bread for lunches at the next stop while others scoop spices and herbs into little plastic bags from a double row of bins filled with familiar and exotic spices.
An impatient hooting sound pierces the air as we cross a road. “Welcome to Merrylands” laughs Parastou.
Afghan Street Food
Avasana, an Afghan Street Food Shop serves food that is time consuming to prepare. There’s an irony here. Australians buy “fast food” and here we are eating “slow food”. The chapli, a flat spicey minced lamb kebab, is moist and delicious.
Ending with Something Sweet
No food tour is complete without something sweet. Having chosen a range of pastries from the display cabinet of Asal Patisserie, Parastou places a cake box in front of us.
We groan, not sure we can fit anything more in. But we do, and then buy a mixed box of pastries to take home.
Find out more about various Taste Food Tours here.
Enjoyed this Taste Tour? Happy to tour independently? Then take a look at this post where you can discover great food and culture on a self-guided food tour.