One of the nicest things about the suburb I live in is that, every year, the whole place comes alive. It specifically happens on the last weekend of Ramadan, which presents one of the best opportunities for a Snacktaku with a modern Australian touch.
We don’t talk about this often on site, so here’s a quick primer for those who don’t know. Every year, followers of the Muslim faith will spend the 9th month of the Islamic Lunar calendar fasting from dawn to dusk. Typically, those following the celebration will wake up before dawn to have a huge meal (called suhur), with another large feast among friends and/or family at the evening once the sun falls (called iftar).
The festival isn’t just about fasting, obviously: there’s also a practice of donating more heavily to charity, and the whole month is designed to instil more compassion for the poor, reiterating the value of sacrifice and the worth of self-discipline.
At the end of it all, families will hold Eid, a festival marking the end of the month. In practice, the local Eid for all to attend was a few days before the actual end of Ramadan (which continues until May 12 this year.)
But the idea is the same: bringing your friends and family together for a grand celebration with food, laughs, some music and, in typically Australian fashion, a lot of coffee.
We’ve been running Snacktaku articles for a long time, although most of those have come from our partners in the United States and tended to focus on, well, a lot of foods and weird things you’d only find in the US. And that’s totally fine! But a lot of that food is … well, pretty bad for your heart. And any other organ in your body. And when it comes to food, and food culture, Australia is remarkably fortunate. Not only do we have access to a wide range of high quality produce and high quality meat — we don’t have to import anything unless we badly want it.
Our melting pot of cultures also means Australians grow up with access and exposure to an enormous range of cuisines, something that you never fully appreciate until you travel overseas (which, sadly, we can’t do right now). There’s also the Masterchef effect: the success of the cooking reality TV show hasn’t just had a pronounced impact on Australian restaurants and fine dining, but it’s also helped expand the range of ingredients stocked and sourced at local supermarkets, grocers and influenced food trends in the country more broadly.
Of course, this year’s celebration was a muted one. The local council limited things to 12 stalls, which in practice meant you had about three or four trucks to choose from, plus offerings from the cafes, butchers and specialist pastry shops already on the street. It’s hard to complain though: many countries aren’t able to celebrate in public at all — especially an event where everyone has to take their masks off repeatedly to drink, eat, drink again, eat some more, and eat a third time.
Besides, what’s available locally is pretty good. One of my favourite things to take whenever I visit a friend’s house is to stop by the local Lebanese pastry store, which does all sorts of baklava. This store does them all too: almost every major variant of baklava is available, ranging from the walnut-heavy baku pakhlava from Azerbaijan; the rose water, pistachio and cardamom-covered Persian flavours; trays of traditional kanafeh, with or without rosewater; the Lebanese baklawa, covered in pistachio, rose water and orange blossom; and my partner’s favourite, the sticky sweet kunafa rolls with their stringy, vermicelli-like texture.
I’ve got a sweet tooth, so I opted for dessert before dinner. And while kanafeh is always available in the area, it’s usually only around this time when stores and stalls will serve it the way it should be enjoyed: warm, with (or without) a serve of rosewater. It’s best hot, because the cheese inside retains that gooey, oozy texture.
This version of kanafeh, called kunafa na’ameh, focuses on having a crunchy crust with layers of gooey cheese, accented by a healthy sprinkling of pistachios. I also asked for way too much rosewater. But it’s honestly divine, and if you don’t like sweet stuff, it’s plenty sweet without any rosewater at all thanks to the melted ghee and sugar syrup that forms the crust when baked.
For $7, this is a killer dessert. I definitely overdid it on the rosewater; it was still tasty, mind you.
The next course, then, had to be dinner. Options were pretty restricted this time around because of COVID, but there was still some tasty offerings. One included a Lebanese shawarma kebab/rice bowls/snack pack truck. Snack packs can be a thing of incredible beauty, and the Lebanese-themed ones available in the area do a remarkable job, although the traditional BBQ sauce doesn’t appear as much. Here, garlic, chilli and tomato were the way to go, although the “loaded” halloumi chips would have been killer if I hadn’t had dessert already.
Instead, I opted for something I hadn’t had before: kibda, or a traditional lamb liver burger. It didn’t seem like the hero option for the food stall — the burger was priced at $11, compared to the $16-18 for the lamb or chicken offerings. (In case you’re wondering why pork seems to be absent, remember: halal food only.)
Unfortunately, actually getting the burger was a bit of a rough ride. The stall stopped taking orders immediately after mine, and struggled to keep up with the volume. 45 minutes later, I eventually took home a small liver burger coated in garlic with a peanut chilli sauce, with the liver pieces chopped up to resemble something akin to chunks of chicken thigh or chicken breast (without the same colour, obviously).
Lamb liver, or any kind of liver, obviously isn’t like traditional meat. It doesn’t ooze or have its own juices to coat a traditional burger. And part of the shtick of the African food truck was that all the protein gets blended with the spices and the sauce, and that all gets cooked together as a whole. But the rush they were under obviously did a bit of damage to the presentation.
But with a few bits of paper towel, I was pretty happy for my $11. The liver wasn’t gamey at all, and the peanut chilli sauce only kicked up slightly on the back end. The bits of liver were nicely chewy, almost like you were munching on bits of chicken that’d been fried on the grill. It’s a pleasant texture with an earthiness that worked really well with the garlic and peanut flavour.
Was it the best burger I could have bought that night? Well, not even close. The street where the festival is held is famous for another burger joint down the road, one that does an incredible short rib burger on the bone which is legitimately one of the best burgers NSW has to offer. Their stock black fried chicken burger is also great if you like a bit of spice, and only a few dollars more than the liver offering above (but with vastly better structure.)
Still, it was all good fun just to see everyone out on the street again. You don’t realise how much you miss gatherings like this until they’re gone. That cultural touchstone that Australia provides is especially rare, and it’s one of the things this job has made especially apparent to me. This country is far from perfect, but we are far, far luckier than many others, and COVID has made that all the more clear.