When Sarah Shaweesh closed her vegan cafe Khamsa in October, she didn’t have firm plans to come back. The lease on her south King Street digs in Newtown had expired, she had a baby at home she wanted to spend time with, and after five years she was ready for a break.
But the public outcry at losing the Palestinian eatery was loud. So when an opportunity for a space near St Peters station materialised, it became obvious Khamsa’s closure wasn’t meant to be. The decision to reopen has clearly paid off: on a Monday lunchtime, the new venue is chock-a-block with people sharing plates of smoky baba ganoush topped with tart pomegranate molasses; golden fried cauliflower with tahini; and crispy, vibrant green falafels.
“We’re all excited to back. There’s a fresh energy here, and it’s been amazing seeing our old customers again,” Shaweesh tells Broadsheet.
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The new venue is polished, with light timber tables and chairs and sage-green leather banquettes creating a nice contrast with the building’s industrial features. But the look isn’t the only thing that has changed. The first clue is cow’s milk as an option for the delicate, rose-water-scented Nablus coffee. Khamsa is no longer vegan.
“We wanted to keep it open and focus on being a Palestinian eatery,” she says. “Our food is naturally very vegan-friendly, and for new dishes we want to make sure there’s a vegan and a meat option.”
When Broadsheet visits, the old vegan menu is still on offer, but when the liquor licence is approved and Friday and Saturday night dinner service begins, main dishes will change weekly, and meat and fish will be introduced to the menu.
There will be classics like sayadieh – fish cooked with rice and served with a tahini-dressed tomato, onion and parsley salad; bemya, an okra stew; and makloubeh, an upside-down rice dish, that you can get with or without meat. “Makloubeh is cooked in a pot and at the end it’s flipped onto a serving platter,” she says. “Flipping it and having the dish stay together is all about getting the right ratio of stock to rice to vegetables, and not burning the rice. Normally it’s a sharing dish, but we’re going to do mini versions.”
Although there are new morsels on the menu, and the space is four times the size of its original location, Khamsa is the same family-run eatery, making food from scratch and celebrating Palestinian cuisine and culture.
“The minute you walk into a Palestinian home, there are rituals around receiving guests. You have a welcome drink, snacks, a welcome coffee. Then there’s the main meal, tea and you can’t leave without having a goodbye coffee. Hospitality is such a big part of our culture, even in hardship. I have cousins in Gaza and they say there are people cooking in the street, sharing water, dry goods, anything they can.”
Reopening Khamsa at this moment in history was important. “Palestinians live all over the world, but it’s not by choice. Because we had to leave, it makes us hold onto our culture, what we learned from our parents. I could have opened any cafe, cooking any cuisine, but I wanted a place that connected me to my upbringing and gave the wider community a place to come with friends and share.”
Shop 1/655 King Street St Peters
Mon to Fri 7am–2pm
Sat & Sun 8am–2.30pm