When Sarah Shaweesh was a child growing up in Jordan, family gatherings over a meal were a daily occurrence.
“I come from a big Palestinian family and most of us lived in one apartment block. Every day, family members that didn’t live in the building would visit. Around 40 people came in and out over the day and there was always a meal to be had,” she tells Broadsheet.
Her aunty Hajjar was in charge of the cooking. “She’s like a machine. She always makes food in big batches and she’s very creative; she never makes the same thing in one week. She and one of my other aunties, they live together, two sisters. Aunty Wijdan helps in the kitchen and Aunty Hajjar is like the head chef.”
Shaweesh brings this Palestinian tradition of feasting to her vegan Newtown cafe, Khamsa, which opened in 2019. And whether you come in a group, a pair, or alone, the spread is incredible.
The all-day menu includes plates of crunchy, compact falafels packed with green herbs; tangy fried potatoes piled with minced garlic; pots of hummus and baba ganoush; slow-cooked eggplant on maftoul (pearl couscous); and a three-mushroom “shawarma” with sumac onions and tahini. There’s a cabinet with vegan knafeh (a sweet, shredded-filo pastry usually made with cheese) and fluffy cardamom-and-cinnamon pastries. Classic brunch dishes, such as smashed avo, get a Middle Eastern spin with za’atar and pomegranate. Shaweesh says the cuisine lends itself well to veganism.
“Our food has a lot of vegetable-based dishes. The meat is often something they add at the end, rather than include at the start of cooking,” she says. “I don’t think there’s been a single dish I haven’t been able to veganise.”
On Friday and Saturday nights, when Khamsa is open for dinner, the menu expands with more substantial mains. There are warming dishes such as bamiya, an okra stew based on Shaweesh’s grandmother’s recipe; shush barak, Palestinian dumplings in a warm yoghurt sauce; and eggplant bolognaise with garlic-tahini cream. The dishes are flavourful, packed with traditional sauces and spice mixes, and many are ideal for sharing.
The beverage menu is extensive, with a range of fresh juices; smoothies; Mailer McGuire kombuchas; coffees (the Nablus comes with rosewater, oat milk and maple syrup); teas (including the delicately sweet maramiyeh, or sage); and “elixir” lattes (the turmeric-based Golden Nights is smooth and creamy thanks to fresh root rather than powder).
“Everything at the cafe is made by us except the breads,” says Shaweesh. “The cakes, the dips, all the dishes are made from scratch using locally sourced produce.”
Khamsa’s inviting, modern space has louvered glass doors that open onto the southern end of King Street, which has become something of an unofficial vegan hub. Nearby Comeco makes vegan, gluten-free doughnuts and sushi; Neko Neko does vegan ramen; and Lentil as Anything has a pay-what-you-can model and offers an assortment of vegan pastas and curries. Khamsa is in good company.
For Shaweesh, the cafe isn’t just about good food and Palestinian hospitality. It’s a platform to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians.
“My family was displaced from Palestine,” she says, “I’m proud of my upbringing and my culture. This cafe is a way for me to reclaim Palestinian food and to raise awareness about the situation in Palestine.”
Shop 3/612–622 King Street, Erskineville
Mon to Thu, Sun 8am–3pm
Fri & Sat 8am–9pm