Writer Nicholas Jordan demonstrates how he scoops up a soft dumpling (mantu) with his hand and shovels it neatly into his mouth. We’re in North Afghani restaurant Mazar. It’s brightly lit and mostly empty. A loop of Afghani pop videos play in the background, streamed from YouTube. Along with photographer Leigh Griffiths, we’re over-ordering some of the best Middle Eastern food I’ve tried in Sydney.
Jordan and Griffiths have been to Mazar before, in October last year for Broadsheet’s weekly series ‘Local Knowledge’. One year ago, Jordan and I came up with the idea of finding unassuming restaurants in Sydney that specialise in a single cuisine – restaurants that are worthy of appreciation beyond the communities they were founded to serve. Our aim was to create a space on Broadsheet where we could cover restaurants that aren’t new or on-trend, that don’t have well-known chefs at the helm, but that deliver a great, unique experience. We were curious about the variety of cuisines that exist in Sydney, and the many different minority communities they represent. Through creating the series, we’ve learnt how significant these restaurants are for these communities. They maintain a connection to culture. For the people who run them, they are more than a business. This is perhaps most evident in the amount of crying Jordan and Griffiths have witnessed.
“Abdul Moeen told us a story about when he opened [Mazar],” says Jordan. "An older man came in and was eating a rice dish, and he started crying. Abdul asked him what was wrong and he said, ‘I haven’t eaten this food in 25 years, it’s my home food’.” Tears have come from the chefs, too. “Maria, from Filicudi cried. She told us about coming to Sydney and working at a restaurant, leaving her family back home [in Sardinia]. She described how hard she’s worked – starting in the kitchen, then as a manager and finally as owner. She broke down – she was really happy and gave us a hug. It was beautiful.”
It’s not always easy to find these places. Jordan often gets in touch with community organisations or universities for recommendations and to find a “fixer” to set the visit up, and sometimes to accompany him. “That's the thing that gets left out of ‘Local Knowledge’ – all the people who help put it together. For almost every story we've done, there's been someone behind it,” says Jordan.
“Often the chef doesn’t speak English and our community contact will be our interpreter. If you can imagine a situation like this,” he says, gesturing toward the spread before us, “We’ll have eight different dishes, and each one has its own city of origin or festivals it's eaten for. The chef might know a little bit of English but he might not be able to explain the dishes, or wouldn’t know why something is interesting. Someone from the Lebanese Association of NSW, for example, can say, ‘This is why we eat this, this is the history’.”
“And pick the dishes suitable to try,” Griffiths adds.
“Yes, because sometimes the chefs give us the food white people would order. At Gebran, they serve really old-school food, things that grandparents would eat that’s even going out of fashion in Lebanon now. We wanted to order it, and the owner didn’t understand why we’d be interested in sheep's head and intestines,” says Jordan.
For Jordan and Griffiths, one of the best parts of doing the series is the discovery. “There's always something on the menu we've never seen before,” Griffiths says. “That’s the most exciting thing about it. When you go somewhere and think, ‘I don’t even know what ingredient that is’,” says Jordan. The strangest thing they’ve come across? “When we went to Peranakan Place they gave us a nut buah keluak – what a weird thing – it’s got cyanide in it, they soak it for three days and put it under ash. They make a curry out of it; it's black, with the nut meat shredded. It looks a bit like olives. The flavour is really intense; bitter, savoury.”
The series is about sharing these discoveries: finding food most people in Sydney know nothing about, which in turn reminds us how diverse our population is.
Reading through the series you’ll find wonderful stories about the restaurants and what it’s like to eat at them, but it’s unlikely someone walking in off the street who’s not from the restaurant’s culture will have the same experience. Most of the restaurants featured have a secret menu, written on the back of a receipt, or perhaps not recorded anywhere, and as much as possible, we’ve provided recommendations to help get the most out of a visit.
Because the communities these restaurants belong to are often small, or the restaurant isn’t publicised, they are in danger of disappearing. Three weeks after the ‘Local Knowledge’ piece on Rim Tanon was published, the restaurant closed. It served a range of Thai food, but the owner is a Lanna Thai, and wanted to specialise in food from that northern region. But she panicked, worrying there wasn’t enough demand for it – or that people outside of the community wouldn’t like it, and shut up shop.
“There’s a whole production of new restaurants in Sydney and this hype machine building them up, but there are so many restaurants like [Rim Tanon],” says Jordan. “Once the community that sustains it grows too old or moves away – who's going to eat there? These people care so much about what they're doing.”
’Local Knowledge’ will be back next Wednesday.
The whole series can be found here.