When Sam Dastyari championed it in federal parliament this March just gone, the halal snack pack (HSP) took a big stride in its quest for national culinary domination.
“This is a great Sydney tradition, it’s a great Sydney food,” the New South Wales senator said before his peers. “And it’s a movement that is continuing to grow.”
Dastyari went so far as to claim it could bring the warring sides of the house together, “in what can only described as a great Australian tradition of meat in a box”.
For all the senator’s grandiose words, it wasn’t long ago – mere months, in fact – that the HSP was pretty much the domain of only the most hardcore kebab shop diners.
Last week Dastyari, clearly feeling he'd backed a winner, made the news again by commissioning a record eight-metre-long HSP in Perth.
Today, it is a topic of conversation on The Footy Show and The Project, and all because of nothing more sophisticated than a Facebook group. Set up in December last year, Halal Snack Pack Appreciation Society is the work of five young Sydneysiders who waited too long on an order in Redfern.
“Food took ages,” says co-founder Luke Eagles via Facebook chat, “but they whipped us up some massive halal snack mountains so big that we couldn’t carry them with both hands.
“I just made the group to see if that was a regular thing or not.”
Next minute: boom.
Within the first week, 600 people, mostly from western Sydney, had joined the group. That sign-up rate is even higher now, with people from across the country getting on board. At last count, it had more than 140,000 members.
Being part of the group means saying goodbye to baby photos and inspirational quotes: your Facebook newsfeed becomes drowned in a flood of ever-more-elaborate memes, plus selfies and discussions all dedicated to the HSP. Certain behaviour is fiercely condemned as “haram” or “dingo” – like putting tomato sauce or mayonnaise on top.
On the Google Trends scale – which shows the relative number of searches being made – the HSP has gone from 1 to 100 since the start of 2016.
And the HSP has gone viral, jumping from the digital to the real world.
Take a walk down Smith Street in Melbourne’s inner north and every single kebab shop is advertising the snack pack in their front windows. The craze has hit the city so fast that none have yet had the chance to update their menu boards – the sign is often a hastily sticky-taped A4 paper in the window.
“Now everyone wants the halal snack pack,” says Mustafa Mohammed, who runs Smith Kebabs (and starred in SBS’s Kebab Kings series).
An Aussie original
To break it down for first-timers: the HSP is simply layers of hot chips, kebab meat (chicken and/or lamb) and cheese, covered in sauce. Most sauces are okay, although three together – particularly garlic, chilli and barbeque in a perfect criss-cross – is considered the Holy Trinity.
“It’s like taking all the healthy parts of a kebab and throwing them away,” says Deshan Ranchhod, the 21-year-old student and web developer behind the Get Me HSP app (which locates your nearest kebab shop), “then serving that in a styrofoam container.”
The “H” in HSP is pretty redundant when you think about it – as kebab shops are almost universally halal. The expanded name has stuck anyway, particularly with those who have come on board via the Facebook group.
It’s a combination that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. In fact, the HSP may be one of this country’s original fusion foods.
“I would say it’s an Australian dish,” one Sydney kebab-shop owner recently told SBS. “Cheese isn’t used in Turkish dishes with chips and meat. Ultimately it’s a multicultural dish.”
Ranchhod, of Get Me HSP, says, “HSPs have always been lurking on the menu of your favourite kebab shop, usually under a different name. But the craze has unified and brought it to the forefront of most shops now.”
On Smith Street, Mustafa Mohammed agrees. “We used it call it the Aussie snack pack.”
Just who put these ingredients together, in this uniquely Australian way, remains a mystery. But we do have some idea of its origin.
Ufuk Bozoglu of Redfern’s Oz Turks Jr says HSPs have been around for more than 30 years, meaning they became a thing sometime before 1986.
A budding historian from the Halal Snack Pack Appreciation Society group also recently noted that Australia’s first kebab shops didn’t open until the late sixties. They followed the arrival of immigrants from the Turkish mainland, who, according to the Australian Turkish Advocacy Alliance, began arriving in 1968.
Senator Dastyari calls HSPs a “Sydney tradition”, and given the suburb of Auburn, south-east of Parramatta, is the epicentre of the city’s Turkish community, it’s probably a safe bet to say the HSP was first served up somewhere on Auburn Road in the early seventies.
Trend or fad?
The funny thing about the HSP is it breaks all the rules of a viral food phenomenon. Firstly, there’s no brand, publicity machine or celebrity chef driving it. Secondly, unlike avocado roses and freakshakes – you cannot take a good photo of this thing. The saucy, meaty mess oozes, smears and glistens in all the wrong ways.
But while the halal snack pack has shot through the stratosphere against all odds in recent months, its popularity may not last.
“Some years ago, the cronut came into existence in the US, and I was interviewed about it by an American journalist,” says trend-forecaster Henrik Vejlgaard. “She called the cronut a trend, but it seems to me that it was a fad.”
It’s not a semantic difference, but one of longevity and market penetration. Everyone gets on board with a trend, even it takes them many years to do so. Think about the uptake of the mobile phone.
But a fad will blow over before your grandma has had time to check it out. “A fad will probably last six to 18 months, which is not a very long time, and typically the interest in the products stops as quickly as it came about. A fad can also be very local, for instance, at a school or a specific community,” says Vejlgaard.
The Dane has authored books Style Eruptions and Anatomy of a Trend, in which he outlines the lengths one Californian company went to make cranberries the “it” food back in the nineties. (Spoiler: a lot of journalists were given a lot of free meals.)
His work builds on that of American sociologist Everett M Rogers, who showed how the spread of all trends follows a similar pattern: innovators are followed by early adopters, before the mainstream takes hold and eventually even the reluctant fall into line.
One of their key findings is that the cheaper and more visible an item, the more quickly it can trend (or at least become a fad). So snacks are ripe for going boom – as the Nutella doughnut did last year.
One wholesaler in Melbourne’s northern suburbs was selling 27,000 kilograms of Nutella per week in July 2015 – a ten-fold increase on sales from just a couple of months earlier.
All of a sudden, Nutella was in everything – smoothies, toasties, even böreks. Some cafes moved to bigger premises just to keep up with demands for their Nutella goods.
And it all started with nothing more than a few posts on Facebook.
In general, however, Vejlgaard has found people are generally conservative when it comes to changing what they eat over the long term.
“Only time will tell if something is a trend, because a trend process would take several years.
“Unless consumption suddenly fades. Then it was a fad.”
If that’s the case, peak-HSP may be just around the corner.