Mohammed Saker says not many people his age (24) like hard work. For him there is no other option, he’s a pastry chef and that’s how he was brought up. He’s spent most of his life in Al Afrah, a Lebanese sweet shop his parents opened in Punchbowl in 1982, after fleeing Lebanon’s civil war.
Back then the shop was half the size. Saker’s family was living upstairs, and Al Afrah was one of a few Lebanese sweet shops in Sydney (Abla’s Pastries was another). “It was very different then. There was a fish market there,” says Saker pointing to a strip of Punchbowl shops.
Saker has been making sweets since he was 16, coming into the kitchen just after the passing of his father, Adbul Salem. He was a master pastry chef who, before arriving in Australia, was making Lebanese pastries for a famous 135-year-old Tripoli sweet shop called Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons. “My father went through a lot, mostly for us kids. He was here until midnight while my mum was coming up and down the stairs to serve people.” Saker and his brother still make the pastries (although he admits they no longer do their own filo pastry) the same way their dad learnt in Tripoli.
These days the sweet shop is quite a marvel, with more varieties of Lebanese cakes than Saker can accurately count. There’s pistachio-dusted baklawa; semolina cakes; sweet cheese dumplings; cream-stuffed Turkish delight; and date-filled shortbread biscuits, all delicately arranged in spectacular abundance.
The range gets bigger during religious holidays (both Christian and Islamic) but the most loved sweet is Al Afra’s znood. You won’t see these in the display case, they’re deep-fried to order. Their outer layer is hot, crisp and dripping with syrup and inside the pastry there’s ashtar, a Lebanese-style clotted cream that Saker laboriously makes by hand. Not far behind in popularity is the baklawa; the kanafeh, a sweet cheesecake infused with rose water and orange blossom; and the mamoul, little dome-shaped shortbread biscuits filled with walnuts or mashed dates.
“A lot of people told my brother and I to franchise, but we just want to stay here. It's enough for us. We have everything here; food, family, what's the use of going bigger and bigger?”
751 Punchbowl Road, Punchbowl
(02) 9708 2774
Mon to Sun 9am–10pm
Price: Priced per weigh. Around $1 each
Local Knowledge is a weekly Broadsheet series shining a light on the unassuming, authentic Sydney restaurants that are worthy of appreciation beyond the neighbourhoods they serve. See the rest of the series here.