Category Archives: Eating

“But you’re not Macedonian?” Visiting where my friends come from

As I’ve mentioned previously, growing up with friends of different backgrounds at times left me feeling on the outer. However, a stronger emotion I felt, (and continue to feel) is one of wonder & intrigue rather than isolation. Essentially, I’ve been very lucky to grow up with a mixture of cultures surrounding me. It has made me want to explore these cultures and learn more.

Back then, my Friends’ Fathers stories about swimming in the Adriatic and diving off some bridge into a cold river did not hold my interest. I didn’t know it then, but these stories, the cevapi offered from lunchboxes & sandwiches filled with Ajvar in the playground were just the beginnings of  a life of cultural & culinary intrigue for me.

Smoked Ribs and Hams used in a lot of Croatian and Macedonian meals such as Sarma (Cabbage Rolls)

Most of my friends were born in Australia, their parents had traveled here from Macedonia and Croatia to begin new lives. Although my friends weren’t actually born in these countries, they join their parents in continuing the traditions of their homelands here in Sydney.

I have been to many Macedonian & Croatian Weddings, Christenings, Name Days. I’ve eaten truck loads of food from these places & I’ve learned some Macedonian & Croatian words, (i’ve also learned quite a few more bad words too!).  I’ve danced in circles and I now understand more about the countries’ recent past, their different religions and their geography than I would by reading any text book.  It seemed only natural to visit the two nations when I was in that part of the world.

My Husband and I were warned, “be careful, they can be a bit dodgy over there” and “don’t get ripped off.” With regards to Macedonia, other people whom we did not know so well could not understand why we would want to go there if we were not Macedonian ourselves – “but everyone only goes there to visit family!”

Men chatting in Skopje’s Old Town, in much the same way they do in certain suburbs of Sydney

We had always been told that it was like going back in time, and in places, it was just like that. Macedonia had a surprising amount of Ottoman architecture and the market in Skopje felt more middle eastern than Balkan. The food was very seasonal. We wanted to try our favourite dish, Sarma, (cabbage rolls) but no restaurant we visited had them. The cabbages weren’t ready, not in season. After the initial disappointment, we realised that this was good to hear. They simply didn’t ship cabbages in, they used them when they were ready locally.

The other thing we knew about the region, (from experience with friends), was the fact that the people of the Balkans smoke a lot. This is an understatement. We have never been anywhere where we have noticed and been annoyed by people smoking as much as Macedonia. It was exceptionally cold so we were indoors, often in local joints that lacked ventilation and open windows so it was probably worse than ‘usual’ – we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt!

In the end, as is often the case, it was a happy experience that has left us with many stories to tell. Stories our Friends’ Fathers are happy to go over again and again in their suburban Sydney backyard with a shot glass of home made Rakia in hand, next to the chillies & barrels of pickled cabbages as Qantas flies loudly overhead.

Here are a few photos of our time in the region. For the Croatian leg, we traveled from Split, through Mostar (Bosnia & Hertz) and back into Dubrovnik. We entered Macedonia via Albania, first into Lake Orchid, then Bitola and finally Skopje. We averaged about $100AUD as a couple per day including all meals, private homestay-style accommodation and public transport during October.

The beautiful coastal town of Split, CROATIA

Looking over the Old Town, Split

Mostar, in between Split & Dubrovnik

View over Dubrovnik’s Old Town

St Jovan’s Church, Lake Orchid Macedonia

A Cafe in Bitola, Macedonia

Market in Skopje, Macedonia. It’s all very seasonal. We were there during red pepper season (obviously!)


Foodies in Syria & Lebanon…on a budget

We had the absolute pleasure of visiting Syria and Lebanon for a month at the beginning of a recent 9 month journey. The overwhelming friendliness of the people blew us away. We had heard their hospitality was second to none, but to experience it first hand was something else.

Much of the hospitality we experienced was, more often than not, centered around food. In fact, Middle Eastern food we had grown up eating in Sydney was the main reason we wanted to travel to this often misunderstood part of the world.

We made a pact to try as much of the food as we could. We did just that and all on a budget of approximately $70AUD/day for the two of us. This included copious amounts of food, decent ‘guesthouse’ accommodations, all transport such as buses, trains, the odd taxi & other expenses such as the all important 50 cups of chai & shishas to match!

Here are a selection of the foods we tried during our cheap but very cheerful journey:

Zaatar Pizza. Found on many-a-corner throughout Syria and Lebanon, these little gems are addictive, cheap and very yummy. Zaatar is a middle eastern spice, a combination of Thyme, Oregano, Sesame seeds and other ingredients. It’s smothered onto a fresh hot base and drizzled with olive oil. Easy to hold and munch on while you take in the sites.

Little surprise packets like this one we found in Latakia are found all over the place. Pistachios are ever-present, in savory dishes and most of the sweet ones too. A few of these little morsels only cost a dollar or so. They would have been great as gifts.

We took a little box of these with us on a trip to the coast in Latakia. The gentleman in the sweet shop told us it was similar to a carrot cake but without all of the sugar and fats. From what we could make out, it was made by stewing carrots, spices, nuts and some sort of binding agent together to produce a big block of the stuff. He sliced portions off for us and popped them into a little box. It tasted like a mix between a spiced carrot cake and a muesli bar. Delicious!

Fuul is a breakfast dish of cooked and mashed fava beans. It’s served with olive oil, often a side of fresh veges, pickles and bread. It’s not very beautiful to look at but it is delicious, healthy and very filling. At about $1 to $2 a pop, it got us through to lunchtime, free of tummy grumbles!

The gentleman holding what looks like a stiff pancake was actually making these delicious rounds out the front of the fuul shop in Lattakia. They were similar to a roti but were almost devoid of oil or grease. It served as the perfect edible spoon – just crisp a portion off and dip in!

The beautiful white balls of goodness below are portions of homemade Shankleesh drying in the sun. Shankleesh is a type of cow or sheep’s milk cheese found throughout the region. We had the privilege of being invited to stay with a family who made their own version. It was crumbly and had the consistency of fetta but with a softer taste. It was a perfect mezze dish that partnered well with most things on the family dinner table.

We often find ourselves missing out on some form of vitamin or vegetable when we travel. Green leafy vegetables were hard to come by in Egypt and beer has definitely replaced Vitamin C replenishment during lengthy stays in the UK. Syria and Lebanon has no shortage of fresh fruit and vegetable juice stalls dotted throughout the country. We kept Mum happy by being able to tell her we were having more than our fair share of fruit and veges a day, on the cheap, on the run & through a straw!

Finally, chai and a’hwa (coffee). We learnt how we liked our coffee and how to properly order it. Sweet, not so sweet, with or without cardamon. For me, the cardamon ahwa was a bit too overpowering.

Drinking chai, a’hwa and smoking a pipe is wonderful way to spend time meeting the locals, checking out the locals, viewing the locality and doing as the locals do! It was one of the less expensive ways to enjoy our time in Abu Dhabi, amongst the skyscapers and minarets.

Where to eat like this in Sydney

  • Traditional Lebanese Breakfast is sold at Hijazi’s Falafel in Arncliffe but only on weekeds. This is when you can try Fuul with a very large side of pickles, olives, veges and Lebanese bread. At $5 a pop, it really is like being back in the Mid East.
  • Cardamon Arabic Coffee can be bought in packets in areas such as Auburn, Lakemba and Punchbowl. It needs to be boiled in the traditional method. You can also order it ready made in Arabic coffee pots at Emma’s on Liberty restaurant in Enmore
  • Middle Eastern Sweets can be found in the usual places such as Greenacre,  Bankstown, Punchbowl and Lakemba. There are also places in Marrickville that sells a selection. Often, if your local corner shop is of Lebanese background, there will be a tray of Baklava for sale on the counter.
  • Zaatar Pizza. Everyone seems to have their favourite. Mine is in Lakemba, in a little bakery across from the Railway Station.  Often, what seems to be simply a bread shop run by middle eastern people will also be a Zaatar Pizza shop.
  • Chai and A’hwa can be tried at many Lebanese restaurants however the most ‘authentic’ experience we have had eating, smoking and drinking with the Lebanese community has been at Gebran Restaurant, Mount Lewis (near Bankstown)


The Charms of Eating in the East

To me, nothing beats sitting on a small plastic stool, in the sticky heat of Bangkok, amongst the traffic with a hawker meal in front of me. There is a certain feeling of being part of a city, of being a “temporary local” when you can eat amongst it rather than behind it, under or over it. As they say, eating at a street stall or market is often the closest thing to eating at a local’s family home. It really is an attractive way to eat, drink and mingle.

We have met poets in Alexandria over Sheesha and tea, joined in cheering on the local team over coffee and nuts in Dahab & we have been invited to a wedding after striking up a conversation at a streetside cafe in Morocco.

Back at home, we really have little to no chance in experiencing such culinary comradery with fellow diners. Unfortunately, if there is any intermingling to be done, it is often over copious amounts of booze.

Would it be too much to ask for a setting of plastic chairs on the sand with the Aussies paying cricket on an old television while you sip your coffee and nibble on some nuts? Sounds fantastic but we can forget it. Health and Safety would come down on the proprietor like a tonne of bricks. Someone might fall over or trip over one of the leads!

A succession of stalls every Saturday night in the summer, with plastic tables & chairs amongst the moonlight. Nope, no way. Perhaps a couple of special times a year but only subject to council approval & at a hefty cost to the stallholder.

Even in Europe, you can leave the house at 10pm and have no trouble finding somewhere to have a coffee with some friends. Unfortunately, come summer in Sydney, it seems beer is the only beverage you can get your hands on post-10pm.

Granted, there are some nice places in Australia you can eat and drink outside, amongst the city lights or the light of the moon. However, the mid and far east seem to have it down pat. It doesn’t cost much, it doesn’t always include boozing up and it is safe.

Some excellent places in the east and mid east we have experienced ‘rustic’ outdoor dining:

* Southeast Asia (we particularly love Bangkok, Ipoh & Penang at night)
* Alexandria, Egypt
* Syria in the summer time particularly along the coast

In short, give me a set of plastic chopsticks and a sand castle bucket of ice over Royal Doulton any day!

Eating in KL

Noodles in Ipoh, Malaysia