West by Southeast: Finding common ground through a Syrian-Filipino food popup

Guest Blog by Happy Feraren

Two weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a dinner table full of strangers. To my right was a Filipina-Australian woman who founded a start-up that focuses on elevating refugee-owned businesses. To my left, a French chef who works in a tech company. In front of me, a Vietnamese researcher working in disaster response and her friend of Korean descent who just finished her International Relations degree with a minor in Japanese language and culture.

What brought us together that evening was a Syrian-Filipino food pop-up inside Sydney Cebu Lechon in Enmore Road (Newtown). I found out about the event when the founder, Marjorie (also seated to my right), sent me a message on Instagram saying she listened to the FBI Radio “Race Matters” podcast where I was interviewed last May.

It was a delightful centre of a Venn Diagram that 20+ people found their way into on a Tuesday evening. A moment in time where I felt what it truly meant to be living in a multicultural city.

The meal started with a sound of a bell ringing to gather our attention for the spoken preamble of the food in front of us. Will Mahusay (Sydney Cebu Lechon) and Racha Abou Alchamat (Racha’s Syrian Kitchen) were the two chefs in collaboration. As Chef Will explained the process of preparing his entrée Tortang Talong (eggplant omelette), he shared with us their realisation in the kitchen: According to Will, Racha mentioned that the process was similar to the preparation of baba ganoush. For both cuisines, eggplant was a fixture. With this shared discovery, our meal had officially begun.

The eggplant connection – Entrée: Tortang Talong with monggo hummus + Vegetarian Kibbeh and eggplant salad

The smoky eggplant omelette is a familiar taste to most Filipinos. Tortang Talong doesn’t look like your regular omelette, it puts the egg in eggplant, literally. The omelette mixture is poured over the eggplant that’s grilled and butterflied and then fried. The result is a bold savoury and bitter flavour. As classic comfort food in the Philippines, this dish is usually accompanied with a sweet and tangy banana ketchup. For this event, however, Chef Will brilliantly paired it with his mung bean hummus – an excellent touch that rounded off the omelette flavours nicely.

The Syrian appetisers prepared by Chef Racha were a good counterpoint to the Filipino dish – it was that sour and tangy hit I was looking for after cleaning out the leftover hummus (couldn’t let that go to waste, too good!). She prepared a vegetarian kibbeh. Kibbeh is traditionally made with mince lamb but for this event, she prepared a meatless version using red capsicum and bulgur (wheat). It was served on a crispy shell and topped with crunchy onions. The intricate combination of textures and flavours made it my instant favourite that night. It came with an eggplant salad mixed with pomegranate molasses, tahini, and lemon sauce. This layered and thoughtful dish gave every bite a new flavour to notice.

A meaty mix – Mains: Kabab Karaz + Lechon lamb shawarma

We were then served meatballs on flatbread with a sour cherry sauce – a dish that originates from Aleppo where dark sour cherries grow in the outskirts. The vibrant magenta colour looked very appetising and the sensation of sour on savoury did not disappoint. The flat bread was a good way to absorb the sauce and savour the flavour.
Then came the lechon lamb shawarma. Sliced pieces of lamb cooked with the same spices you would usually stuff the roast suckling pig with like lemongrass and green onions. The lamb was then topped with middle eastern garnish like parsley, tomato and onion. It was served in tandem with Syrian rice – long grains and crushed noodles. The combination of meat and rice was, for me, very Filipino. But with each spoonful, there were elements of Syrian cuisine that made this all-too-familiar experience more exciting.

Dessert: Ube ice cream + Halawet al-Jibn

The final course was a perfect match, one can never go wrong with any iteration of the ube and cheese tandem. For me, this was a well chosen ending to a night that was already full of delight. If anyone needed any more proof that Syrian and Filipino food go well together, this was it. The ube ice cream experience was elevated to a new level when paired with Halawet al-Jibn. The sweet cheese is stretched and rolled with fragrant petals and pistachios. The complexity of flavour is made comfortable with the soft chewy texture. The ube ice cream complements this flavour perfectly. I cut a small piece of the cheese roll and combined it with the ice cream on my spoon to get the best of both worlds. It made sense to eat it together and enjoy the layers of sweetness, fragrance and nutty flavours all at once.

As I was trying to figure out how to get more dessert, the dinner was coming to a close. I was not ready to call it a night just yet so I moved to the next table where an acquaintance of mine was seated. I had met her previously in a small house party I hosted and found out that we were now living in the same suburb. We decided to make our way home together and she told me about the community garden nearby that had a calamansi tree. We arranged to meet again so we could harvest the calamansi together. Now, I was ready to end my day.

On that Tuesday evening, I felt the depth of food’s power to connect. How easily it is able to find common ground and bring people together. In a 3 course meal, I found an interesting intersection of cultures, ideas, and people that shared a world view centred on diversity.

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