Portrait

Home cooking in Sydney’s diverse communities, with Food Safari Earth’s Maeve O’Meara.

By Sarah Price.

‘Food Safari Earth’ host Maeve O’Meara

Maeve O’Meara slips from a taxi on Sydney’s Oxford Street. Greeting people outside Fred’s, where old-world food is cooked from scratch and the restaurant is run by a team of young women, Maeve is warm and effervescent. Her smile is elastic, instant.

Inside is the strong smell of coffee. Behind the horseshoe bar, dimly lit under the dark wooden beams and exposed utilities overhead, a barista is at work. Small paintings of dogs adorn the walls. Maeve moves through the crowd, addressing her guests. For this, a celebration tour of her new SBS series Food Safari Earth, Maeve says she is taking people on a journey of their tastebuds, and honouring everything that grows. To begin, corn and guava cake is served. Head chef Danielle Alvarez has baked the cake in banana leaves, inspired by a recipe from her Cuban heritage. “More and more people are coming to Australia from different backgrounds, particularly South America and African nations,” Maeve says. “We are an ever-changing landscape. Australia is unique in the world: no other place has our mix of cuisines.”

For breakfast we travel to Granville. Greeting the bus outside their weatherboard home is Adal and George, immigrants who arrived from Syria in 1972. Straightaway on arrival at their new home they planted a garden: herbs, fruit trees, vegetables. The house and garden, now swamped by blocks of flats, has been their home for more than 40 years, and, “they are never leaving”. Standing in the backyard next to a line of clothes wire that runs the entire length, Maeve throws her arms in the air. “Here we are in the heartland,” she says. “We’ve left the white bread suburbs now – I love it out here because it is real.” Around her, the garden is teeming with cucumbers and mint, different varieties of beans, tomatoes and potatoes, fig trees, lemon and orange trees, parsley and herbs. Wild thyme is drying on a rack beside the shed. “There are vegetables and herbs in this garden,” Maeve tells the group, “that you won’t see in the markets – yet.”

In the Arab world, we are told, there are breakfast pizzas. On a cement slab with a tin roof overhead, Adal sits on a stool and kneads the dough that she began preparing at 3am. A tarp hangs beside her, blocking the sun. George sits nearby on a milk crate, in front of an old Bega oven retrieved from a neighbouring home that was earmarked for demolition. After George cooks the dough, Adal spreads her za’atar made from wild thyme, sumac and toasted sesame seeds over the surface of each base. Garden tomatoes and cucumbers are added, before the pizzas are folded and served, along with cinnamon tea and Adal’s own hummus and breads. Standing beside the outdoor dining table with George and Adal’s adult children, Maeve tells the group that what we are experiencing is the “gold” of family life. The essence of a good life, she says, is to sit and eat with your family, surrounded by the garden you have tended to and grown.

Enmore is the next stop. From its exterior Stanbuli looks like a 1960s hairdresser, complete with original lolly-pink signage advertising the Marie-Louise Salon. Inside is a romantic Turkish restaurant with geometric floor tiles, a gently curved bar and bentwood stools. Owner and chef Ibrahim Kasif serves wines from Gallipoli and a creamy dish of baby broad beans braised in lemon and olive oil. It is this place, Maeve says, where she often “washes up at” with her partner, just to sit at the bar and drink and eat.

Since starting cooking classes at age nine, “that interest has been the thread of my life”, Maeve explains.

She loved baking with her grandmother and, even now, “the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg puts me back in her kitchen”. With an early sense of adventure that wound its way around food, she began to travel and explore the world. “Food was a big part of that. It is the entree into people’s homes that you don’t otherwise have. I’ve eaten under camel-hair tents in the northern Sahara and family homes in India.”

Maeve believes an appreciation of a culture can begin with food. Her work has taken her “around the world in Australian suburbs, meeting people from different backgrounds who find the spices and create the flavours, and are open enough to allow us in. For the message about cultural diversity to be easily received it has to be through something as disarming and wonderful as flavour: that is how you get a sense of culture. Language barriers can break down around food. Sometimes you don’t need a lot of language to capture a great recipe. Some of my favourite shots are of hands, particularly older hands, surely doing something that they have done over and over.” When people make recipes, she says, they connect with where they are from.

For a late lunch we go to Alpha Restaurant in Castlereagh Street, where the open space is framed by whitewashed walls and sandstone engraved with letters of the Greek alphabet. Executive chef Peter Conistis joins us at the table to sample traditional and contemporary cuisine: yellowfin tuna with black cherries and sesame leaf dolmades, smoked eggplant, twice-cooked octopus with cherry tomatoes and marjoram, tzatziki and hummus, barrel-aged fetta with chilli and roasted garlic.

In Greece, things that were once foraged from the earth out of necessity became signature dishes, Peter explains. There is great joy in finding things that are in season, then making something delicious. “A lot of the stuff I learnt about Greek cuisine was through my mum or through aunties. Regardless of what everyone says, yes, there are great chefs all around the world, but the best cooks are the mums. What you can learn in one day from a mum who is obsessed with cooking you couldn’t learn in years in a restaurant.” Working with his mum, he says, was his apprenticeship. Through her he was taught the basis of traditional Greek cuisine.

It is Australia’s fantastic absorption of people from so many different cultures that makes it unique, Maeve says. “You can eat a different cuisine for lunch and dinner over many months. You can’t do that at any other place on earth. We’ve got top chefs, but we also have people in the suburbs in their kitchens.” Wider Australia doesn’t want a dumbed-down version of food, she says, it wants authentic cuisine. “That authenticity starts in the backyard, in the home kitchen. It’s hard now to imagine Australia without the wealth of cuisines. It is a great time to be alive with tastebuds.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 14, 2017 as "Fare to remember". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is writer-in-residence at the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney.

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