The great global buffet comes to Lakemba, CNN // 12 May 2011

My latest food feature for CNNGo…
Island Dreams CafeIsland Dreams’ food is Malay-influenced and served with rainbow crackers.

As media mogul James Packer blasts the tourism industry for marketing clichés, attention is turning to Sydney’s lesser-known treasures.

The multicultural food offerings in Lakemba, in southwest Sydney, are really spicing things up.

What down-at-heel Lakemba — which is named after a group of islands in Fiji — lacks in colonial charm and overpriced Ken Done apparel, it makes up for in exotic flavours and bargain meals. This melting pot of nationalities and creeds carries an ambiance more like downtown Beirut than Bondi Beach.

The area’s modus operandi is halal to satisfy the burgeoning Muslim population.

Let’s stake out six multicultural eateries in Lakemba.

Island Dreams Café

Specialising in home-cooked meals from two of Australia’s far-flung territories — Christmas and Cocos Islands — Island Dreams Café delivers a dose of sleepy island life to the suburbs – despite there being fewer than 200 islanders in New South Wales.

The islanders’ Malay ancestors heavily influence this cuisine’s flavors and it’s hearty stuff. Typically popular dishes are ayam panggang and acar –- lemon chili chicken and cucumber and carrot pickle.

Coconut oil features throughout (palm oil is used on the islands) and the fresh chili used in the special sambal tumis cuts through the rich chicken and fish dishes, which are prepared each morning by Islander Alimah Bilda.

The fish crackers — alarmingly rainbow-colored — are also a delicacy.

Island Dreams Café, 47-49 Haldon St., Lakemba; +61 (0)2 9740 9909, Sunday-Thursday 8:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 8:30 a.m.-midnight.

Al Madina Bakery

Al Madina Bakery

Some 35 years’ experience is a tasty ingredient in Al Madina Bakery’s Lebanese pizzas.

You’d hope that after 35 years of crafting lahmacun — sometimes called Turkish pizza — Ahmad Gaber of Al Madina Bakery would know his way around a Lebanese pizza; and yes, he’s nailed it.Hundreds of these freshly baked, doughy incarnations go for less than $1. This truly democratic fare keeps everyone from tradies to the old Lebanese guard satisfied.

The meat lahmacun is authentic –- the sweet and perfumed cinnamon-edged lamb is topped with a sprinkle of chili flakes and lemon juice.

All the usual suspects are also there — from fragrant thyme za’atar to spinach and cheese in all different sizes.

A varied sample of these flavors barely breaks $5.

Al Madina Bakery, 156 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9758 2665, 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily

Warung Ita

Warung Ita

Humble, cheap and halal — just like Sumatra.

This Indonesian canteen is unpretentious, bursting with flavor and cheap as banana chips. The halal fare is served up by the humble Nazar family.Serving the typical Sumatran buffet-style food, nasi rames, the restaurant is bare and plain, leaving diners to focus on the flavours in front of them.

The chunks of meat in the deep, rich, coconut sauce of the beef rendang contrast with the eggplant and chili. The chicken curry is light and lively with hints of lemongrass.

Peanuts and crunchy anchovies are served on the side, while a homemade, smoky sambal is perky without being nasal-passage-clearingly fiery.

Warung Ita, 1/168 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9740 5527, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.

Patisserie Arja

Patisserie Arja

Sweet: znood el sitt at Patisserie Arja.

Lakemba is strewn with patisseries serving Lebanese sweets.As well as the idiosyncratic baklava, Patisserie Arja does a mean znood el sitt — or ladies’ arm –- a tube of flaky pastry stuffed with ashta (sweet Arabic-style cream) then soaked in sugar and rosewater syrups.

It won’t win awards for healthiness but the level of sweetness is fiendishly more-ish.

If this taste leaves an addictive inclination, whole platters include samples of bird’s nests, baklava, finger rolls, and a variety of pastries with date, walnut, pistachio, almond and ashta fillings.

Patisserie Arja, 129 Haldon St., Lakemba, +61 (0)2 9740 8320, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Great Wall Kitchen

Great Wall Kitchen

The food at Great Wall Kitchen looks like Chinese but is Bengali-fused.

Indian-Chinese food with a halal bent? Where else but Lakemba? The Li family is originally from China but moved to Sydney via Calcutta.At first glance the menu seems mostly Chinese, but there’s a giveaway sign on the wall that reads: “Sweet Paan available here.” This eatery’s sleepiness feels more Indian than Chinese.

Don’t expect dim sum –- dishes are only loosely based on Chinese. Chicken Manchurian is a speciality but the most popular dish is fried chili chicken –- soya heavy and fresh without any sweetness.

Great Wall Kitchen’s fan base comes from local Pakistanis and Lebanese who return for the hot and spicy food.

Great Wall Kitchen, 154 Haldon St., Lakemba; +61 (0)2 9759 9531, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 4 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday 4 p.m.-11 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m.-10 p.m., closed Tuesdays.

Banoful

Banoful

The servings at Banoful will fill you up.

Banoful is the third in a chain of lively Bangladeshi restaurants that cater for a curry-hungry Bengali and Indian locals.Flavours are enriched by ghee and the servings are huge — the undisputed heavyweight king of Bangladeshi food, kacchi biryani, comes with a borhani yogurt drink and salad. It’s one of those dishes that’s best left to master chefs: the combination of steaming rice, fragrant spices and tender goats’ meat is close to faultless.

Not for the first time, diners are left to wonder how such exotic, sultry flavours have quietly found their way to Sydney’s west. How long will the secret last?

Banoful, 49 Railway Parade, Lakemba, +61 (0)2 8084 0187, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.

Or, read over on CNNGo.
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