Changing food landscape in Sydney’s western melting pot celebrated in new series

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When actor and writer Arka Das was growing up in Western Sydney, there was not a Bangladeshi restaurant in sight.

Instead, cooking was something that was shared and celebrated at home.

“My mom didn’t have all the ingredients to do the things she wanted to do, because they just didn’t exist. But now you can get anything,” he said.

At the time, people also didn’t know much about the country where Das was born and lived until he was six years old.

“I remember in primary school in the 90s, I was telling people I was from Bangladesh, and they were like, ‘Is this a city in India?'”

Jhalmuri is a popular street food in Bangladesh, but can now be found in Lakemba.(Provided: 8 nights west)

But there has been a significant shift in the food and culture scene over the past decade, and a Bangladeshi center has blossomed in the suburb of Lakemba, Das says.

In the short food documentary series 8 Nights Out West, Das explores the changing food landscape of Sydney’s western suburbs.

A spread of Lebanese food.
A variety of Lebanese dishes are enjoyed in the suburb of Guildford.(Provided: 8 nights west)

The warm-hearted project was born from the collaboration with writers and actors from different backgrounds on the feature film Here Out West, who join it in separate episodes.

The series taps into his passion for food and serves Chilean barbecue in the garden, Burmese fare in Blacktown, Vietnamese fare in Canley Heights, Filipino smoky grill in Rooty Hill, and Indian spread in Harris Park, known as of Little India among the locals.

A card with pop-up images of different cuisines.
The series explores different cuisines scattered across Western Sydney.(ABC News: Jarrod Fankhauser Graphic)

“I wanted to capture the change that’s happening in western Sydney and the growth that’s happening there – just to capture the spirit of it,” he told the ABC.

The sprouting of new cultural centers isn’t just about food — there are bookstores, community events and even a thriving cricket competition, Das says.

“It’s really encouraging to see the community helping each other.”

Two men walking and smiling
Actors Arka Das and Rahel Rohman explore a Bangladeshi gang.(Provided: 8 nights west)

The community thrives around home cooking

But not all cultures have a center they can mark on the map, and community is always encouraged in the home at a party.

This is the case of the Kurdish population of Australia, which is a stateless people spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

A photo of Turkish Kurdish tea and apricots and sunflower seeds
Kurdish snacks and tea are shared in backyards across Australia.(Provided: 8 nights west)

During a rich banquet held on the floor, actor Befrin Axtjärn Jackson says that means many Kurdish staples could take on a local twist, depending on where they grew.

“I think it’s also beautiful to have such a long history, that our borders move a lot,” she says in the series.

“Certain foods have been around for a long time and eventually, because of borders, we start branding our own little versions of them.

A woman in a denim jacket talking with tea and food on the table.
Writer Dee Dogan explains how Kurdish bread and meat are cooked in a domed dish called saj.(Provided: 8 nights west)

“Dolma is a perfect example of that. A Turkish dolma, even the way they roll the vine leaves is different…but it’s still a Kurdish dish.

“So it’s really rewarding… it’s also kind of sad because we’ve obviously been split into four countries.”

A photo of two women talking.
Actor Befrin Axtjärn Jackson discusses the nuances of Kurdish cuisine.(Provided: 8 nights west)

Das says one of the most surprising moments in the culinary odyssey was when Kurdish writer Dee Dogan unveiled an impressive dish called Zirvet.

It’s a Babylonian-era form of butter, yogurt and heavy peasant food unique to his village — and one the other Kurds they dined with had never seen, Das said.

Special dish
Zirvet, a traditional Kurdish dish, was one of Arka Das’ signature dishes.(Provided: 8 nights west)

He discovered that food also bridged the gap between younger and older generations – in the past, an older generation of migrants might open a restaurant, but their children would often follow another path.

“Most of the time, maybe back then, they were leaving the restaurant or not carrying on the traditions,” he said.

Vietnamese cuisine including bagettes, rice, chicken, eggs and soup.
Arka Das says that some younger generations carry on their family restaurants and modernize their traditions.(Provided: 8 nights west)

“But now we’ve actually talked to so many people on the show … who are carrying on the traditions of their parents – or a chicken shop, or a Vietnamese shop, or their Filipino restaurant – and modernizing it and adapting it. “

Violet hues and comfort food

When actress Christine Milo thinks of comfort food, she thinks of her grandmother’s sinigan with salmon – a tamarind-based stew from the Philippines.

A man cooking on a large pot with fire.
The series shows how people bond over food from different cultures.(Provided: 8 nights west)

After Das and writer Vonne Patiag treated themselves to a Filipino manicure and a halo-halo — a dessert made from mixed shaved ice — Milo met them for a meal.

Milo said no one’s cooking was as good as his grandmother’s, but it was nice to find authentic Filipino food to remind him of home.

A photo of two smiling people with food on the table in front of them.
Vonne Patiag and Christine Milo enjoy sharing Filipino food.

“It’s just very warm. And I think of home when I have it. Nobody looks like it, but the place we went to was pretty close,” she said.

Milo grew up on the Gold Coast, where his grandmother and her friends were among the first members of the Australian Filipino community.

She remembers participating in dances and cultural festivals as a child.

“I really have to thank my grandparents and my parents for keeping me in touch with my culture, because I didn’t go to the Philippines,” she said.

She said it left her with a bit of “impostor syndrome” playing Roxane, a Filipina nurse in the film Here Out West who is on duty when a baby is discharged from a hospital.

Smiling Filipina woman wearing nurse scrubs.
Christine Milo says it was a special experience to play the role of a Filipina nurse.(Provided)

The character Roxane is from the Philippines and closely linked to the culture.

“It’s a very different type of Filipino experience from Roxane – but they’re all legit, they all have value and value. So exploring that was really special.”

She said it was also significant to be a part of it due to the lack of Filipino representation in Australian film and television.

“Being able to show this to my family and see myself reflected on screen was an experience I really didn’t expect to have, to be quite honest,” she said.

baklava
Baklava, which is made from filo pastry and crushed nuts, is available in many different forms.(Provided: 8 nights west)

Like Das, she said there weren’t many Filipino restaurants to go to while she was growing up, but that has changed.

There has also been a boom in the Filipino community in Australia in recent years, with the 2016 census showing around 250,000 people with Filipino heritage, up from around 400,000 at the last census.

A slice of cake with bright purple frosting
Christine Milo says that many Filipino desserts and pastries are made with ube, a bright purple yam. (Unsplash: Efren Agan)

She said if the Filipino food scene grows and sparks interest in the culture, it could translate to greater representation on our screens, or vice versa.

“I hope it invites people to be more adventurous in what they watch, and maybe also in what they eat and share with their friends,” she said.

“Filipino cuisine has a lot to offer. It’s different, but it’s delicious.”

The abbreviated food documentary series 8 Nights Out West will air on ABC for eight nights starting Sunday, August 7.

Here Out West airs Sunday, August 14 at 8:30 p.m. on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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