The sun was just slipping beneath the horizon when I arrived at the IQRO mosque in Wiley Park, western Sydney. Despite a few grey clouds hovering in the distance it promised to be a fine evening with just a hint of autumn chill in the air.
I’d been invited to join Yunie Nurhayati Rahmat, her husband Yuwana and their 3 year old son Fatih for Iftar, the evening meal after sunset which concludes daily fasting during the month of Ramadan. Also spelled Ramazan, Ramzan or Ramathan, Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar observed worldwide by Muslims as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community.
I was welcomed with big smiles by Nur Hasrat Thamrin and her husband Isniarto (Narto), one of the founders of the IQRO Foundation in 2000. They purchased the house in Wiley Park in 2006 and repurposed it as a mosque.
Originally from Sumatra, they have lived in Australia for 30 years. They offered me a tasting plate of dates and kuih lapis, a traditional steamed dessert prepared as a layered cake consisting of rice flour, tapioca flour, water, sugar, coconut milk, pandan leaves, and red, green, or pink food colouring. It looked to me like a rainbow.
“We must eat dates first,” Hasrat said. “And then some sweet dishes before we pray.”
She told me that around 50 families attend the mosque and that most of the members are permanent residents in Australia. When you consider that Islam is the largest religion in Indonesia where the population is close to 279 million, and that 85% identify as Muslim, you realise the importance of a community mosque in the Indonesia diaspora.
“In Indonesia we do things together and try to help each other,” Hasrat said. “We call it gotong royong. We are very happy during Ramadan because the rewards for good deeds are multiplied. Ramadan is the month of purification of the heart, body and soul and the time for us to get closer to Allah (God).
“Fasting clears our minds and helps us understand how people who are hungry feel.”
Yunie is from Bandung in western Java and is a PhD student in the Geography Department at Sydney University studying coastal livelihoods. She has lived in Sydney for the past two years and is new to the mosque.
“I feel homesick at this time of year,” she told me.
One of her favourite dishes to break the fast is Kolak Bubur, a sweet soupy dish made with coconut milk, palm sugar, and scented with pandan leaves. Popular ingredients in kolak are banana, cassava, sweet potato, pumpkin, jackfruit, and sago (tapioca pearls). Widely consumed throughout the year in Indonesia, it’s especially popular during Ramadan.
“I made it at home yesterday though I prefer to buy it,” said Yunie. “It takes a long time if you make it with cassava.”
Trestle tables laden with food had been set up between the front mosque near the wudu (ablution area where face, hands and feet are washed before praying), and the women’s mosque at the back.
At 5.45pm, the adults removed their shoes and disappeared inside for 15 minutes for prayers, the men to the front mosque, the women to the back mosque. Children darted about outside, helping themselves to various items including tiny cupcakes and Krispy Kreme donuts.
When the adults returned, it was time to eat the more substantial food offerings which included gorengan, deep-fried fritters comprising various ingredients such as vegetables, tempeh and shrimp; pastel, small fried pastries filled with meat and vegetables, similar to Cornish pasties; karedok (raw vegetable salad comprising snake beans, cabbage, cucumber, bean sprouts served with peanut sauce); fried chicken pieces; steamed rice and sayur asam (sour vegetable soup).
“Tonight the food is from West Java,” Yunie explained. “We eat lots of raw vegetables and steamed or grilled protein such as chicken, beef or fish. Last Saturday most of the food was from East Java.”
For dessert, Hasrat insisted I try the Kolak Biji Salak, comprised of sweet potato balls with a pleasant chewy texture floating in palm sugar syrup laced with creamy coconut milk. It was delicious and very more-ish.
At 7.30pm after the main meal, the adults returned to their respective mosques for Taraweh, a longer session of special prayers which finish around 8.30pm.
It was time for me to bid farewell to my generous hosts and check out the Ramadan Nights festival in Haldon Street, the main street of Lakemba, a 20 minute walk from the IQRO mosque. Hasrat told me she intended to go there after prayers and recommended the knafeh and murtabak street stalls.
I was thrilled to hear the festival was back after 2 years of cancellations due to Covid and that they’re open for the entire month of April from dusk to dawn.
I’d visited the festival a few years ago and had been astonished by the eclectic mix of foods from countries as diverse as Syria, Jordan Egypt, Lebanon, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Palestine and Malaysia.
There was a real hum in the air when I arrived with throngs of people walking around snacking on potato tornadoes and corn on the cob. Many stood waiting patiently in long snakelike queues to buy food from the street stalls. One of the longest queues was for Ramadan Camels, famous for its camel burgers.
“My uncle Yassr Elyatim and his friend Abdulqader Obeid started a stall here selling hot dogs 17 years ago,” Mohammad Aljrav tells me. “There was no street festival then.
“It took off around 2008 when they started selling camel burgers and people came from far and wide to try them.”
When I turned around I noticed a bit of street theatre across the road. A bearded man was busy pulling a wedge of knafeh up in the air, grinning as he pulled the stretched cheese threads longer and longer.
“Yummy! yummy!” I hear a group of kids yell on the corner of Gillies Street. I wind my way further up the street through long queues for chicken fajitas
and colourful kebabs at the Deccan Flavours stand – highly recommended is the goat biryani available from the restaurant inside as take-away.
Lakemba was the first Sydney suburb to celebrate Ramadan out on the streets, thanks to the entrepreneurship of Yassr Elyatim and Abdulqader Obeid. Auburn has followed suit but only for one Saturday night (April 23rd) when a large array of food trucks line the main street.
Not to be outdone, Liverpool City Council threw its own spectacular festival this year.
“I like the Liverpool festival better than Lakemba” Yunie told me. “It’s more comfortable. There are plenty of tables and chairs. It’s also more interesting in terms of decoration – good ambience and more vibrant.
“There is Arabic music which made me feel like I’m at an Arabic food festival which I like, and there’s a kids playing area and water fountains for kids to play in. But there were fewer food stalls than at Lakemba so the queues were really long.”
She especially enjoyed the Knafeh Jerusalem Street Food show thrown by a group of bearded bakers in white t-shirts dancing to lively music.
Come dawn on Monday May 2nd, the Lakemba and Liverpool festivals will wind up for another year. They offer a taste of diverse cultures and an opportunity to get to know them better.