How a barbecue stand in Lakemba turned into Sydney’s biggest street food festival (2023)

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By Natassia Chrysanthos

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When Yassr Elyatim started flipping burgers on the side of Lakemba’s main street during Ramadan more than 10 years ago, it was to test out a business idea with his brother-in-law and good friend.

He had always worked with food - at McDonald’s, Burger King and cafes - so this would be a way to make some extra money while offering his Muslim community somewhere new to come together as they broke their fast during the evening.

They set up a small barbecue stand on Haldon Street all month and did the same the next year. Then a casual remark set off a new trajectory.

How a barbecue stand in Lakemba turned into Sydney’s biggest street food festival (1)

“Someone came along and told me: ‘Listen, there’s a big problem in the Simpson Desert with the camels, they’re starting to muster them and use them as meat’,” Mr Elyatim said. “I said to them: ‘I think that will work well’. From the very first burger, it’s kicked off from there.”

Word of these camel burgers spread, dozens of market stalls followed suit with their own offerings, and after a few years the council stepped in to make the event safer by closing roads on the weekends, providing rubbish collection and traffic control.

A decade later, the Ramadan Nights market organised by Canterbury-Bankstown Council is arguably the city’s biggest annual multicultural event and street food festival.

For 30 straight nights, Haldon Street in Lakemba resembles an Asian or Middle Eastern bazaar more than a typical Sydney high street. It’s at its busiest from about 8.30pm onwards and attracts crowds of up to 30,000 on weekends when the street is officially closed, but crowds spill onto the street even on weeknights. The council organises a shuttle service to transport people in surrounding suburbs until 2am, and most of the road’s retailers take advantage of foot traffic to stay open later.

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Its Arabic origins have evolved into a multicultural affair: there are food stalls from Middle-Eastern cuisines but also south-east Asia, the Indian subcontinent and parts of Africa. The Uniting Church on Haldon Street serves tea on its front lawn all night and welcomes anyone to sit, eat and talk together.

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More than 70 per cent of Haldon Street’s visitors during Ramadan now come from outside the local government area, and they skew towards a younger demographic: almost three-quarters are under 44 years old, according to council data.

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Mr Elyatim works as a boxing coach most of the time - “after 30 days, you don’t want to look at a barbecue again,” he said - but the annual burger stall has become an icon of Sydney’s Ramadan festivities. Queues form down the block and about 70 per cent of the 2000 burgers they flip each night are of the camel variety.

“We get people from Dubai asking us for camel patties. It’s become a little of mascot of Ramadan when it comes to Haldon Street,” he said. “It’s a highly populated area with Muslims, [but] the last few years has been a variety of cultures coming in. It’s a multicultural event, it’s beautiful. Every culture has their thing. For us, this is Ramadan, our holy month.”

This year will be the first proper iteration of the street market since 2019, when more than 250,000 people attended. After two years of COVID-related closures, where Sydney’s west endured some of the toughest lockdown restrictions in the country, the council is anticipating at least twice that number to visit this month.

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“I think everyone’s just happy to be out. The last two years we haven’t really celebrated Ramadan properly, we weren’t allowed to pray in the mosque. So for everyone to combine and congregate again is absolutely amazing,” Mr Elyatim said.

Canterbury-Bankstown Council deputy mayor Bilal El-Hayek said this year’s event was the biggest he’d seen. “I don’t know if it’s because of COVID, and people miss these events, but this is huge, to have something like this on a Monday, Tuesday night. The plan is to just keep expanding,” he said.

Next year, the plan is to string fairy lights across the road and down the street, and Mr El-Hayek also wants to see parking lanes removed on weeknights to give pedestrians extra space to walk. The council already invests about $770,000 in the event: almost a third of that goes towards traffic management, while safety management and staffing are the second-biggest costs.

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The payoff is in the thousands of visitors that offer a huge boost to local commerce; the council estimates more than $5 million will be invested in the local economy. “Businesses have struggled for the last two years and to be back is absolutely phenomenal,” Mr El-Hayek said.

But he said the value of the festival was not “measured in dollar terms but what it brings to our city”. “It unites people from all religious beliefs and from across, not only [Sydney], but from interstate and overseas. We see families flying in to stay with their relatives, just to join in the month-long celebrations,” he said.

The Ahsan family, who live in Stanhope Gardens, have visited on a few nights each Ramadan since 2018. They travel from home in Sydney’s north-west and try different food each time. “It’s rare to get this kind of atmosphere in Sydney,” said Adib Ahsan, 24.

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It’s also the closest they can get to reliving the buzz of night-time bazaars or food markets in different parts of Asia, including in Bangladesh where the parents grew up. “Night time here is nothing, everything closes at 5pm,” said Farhana, 47. “It’s really nice to see so many people out and about - we don’t have this all the time.”

Mr El-Hayek said the Turkish coffee on offer was “just as good as any souk in the middle-east”. “We travel the world to [experience] different cultures and have this buzz. You can come to Lakemba to experience that,” he said.

“The atmosphere is vibrant and exciting... This festival has certainly exceeded all expectations. From very humble beginnings, it has grown to be the biggest multicultural festival in Australia, and it will only get bigger.”

For Mohammad Kaddour, who is selling falafel, this is his first proper Ramadan since arriving in Australia two years ago. “It’s very rewarding, very important for the community,” he said through a translator. “It’s good to see people coming from all backgrounds and faith getting together to celebrate, and supports the local economy.”

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Another trader, Bilal Ammar, has run one of several knafeh stalls for the last six years. He used to work as a security guard at a chemist on Haldon Street and watch it come alive at night during Ramadan, which was “something different for Sydney”.

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He went on to start an online knafeh ordering and catering business, but the annual Lakemba market is by far his biggest business opportunity. They’ll go through 20 to 30 trays of the sweet cheese dessert on a weeknight, and 40 on the weekends.

“Every year we wait for this opportunity,” he said. “We like to do it because we do it in our countries. And it’s the biggest event we can make money at, too. The last two years we haven’t been able to do it [has been bad],” he said.

“There’s a lot of events in Sydney but for me, this is the best.”

This year’s Ramadan Nights event on Haldon Street will be held until Sunday, May 1, from dusk until late.

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