The Australian government’s stance on asylum seekers is pretty poor to say the least. You only have to look at the situation in the detention centres to see this. And it’s not really linked to a particular political party either. Both Labour and Liberal have been in power over the last few years, and neither have done anything to better the situation for the people. And I think that’s what we need to remember. The asylum seekers are people. We shouldn’t label them as potential terrorists, welfare cheats, criminals or liabilities, but as people. Just like our friends and family are people, the asylum seekers are people too.
And so it warms my heart, and makes me proud to live in Australia when I hear of initiatives such as Tamil Feasts being run to showcase the skill and contribution these people could make to our country if given the chance. Tamil Feasts was born from an idea by Dori Ellington. Dori met some Tamil refugees in a detention centre in Broadmeadows, in Melbourne’s outer west where she learnt that they were great cooks. When they were released into the community, after six years in detention, she set up a couple of special dinners cooked by Sri and Nirma, two of the Tamil men. Tickets were sold to these dinners, and the events were very quickly sold out. Encouraged by the success of these initial events, subsequent dinners were organised, till they became a weekly and now twice weekly occasions, with most nights sold out. These days the management of Tamil Feasts has been taken over by Molly, but the sentiment and intention behind the event remains the same.
The dinners are held on Mondays and Tuesdays at the CERES community kitchen in Brunswick. Monday nights have vegan and pescatarian options, and Tuesday nights is an all vegan affair. If you have any other dietary requirements, I’m sure you can advise the team at Tamil Feasts, and they will most likely accommodate you.
We went to Tamil Feasts went as a group of eight. With long communal tables set up, it was a great event to catch up with friends. We were all excited about the food, but we were also very proud to be part of an event that positively contributed to the community by creating a space that welcomed and empowered the otherwise ostracised asylum seekers.
The night started with bhajis, or little fritters that were made of onions, silverbeet, spices and curry leaves. They were served with a tomato and coconut sambol, or dipping sauce that was described as making everything delicious, they weren’t wrong! The flavours exploded in your mouth, and even after the bhajis were finished, we were spooning the sambol out of the bowl and eating it!
Before the mains were served, we were introduced to the men who were preparing our feast. Niro, Sri, Nigethan and Nirma were lovely men, who welcomed us to their dinner, and gave us a sneak peek into the feast that awaited us. The smiles on their faces lit up the room, and it was heart warming to see that despite the hardship they had experienced, they were still able to be positive and bring joy to people.
Dinner was served to us on traditional thalis, or large plates with little compartments for the different curries and sides. We had a silverbeet dhal, an eggplant curry, a garlic chutney, some rice, a fresh rocket salad and a coriander sambol. For the vegan option we received a beetroot curry, and the pescatarians received a salmon curry.
Where do I start?! I’m not exaggerating at all when I say that everything was delicious. The food was cooked homestyle, and full of flavour. The silverbeet dhal was just like what I would expect if I was having dinner at a Tamil friend’s home. The eggplant curry was smooth and creamy, and even the garlic chutney which sounds like it would be a little odd was actually delicious! There was no overpowering garlic flavour at all, instead it was mild and complimented the sweetness perfectly. The pescatarians were unanimous in their praise of the salmon curry, declaring it the dish of the night, but we were equally generous with our praise of the beetroot curry. It was hot and spicy, with the sweetness of the beetroot cutting through.
Our Tamil chefs wandered the floor making sure that we were satisfied, and encouraged us to go and get a second helping. Encouraged is probably a mild word, in true subcontinental style, they just about forced us, chastising us if we said we were full! It was all in jest, and illustrated how passionate they were about their food, and feeding us. Against the better judgement of my head, I listened to my heart, and decided to go and get a tiny serve of eggplant curry. No one was going to listen to my requests of ‘just a small serve’ and instead I returned with another full plate! Four of us ended up sharing the second plate, and by the end, we really couldn’t move.
Luckily we all managed to kick our dessert stomachs into gear with the aptly titled, ‘Yes-You-Can-Fit-It-In-Fruit Salad With Homemade Coconut Jelly.’ There was lots of fruit all chopped up, a big chunk of delicious coconut jelly and a generous drizzle of liquid jaggery, or palm sugar. Many on the table hadn’t tasted jaggery before, and they were quickly won over. I, on the other hand, was transported back to my childhood where I consumed much milk rice with jaggery. Yum.
This still wasn’t the end of dinner. We invited to bring a lunch box to the counter, and for a donation of $5, lunch would be packed for us, for the next day. I couldn’t have been more excited. I carefully chose my curries, eggplant and beetroot, although regardless of what was put in that box, it would have all been good. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at the clock the next morning to see if lunchtime was getting close!
Our night at Tamil Feasts was fabulous, and despite the fact that the food was amazing, this was only one component of it. It was so special to be a part of a community that welcomed these men, who had such a positive contribution to make to society. This, for me is what the Australian spirit encompasses, and I was glad to know, that despite the government’s stance, just like the hashtag, real Australians say welcome.
For more information on Tamil Feasts, or to book a ticket to dinner, you can visit the CERES website. Do it, you won’t regret it!