Most Australians have heard of Christmas Island, but they may not be familiar with the rich culture and cuisine of this land and its neighboring islands. With Island Dreams Cafe, the only restaurant in Sydney’s Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands, owners Alimah Bilda and Aman Mohd shine a light on the food of their ancestors and carry on the story of their birthplace.
Located about 3000 km northwest of Perth, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Pulu Kokos) include 27 coral islands, of which only two are inhabited. The population of 600 is 80 percent ethnic Malays who reside on the original island and are largely separated from the ethnic Europeans who live in the West Island.
The islands are named after British captain William Keeling, who spotted them in 1609, returning from a trip to Indonesia. It was not until 1826 that colonization took place. One of the first settlers was the Scottish merchant John Clunies-Ross; his family would eventually rule the island for nearly 150 years. Much of the island’s current population are the ancestors of the Malaysian workers he brought from Malacca, Penang, as well as parts of Indonesia to work his copra (coconut) plantations.
“John Clunies-Ross was like the king of the island and my people were his slaves,” says Bilda. “They were made to work there, without decent pay. “
The British officially annexed the islands in 1857; the area became part of his colony of Singapore, before the territory was transferred to Australia in 1955. All of the Cocos settlers were granted Australian citizenship, but some decided to “return” to their hometowns.
Although it is now Australian territory, the islands have their own cuisine, with influences from other countries, such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. On neighboring Christmas Island where Bilda was born, the food has roots from Singapore and Malaysia. She lived there for 10 years before her family was asked to leave.
“The government was telling everyone that the island was going to become a naval base. They said, “You have to move. Anyone who is Singaporean can return to Singapore, and anyone who is white can return to Australia. ‘ », She remembers.
Bilda’s family moved from Christmas Island to the mainland in 1973. It was only after living in Perth for a few months that Bilda realized just how much the enforced racial segregation she had grown up with was. Standard.
“I didn’t know anything was wrong on the island until I came to Australia,” she says. “Everything was separate. All white [population] to Asians to Malays.
Their family stayed in Bunbury for a few months before moving to Port Hedland, a remote town 1,600 km north of Perth. It was there that Bilda began to spend more time in the kitchen and became interested in learning the dishes from her mother, who was a self-taught cook.
Bilda took these lessons – along with the recipes from her two grandmothers – with her when she moved to South West Sydney in 1996. Adjusting to city life was difficult and she experienced culture shock. and emotional important. One thing that always comforted her was cooking the traditional foods of her Cocos ancestors.
“I’ve always dreamed of opening a cafe, having my kitchen, Cocos Island cuisine and Malaysian cuisine and somehow merging them,” she says.
Less than six months after arriving in Sydney, Island Dreams Cafe was born. Bilda describes the food served in her cafe as Malaysian cuisine with a Cocos Island influence. The recipes she prepares are passed down from generation to generation, many of which date back to the 19th century.
“It has always been my dream to open a cafe, to have my kitchen, Cocos Island cuisine and Malaysian cuisine and kind of merge them.”
The majority of the items on the menu today are considered Malaysian cuisine, such as nasi lemak, rendang, satay, and kue-kue. However, Bilda adapted them to the Australian palate, so they appeal to people of various ethnic backgrounds.
“When we started in 1996 it was very difficult to break into this area,” she says, referring to the location of the venue in Lakemba, in southwest Sydney. Thinking of the local Lebanese and Arab communities, she adjusted her menu. “It was hard to get them to taste my food, so I had to do a little different. Even though I stuck with the traditional, I took a different approach like giving the food a little more sauce or a little less pepper. “
One dish that defines Cocos Island cuisine is ayam pangang, which Bilda prepares using her grandmother’s recipe.
“Ayam it’s chicken and pangang means grill, but I had to call it something different here, so people understood what it was, so we call it lemon and chili chicken,” he explains. she. “I make mine with more sauce, while my islanders eat it drier and cook it in their own charcoal oven over a fire.”
Although the food at Island Dreams Cafe has influences from Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines, Bilda wants people to understand that the Noel and Cocos Islands have their own distinct cuisine.
“I try to make people understand that we are not Malaysian, we are Australians,” she says. “We have our own culture and we have our own cuisine. “
She also wants to dispel misconceptions about classifying her ancestors as Malay people. They are Malaysian in name and hail from the Malaysian Kingdom, which existed long before Malaysia was founded in 1957.
Four generations of his Cocos Malay family have run Island Dreams Cafe for the past 25 years. Lakemba is very different from what it was in 1996 and Bilda has seen an increase in the diversity of its clients. These include migrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Somalia, and even asylum seekers who have passed through the Christmas Island detention center. Bilda will continue to live her dreams by running her Café des Iles de Noël et des Cocos and is grateful for the bond she offers with her native island.
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