Food

National Multicultural Festival, 2020, Canberra
National Multicultural Festival, 2020, Canberra

Promotes unity,
from one sprig to another—
food, across cultures.

The art of food

Growing up in an Indian household, grains, wheat, and meat were staples. Split red lentil soup with rice or bread was dinner on most days. I thrived in that environment.

I used to wake up to tea—strong leaf tea infused with full-fat cow’s milk—that’s what I survived on. And I always told myself the uncomfortable gassiness, bloating, and smelly farts were normal.

Until I grew up. For one health reason, I decided to go vegan about three-four years ago. And since, for many socio-economic reasons, I’ve continued a vegan lifestyle.

Not long after my transition, I realised that there was another sect of people reacting to gluten the same was as I did to dairy.

Now, I have friends who can’t eat gluten. I’ve cooked for them, and shared meal with them. And so, I’ve become more attuned to the amount of wheat and gluten I consume.

That’s why I like challenging myself to make gluten-free meals. After all, I cook for myself. How bad could it be?

So a couple of days ago, I tried to make gluten-free pasta. I aimed for a simple rice-flour-based spaghetti-like noodle. I realised soon enough that the flour wasn’t as pliable as wheat. Of course, it had no gluten—what was I expecting?

However, after some rigorous kneading, rolling, and scrunching it all up into a ball, I chose the easy way out. Surely, little blobs of dough would still make bite-worthy pasta? I ended up making gnocchi, without a single traditional gnocchi ingredient.

I used a vegetable and tomato curry as a sauce, and to my surprise, it came out well. I was even proud of how quickly everything came together—it was faster than any basic baking endeavour that requires proofing and waiting overnight.

Mix, roll, cut, and shape. Why, it was easier than deciding what sauce to make for the pasta!
Today, at the supermarket, as I looked at the price of gluten-free pastas, I couldn’t help but laugh in my head. Now that I’d done it once, I knew I could make much more for much less.

Food shouldn’t be about convenience. That’s the unhealthy mentality that leads to food-related issues. Instead, when you pursue it with precise care, food becomes art, and that art can sustain us.

National Multicultural Festival

Volunteering is the best way to experience a new society, right?

So when the Multicultural Festival came around, I signed up as a general volunteer—you know, the ones wearing a red festival t-shirt and a hat, and a lanyard too large for their body—wandering around the perimeter smiling at those gorging on meat on a stick, sipping their beer before stepping away so that it doesn’t spill over before they reach their friends. 

The festival started at 4 pm last Friday, with cultural performances and food stalls all the way through 11 pm. When I showed up at 4, a half hour earlier than the start of my shift, the place thronged with a hum of excitement. The sun sprawled on us as volunteers scattered throughout the city circle, taking their positions, armed with brochures, information packs, while the area wardens double-checked their walkie talkies, strapped on and ready to go.

The moment I stepped out into the festival ground, I regretted not carrying my water bottle. The festival organisers had done a tremendous job of setting up water filling stations every few metres, but without my bottle, I didn’t stand a chance. When at last I gave up my ego and picked up a plastic water bottle, drained and desperate, I promised never to do that again. 

It didn’t take me too long to study the festival map. Six stages with three or four tents that accommodated smaller performances, spread across five major streets in the city centre. I’d walked around that part of city enough of times to know what lay where, and after two complete rounds, I’d memorised the locations of each stage.

Equipped with so much information, I began wandering. For that was my role as a general volunteer. I was to walk around with a welcoming smile, answering questions, and helping out anyone in distress. It had all seemed easy and fun on paper. And yet as I walked around I felt myself suffocating under the smoke of charred meat, barbecue and grilled citrus waffling throughout the streets, mingled with the joyous cries of lolly-sucking kids and the satisfied lip-smacking of bratwurst-wolfing adults.

On my right, noodles were sizzling, fried with eggs and chicken. From the left came yells advertising crepes—savoury and sweet—French, with gluten-free and vegan options. Baos, or steamed buns, weren’t too far away, sitting right next to the street food extravaganza of masala dosa and curry. A little further were Croatian beers, Sydney ice-cream, Ethiopian lentils and beef stews with flavoured injera.

Row after row showcased food from all over the world, in various shapes and sizes—from pulled pork burgers to the so-called healthy zucchini fritters, from paella to pan-friend momos, from fresh-squeezed orange juice to vodka-infused lemonade.

  • Greek coffee at the National Multicultural Festival

Overwhelming is an understatement. For five hours, I let the crowds push me from one place to another, as I tried to find my way through, only wanting to return to my starting point. As I left the festival that evening—four hours before the performances ended for the day—I was ready to hit the bed and not return for my shift the next day. I didn’t want to volunteer ever again.

But on Saturday afternoon, I arrived again, signed in to my shift three hours early, and started patrolling the grounds, looking for something more engaging than dead meat. Fortunately, that second day was the best.

In most cultural events that are advertised on Facebook with flyers abound and hashtags galore, people throng in thousands, flashing cameras at dancers as if they’d never before seen a blend of colours or beaded jewellery. Our impression of culture is often so stereotypical that we can’t imagine anything beyond a stage performance featuring slender female dancers and flavoured meat.

However, this multicultural festival tried to showcase some genuine culture. Not only did it feature music and food from various countries, but it also accommodated embassies of various nations. Why, one of the most popular aspect of the event—aside from the German beer and sausages—was the EU village. For an entire day, a large section of the festival hosted embassy stalls where delegates and foreign representatives shared brochures, travel advice, traditional information, and snacks. They even gave away free EU passports at the European Union tent—a fun activity for the young and the older where you could walk your way through all the tents of the EU countries and get your passport stamped at each tent.

  • National Multicultural Festival, Canberra - 2020

A little later that day came the iconic Multicultural Festival Parade. As the name suggests, it’s a tremendous walking and dancing display of culture by the many countries that call Canberra (and Australia) home. From indigenous musical representatives to Chinese dragon dance, to Korean music, south Indian drumming, Bulgarian dancing, Brasilian samba, belly dancing, and more, the entire parade was a blurry flourish of colour.

Each of the six main stages represented a region. For instance, stage five was for African and Pacific Islander performances, food, and crafts, whereas stage two and its surrounds featured Celtic performances and Scottish traditional foods, information, and dance troupes.

Day two was more satisfying than the first one.

When I woke up on Sunday, hoping to make it on time to hear some multi-lingual poetry at 10 am, I realised I’d been stressing myself out. I had to lie in bed until I had to leave. My shift was to start at 1pm and I checked in 10 minutes prior.

Having spent two whole days at the festival without staying anywhere long enough to enjoy any performance completely, I’d decided to let it all go and have fun.

The section I stood at featured the Greek community and culture. From Zorba dance and olive pastries to sipping black traditional Greek coffee, I had a wonderful time, nodding to tunes I’ll never get out of my head. 

As I waddled over to the Latin American zone, loud maracas and drums invited me with floral t-shirts and unpronounceable words. It was the most warm and welcoming experience I’ve ever had. Charged by my volunteer status, I walked right to the front—not because I was being an arsehole, but because being 5 feet and a couple of inches, in a crowd, I can’t see anything other that people’s sweaty, muscly, arms. 

While the groovy Peruvian music troupe sang and danced, the audience had a party of its own. People in all kinds of clothing set their bags on the ground to jump onto the dance floor. It was a perfect amalgamation of traditions—performers came from various Latin American countries and the audience featured black, white, and all shades of the brown in between.

National Multicultural Festival, Canberra 2020
National Multicultural Festival, Canberra 2020

As the festival wound to a close, I’d changed my mind about volunteering. I’d so it all again next year, but now that I know the scale of the event, I’ll be more strategic about channeling my energy and enjoy the event. 

After all, what good is volunteering if we don’t have fun?

Coffee traditions

Over the weekend, I volunteered at the National Multicultural Festival in Canberra. In its 24th year and my first, it was such good experience to be part of the three-day extravaganza.

Of the many highlights, was a small cup of Greek coffee.

Standing outside the Greek food stall, I stared at the sign that said “Traditional Greek coffee, boiled in a briki.”

Italicised and unpronounceable means that it’s traditional, right?

Eliopite, a Crypriot olive pastry and Greek coffee
Eliopite, a Crypriot olive pastry, and Greek coffee

It wasn’t anything groundbreaking though—just regular black coffee—the same thing I drink everyday: fine-ground coffee powder boiled in water, served steaming hot.

Although it was neither authentic nor imported from Greece, it was unlike any I’ve had. It was stronger, and without the strange sourness of instant black coffee.

The best thing about the festival is that I could watch (gawk at) Greeks doing the Zorba dance (such grace!) and then later talk to a woman about the tradition that’s Greek coffee.

Much like the Turkish, Serbian, Armenian, Cypriot, and Bosnian coffee, the Greek version is also boiled in a tall metal pot called, that’s right, a briki. The coffee isn’t filtered and so when I received the cup with gracious thanks, masking my disbelief at the smallness of the serving, the dregs swirled around, rapidly gaining weight, sinking to the depths of the cup’s under world.

Saying that it’d take a while for the grounds to settle, the woman advised me to drink it slow and warned not to drink the “mud”.

The reason?

In Greece, once people finish their coffee, they turn the cup over and read dregs—much like tea leaf reading in many real and imagined cultures.

Because it’s so hot, the coffee promotes conversations in social events. Greek coffee is an accompaniment for afternoon(ish) tea gatherings. Not a bad thing—forcing people to talk to each other while waiting for the damn coffee to cool down. That would’ve prevented people from chugging it and rushing away from over inquisitive aunts and uncles.

Clearly, this all before the mobile phone era. Then again, aren’t most traditions?

Cookies!

I’ve done quite a lot of baking since moving to Australia. But I’m no baker. I’ve never made delectable goods people would want to buy. 

I’ve baked vegetables, pumpkin seeds, and oat clusters. I’m a complete novice otherwise.

I volunteer at a co-operative food shop. Yesterday, one of the managers walked up to me as I cleaned the counter and asked me how I felt about baking. 

Unprepared. Unconfident.

And then, for the first time, I was asked to bake something. It was to be either banana bread or cookies. Nothing new or unheard of—we had s pre-designed recipe. I just had to follow instructions. If it said to boil two cups of salt, well… you know. 

I wouldn’t boil two cups of salt.

But I was making chocolate chip and tahini cookies. 

This wasn’t my usual marinate-vegetables-and-shove-in-the-oven recipe. It wasn’t anything like the pumpkin and oats mixture I bake all the time. To put it simply, it wasn’t simple.

cookies in the making

However, on paper, the recipe was pretty straightforward. It had fewer steps than the banana bread, and even though I’d have chosen the bread to stuff my face in, the cookies seemed far less intimidating to make.

I read the instructions over and over just to make sure I didn’t forget the salt or the vanilla, the oil, or the milk. 

It was a vegan recipe, and only a few days ago, I’d seen the recipe’s author bake some cookies herself. So I had a reasonable idea of how they were supposed to look. I recalled awe-ing at how flawlessly the cookies had spread and how much people enjoyed chewing them.

It was a lot to live up to. And that terrified me. Even though it was just flour, baking soda, and salt for the dry and oil, tahini, milk, and sugars for the wet, I still felt an enormous pressure over my head as I measured the ingredients, battling with myself over the difference between a heaped and flattened cup.

The recipe suggested 15 cookies. And as I balled up the cookie dough, smiling to myself at how much it resembled the cookie doughs I’d seen on television, I realised I was making far too many—I’d made thirty small balls instead of 15 big ones. Anxious, but still proud of my mixing capabilities, I greased the trays, arranged the balls, and popped them into a waiting oven. 

freshly baked cookies

For the next fifteen minutes, I was thankfully too distracted to bite my nails and check in on the cookies every two minutes. When they came out, smaller than I expected, they were more like blobs of chocolate-topped brownish flour than flat disks of chewy goodness. 

My heart sank. Perhaps I’d sunk the cookies.

The first taste-tester said it was good. But he’s a nice guy. The second affirmed the first guy’s comment, adding that the cookies were crunchy and crumbly—which is good, if you like crumbly cookies.

They were both more than less than helpful. I still couldn’t tell if the cookies were any good. And I didn’t trust myself to eat any.

We sold out of cookies in a day.

Many people appreciated my cookies. And yet, as a novice baker and an incredibly-doubtful person, it’s hard to believe.

Perhaps it wasn’t so bad.

Perhaps I’m not such a terrible baker, after all.

Perhaps I could do more…