"Double camel!" is the hoarse cry that sails over the crowd waiting for dromedary burgers outside Broaster Chicken in Lakemba.
The south-west suburb's high streets are more sedate this Ramadan compared to previous years, but scenes like this are reminiscent of Lakemba's pre-pandemic night market that has been a fixture of the Islamic holy month for decades.
"Here in Lakemba, you feel alive," says Sahar Elsemary, a guide with Taste Cultural Food Tours, a social enterprise running culinary treks in suburbs such as Bankstown, Merrylands and Ryde.
"It's a wonderful atmosphere. There's not just one culture and one community, it's heaps of cultures, and you get to try food from all over the world. It's just so amazing."
Almost 1.8 billion people across the globe, including 350,000 NSW residents, celebrate Ramadan, which began last Monday and ends on May 12. During this time, Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk.
In previous years, 10,000 Muslims breaking their fast – plus many non-Muslims joining the festivities – would flock to streets around Lakemba train station every night to eat.
Canterbury Bankstown council, which took over managing the Ramadan night markets in 2019, cancelled the event last year due to COVID-19 safety requirements. Although many coronavirus restrictions have eased, the council is still taking a cautious stance this year.
"Unfortunately, the council is unable to run Ramadan Nights Lakemba this year because it's impossible to host a COVID-safe event under the current public health order for non-controlled outdoor public gatherings of more than 200 people," a City of Canterbury Bankstown spokesperson said.
But Elsemary notes that Lunar New Year festivities were held in February. "They [the council] were running Chinese New Year events in Campsie and Bankstown," she says. "You can't imagine how crowded it was."
The spirit of the markets is alive regardless, with many people celebrating and eating in Lakemba for the holy month. Here is a selection of the best places to visit for a rolling feast.
Island Dreams' chicken satay sticks are only served during Ramadan.. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Island Dreams 47-49 Haldon Street
Alimah Vilda's cafe has been serving Christmas and Cocos Island cuisine for more than 30 years, but Ramadan is the only time you can get her chicken satay cooked on charcoal. The perfectly charred skewers are topped with house-made satay sauce and served with chunks of cucumber and red onion, and cubes of short grain rice that's laboriously cooked, stirred and pounded for five hours.
Ananda Sweets and Bakery 35 Railway Parade
Ramadan is the only time of year you can get haleem, a spicy, lentil, chickpea and goat stew cooked for six hours. In past years it was served from a huge pot outside Bangladeshi bakery Ananda, but this year, the filling stew is inside. Expect texture a bit like porridge and heat from green and red chillies to build slowly.
Ramadan Camel Burgers at Broaster Chicken 106 Haldon Street
When you spot the toy camel with a woven saddle hanging above a crowd, you know you've arrived. From the entrance of fried chook specialists Broaster Chicken, the cheerful crew behind Ramadan Camel sling single or double patty burgers topped with American cheese and secret sauce. Camel burgers are juicier than their beef counterparts and a touch more gamey.
Ali 158 Lakemba Street
Zafar Khan's Pakistani restaurant, Ali was a Ramadan night destination for murtabak (stuffed pancakes) made in a huge pan on the street. Without the theatre, the street is quiet, but the same excellent murtabak are still prepared in the kitchen. The chef presses a round of dough, lifts one edge and begins stretching. With quick circular flourishes, he flings the dough until it's stretched wide and almost translucent, before placing it on the grill to be topped with meat, spring onion, cheese and egg, and folded into a parcel. Have a cup of nutty, pink Kashmiri tea while you wait.
El-Manara 143 Haldon Street
Amir Sayah's 32-year-old Lebanese eatery is well known for its crunchy, made-to-order falafel, creamy tahini and salty pickles. After 9pm, tables are pushed aside and it's takeaway only as a crowd gathers to watch sugar syrup spooned over round platters of golden knafeh. The sweet pastry is cut into rough squares and lifted into bowls; its creamy, hot cheese stretching and breaking.
Crispy Jalebi at Al Fayhaa Bakery 137A Haldon Street
Swirls of orange dough are deep fried and dipped in syrup in the window of Al Fayhaa Bakery. Jalebi are a common sight at Pakistani eateries around Lakemba, but fresh and hot are the only way to eat these chewy, tooth-achingly sweet treats.
Abdul Aziz peparing fresh paan. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Fresh Paan Corner 4/168-176 Haldon Street
Abdul Aziz stands in the open window of an old butcher shop, surrounded by jars full of colourful toppings and bright green decals advertising fresh paan. To roll one of the cigar-shaped palate cleansers, Aziz spoons toasted cardamom and aniseed, candied fennel, coconut and a brightly coloured, peppermint-oil-laced preserved fruit he calls "tutti frutti", tightly rolling the colourful pile of textural, sweet toppings in a betel leaf.
Taste Cultural Food Tours is running tours of Lakemba every Sunday evening until the end of Ramadan. There are additional tours April 29 and May 5. Visit tastetours.com.au to book.