Meet the migrant chefs bringing the flavours of home to Sydney

Syrian chef Racha Abou Alchamat prepares chickpeas and fava beans for a pop-up event to mark Refugee Week.
Syrian chef Racha Abou Alchamat prepares chickpeas and fava beans for a pop-up event to mark Refugee Week. Photo: Edwina Pickles

When Racha Abou Alchamat migrated to Sydney from Damascus in 2015, she found it difficult to buy the food she missed from Syria. It sparked an idea for sharing her country's cuisine in her new home.

Beginning with a small stall at her children's school fete, the idea blossomed into catering and events company Racha's Syrian Kitchen, which Alchamat launched with help from Welcome Merchant, a social enterprise that connects entrepreneurial refugees with the wider community. 

Former community development worker Marjorie Tenchavez founded Welcome Merchant in 2020. She knew most refugees and asylum seekers had all the tools they needed to become successful, if given a chance. 

Syrian chef Racha Abou Alchamat prepares dishes for a pop-up event to mark Refugee Week.
Syrian chef Racha Abou Alchamat prepares dishes for a pop-up event to mark Refugee Week. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Rather than offer handouts, the enterprise creates opportunities such as pop-up food events for would-be entrepreneurs, helping them to overcome language barriers and technical difficulties.

"We act like a social media and marketing company," says Tenchavez. "Most refugees are incredibly talented, hard-working people. If you give them a chance to succeed, they will."

In launching Refugee Week on Sunday, Welcome Merchant hosted a pop-up at Cafe Freda's in Darlinghurst featuring a Syrian feast of grilled eggplant, fattoush salad, and chicken shawarma platters by Racha's Syrian Kitchen. 

Food is my biggest reminder of home. And it makes people happy. It's a really beautiful thing.

Ramakrishnan Vijitha

Tenchavez says the event fosters real connections between Australians and refugees and migrants.

Ramakrishnan Vijitha or "Chef Krishna", who owned a restaurant in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, often features at Welcome Merchant events. 

After seeking asylum and settling in Sydney in 2013, he established Bavan Foods, a catering company serving home-style Sri Lankan food. 

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Business took off once Vijitha realised Australians did not have the same tolerance for spice as Sri Lankans. Now, he supplies roti to many restaurants in the inner west and caters for events all over Sydney.

On June 26, to close Refugee Week, he has partnered with Welcome Merchant for a night of world music and food featuring a six-course multicultural feast, which has already sold out.

Vijitha is grateful for the way cooking keeps him connected to his homeland while helping him to build relationships in his new home. 

Ramakrishnan Vijitha's eggplant curry.
Ramakrishnan Vijitha's eggplant curry.  Photo: Supplied

"I like being able to promote my language and culture and increase awareness about Sri Lanka," he says. "Food is my biggest reminder of home. And it makes people happy. It's a really beautiful thing." 

Ethiopian refugee Jerusalem (Sara) Taddesse, who runs Sara's Ethiopian Cuisine in Wollongong, will also participate in Welcome Merchant's June 26 event. 

When she arrived in Wollongong in 2011, Taddesse realised there wasn't a single cafe or restaurant serving Ethiopian food so in 2019, she and her mother launched their catering and events company.

A platter of meat and dishes with injera bread from Sara's Ethiopian Cuisine in Wollongong.
A platter of meat and dishes with injera bread from Sara's Ethiopian Cuisine in Wollongong. Photo: Supplied

Welcome Merchant has helped them stage events, participate at Wollongong's Eat Street night markets, and provide catering and home-delivered meals in their adopted city, sharing dishes such as doro wot, a spicy chicken stew traditionally reserved for special occasions. 

"The way we like to eat on one big plate together and share meals shows we respect one another and helps me connect with my identity and home state as well." 

She says starting the business has strengthened her sense of self, and sharing her country's cuisine has helped her integrate into the Illawarra community. "I get feelings of belonging and security from cooking for people." 

Three dishes to try during Refugee Week

Racha's chickpea fatteh 

A classic Syrian dish made from chickpeas, fried pita bread and a tahini-yoghurt sauce and finished with pomegranate seeds. Racha Abou Alchamat says the dish reminds her of "the old days", when she and more than her 50 members of her extended family would eat it around a crowded table every Friday morning. 

Sara's Ethiopian doro wot 

All Sara Taddesse's dishes are made with "passion, love and perfection", but if she had to choose one to try, it'd be doro wot, a spicy chicken stew traditionally reserved for special events and guests, and served from a shared platter atop injera, Ethiopia's famous flatbread.

Krishna's eggplant curry 

Ramakrishnan Vijitha's eggplant curry is held in high regard by the foodies of Sydney's inner-west. The reason it's so loved, he believes, is because his hero ingredient, coconut milk, is made from scratch using fresh coconut.