To Lebanon, with love: Looking back on Melbourne's love affair with Lebanese food

Joseph Abboud outside his Brunswick East restaurant Rumi.
Joseph Abboud outside his Brunswick East restaurant Rumi.  Photo: Justin McManus

A devastating explosion in Beirut. When you heard the news it possibly proved almost more than your heart could bear. Instead, let's focus on the good. This past week, chef Tom Sarafian, who helms the kitchen of Joseph Abboud's Bar Saracen, made hummus to raise desperately needed funds. Registrations opened on Monday with a target of $10,000. By Tuesday morning $15,000 had been pledged.

Sarafian is Armenian Australian but says he owes so much of his cooking – that hummus included – to the generosity and hospitality he experienced on trips to Beirut. This whole city owes that same debt of culinary gratitude to our Lebanese community. This seems like the right time to celebrate that. 

There's much to celebrate. Conjure the names Abla's, Tiba's, Rumi and Greg Malouf's much-missed MoMo, and you are naming some of Melbourne's most enduring and beloved restaurants. Bar Saracen delivered one of the most vibrant dinners I had in lockdown one – a heady combination of garlic, spice, sparkling colour and the sooth of that world-class hummus. Bar Saracen is on hiatus lockdown, but it provided the spur for me to return to its star sister, Rumi, which Abboud opened in 2006.

M'nazaleh, caramelised eggplant braised with tomatoes and green peppers.
M'nazaleh, caramelised eggplant braised with tomatoes and green peppers. Photo: Justin McManus

Where Abla's and A1 Bakery did and still do define themselves for "authentic Lebanese", Rumi was part of the next-gen revolution led by chef Greg Malouf, who took to O'Connell's in South Melbourne in the '90s with a menu drawing on his third-generation Lebanese-Australian roots and classical training. While the mussel pilafs and rose-stuffed quail veered from tradition, it was a new type of authentic – his own experience expressed.

Chefs such as Abboud rose in Malouf's considerable wake, hooking Melbourne with elegant riffs on yoghurt soups, meatballs washed in tomato-saffron sauce and sigara boregi, the kasseri and feta cheese-filled brik pastry cigars that remain a signature at the restaurant today.

Trawling Rumi's lockdown menu, most of those initial signatures remain. Neither time nor delivery in a paper bag has wearied them.  

Pumpkin fattoush.
Pumpkin fattoush. Photo: Justin McManus

Pink pickled turnips and tiny cucumbers give salty crunch and restrained zing to swipes of thick hummus and rich, garlicky almond and tahini tarator. The freekeh salad is amped by sharp, sheepy accents of Bulgarian feta.

The fattoush – sweet, slow-roasted pumpkin crunched up with herbs and shards of sumac-dusted, oven-crisp pita – is a stand-alone if you're abstaining from meat. Add the m'nazaleh, a half eggplant roasted into sticky submission with green peppers, if so. Otherwise there's the assertive smoky exclamation point of the chicken shish kebab.

But you can't talk about our Lebanese traditions without remembering the titans.

Advertisement

Anyone who has sat around Abla Amad's tables in her Carlton restaurant (opened in 1979 because her own kitchen was overflowing with recent migrants seeking a homeland touchstone) has experienced the joy and slight fear of the bounty.

The food remains a pure extension of a Lebanese home kitchen. Melbourne learnt here how mjadra, that rice-and-lentil peasant dish of kings, crunched up with crisp onions and soothed by creamy labne, could be a show-stealing star. 

In the early '80s, Mohamed Tiba started his own legacy, Tiba's.

Dates filled with labne.
Dates filled with labne. Photo: Justin McManus

What began as a corner shop in Moonee Ponds slinging chips and dim sims evolved to a full dine-in restaurant on Sydney Road where its imposing mixed grills of spit-roasted lamb and cutlets framed by  pastries, salads, pickles and dips and jugs of salty drinking yoghurt remain a staple for big gatherings and starving students.

If you've never watched A1 Bakery's pillowy breads and made-to-order Lebanese pizzas brushed with oil and zaatar flow in perpetual motion from ovens to bags while you pick up vats of tahini from the shelves, you haven't lived.

We've drunk deep from the well of knowledge from these generations of generous cooks and chefs. If 2020 has had an upside, it's that it has demanded we look for the full stories behind the food.

Abla Amad at Abla's restaurant in Carlton.
Abla Amad at Abla's restaurant in Carlton.  Photo: Eddie Jim

Lebanon is hurting. Bordered by nations in conflict and suffering from its own, the country was already buckling under economic pressure before coronavirus, and now it's coping with the devastation of Beirut.

Missed Bar Saracen's hummus this week? You can still donate to the Red Cross. But you can also take a moment of our own relative struggle to reflect.

Give what you can, even if it's just support to our own little Lebanon.  

Lebanese and Iranian pickles.
Lebanese and Iranian pickles. Photo: Justin McManus

Rumi

Address 116 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 03 9388 8255, rumirestaurant.com.au.

Order Daily via admin@rumirestaurant.com.au for pick-up, or Deliveroo. 

Cost Small dishes $6-$16; large $16-$30.

Go-to dish M'nazaleh, caramelised eggplant braised with green peppers.  

Tiba's Lebanese Review. 4 July 2019. The Age Epicure. Photo: Eddie Jim. Vegetarian platter.

Tiba's vegetarian platter. Photo: Eddie Jim

Also try Tiba's and A1 Bakery in Brunswick are currently closed but Abla's offers takeaway Thu-Sat. Call 03 9347 0006 for pick-up, or Uber Eats. 

For Beirut disaster relief, make donations to a registered agency like the Red Cross Lebanon.