When I was still a young child living in the Brisbane suburbs my parents took a trip to Moorooka to scavenge through the Moorooka Magic Mile’s never ending dealerships for their dream car. Even some forty years ago Moorooka was touted as the place to come and haggle your way behind the steering wheel of a head-turning 1982 Ford Falcon or Holden Commodore. These were the two top selling cars in Australia at the time but my parents opted for reliability and function over those flashy headline stealers. They like 42,210 other Australians that year purchased a Mitsubishi Sigma, the alleged beacon of Asian engineering at the time. Fast forward to the present and the Magic Mile remains though it’s doubtful that it has the same cache in motoring circles. If you look hard enough you may still be able to pick up the remnants of my parents old Sigma for a bargain. The nexus with cars was the only thing I knew about Moorooka for many years, until I made the connection that a stones throw down the same road is the home of the morning staple Weetbix. Growing up, breakfasts were a handful of Weetbix acting as sponges in a litre of milk before the daily dash for the school bus. Remember, I was a kid of the 1980’s and it was either Weetbix or a couple of slices of toast to kickstart the day – acia bowls had not made their way into the lexicon (thankfully).
As the years passed, Moorooka has never been a destination for me as I have decided to look elsewhere for my motoring needs. It has always been the place that I pass through when heading into Brisbane’s innards from the west, the place ripe for gridlock whenever I have to travel on Ipswich Road. I feel that have an intimate knowledge of each pebble of bitumen as I have sworn at each of their individual outlines when stationary during peakhour. Now I feel that I have been a fool for so many years – hidden a few hundred metres up from the Beaudesert Road turnoff are low set buildings on each side of the road that feed the community with some of the best offerings anywhere in the city. While it doesn’t overwhelm with the sheer volume of choice as does Sunnybank or Fortitude Valley, it is home to more than its quota of quality food. Influenced heavily and catering largely to the African and Middle Eastern population, there are dishes that may be unfamiliar to many but are rewarding when discovered. Every proprietor and restaurateur are welcoming and passionate about celebrating their culture and food that has been sustaining their families for centuries. With each meal they are sharing a fraction of their soul. A stroll down the main drag sees various African nations, Afghan, Thai, Lebanese, Italian all represented and if none of that captures your imagination for some glaikit reason there is always a dull, familiar Woolies as comfort.
Based on my internet research the first stop was Zeitton, an Afghan restaurant which at 2:00pm on a Sunday was near capacity inside and some opting for the tables on the footpath which were soaked in the warming winter sun. My party of one was able to squeeze amongst the regulars and from there my discovery started to take shape. Earlier on in the day I had met a friend at the Kalbar Bakery (for those wondering it was good but not Blackbutt Bakery great) so I didn’t have the appetite I would normally carry on my person. However I knew from the start that this place would be like an acclaimed movie, requiring repeated sittings to gain the full appreciation. Meat on sticks, spices, and a hearty serving of carbs meant that there was a high probability that I was going to have a fun time chewing my way through whatever came my way.
Before any of my menu selections came out a white bowl of an orange coloured soup was placed on my table with nothing but a friendly smile. Was this for me? Did I order this by mistake? Whatever the question, the answer was this was going to end up in my gut. No idea of the traditional name but there was a mix of vegetables, herbs and spices suspended in this liquid to prep my tastebuds for what was to transpire. The colour was a dullish orange, similar to badly applied fake tan, but as Dustin Hoffman can tell you looks count for nothing.
Appetizers first and unfortunately the Mantoo (lamb and onion dumplings served in a tomato sauce) were not available so I got the Kashk e Badenjan instead. This is an dip gunning to be mentioned in the conversation of the yummiest thing I have eaten in a long time. Eggplant dip with walnuts and spices served with a naan bread. I could have ordered two of these and nothing else and I would have have left estatic. Not since Larry Bird’s heroics for the Boston Celtics have I been memorised by anything green, white and unattractive. Previously I have been prone to exaggeration but not this time, the dip truly a thing of beauty.
For the main course I ordered the whole deep fried fish or as it is known by the locals, Mahi Polo. Whole gutted barramundi covered in lime juice and tumeric. Eagerly I prodded the meat and grabbed a huge chunk of the white flesh, jammed it in my mouth before realising that fish do indeed have bones. Should have paid more attention in Grade 8 Biology. Childhood cartoons made eating a whole fish so easy, this wasn’t just a case of inserting the whole fish into one’s mouth and ripping out a clean skeleton shortly after. A false move here and I would pierce my trachea before dessert. From now on I would need to concentrate more than Charlie Teo. Thankfully large portions did peel away from the bones easily, meaning I didn’t have to try that hard to separate the sharp white bones from the white flesh. As if the fish wasn’t big enough it came with another naan and a mountain of rice for good measure. The gameplan was crunchy skin, delicate flesh and hopefully no crunchy bones. Harvest what I can, mix in with the rice and then load that onto the naan bread. Another deliriously happy customer.
Dessert was Faloodeh, apparently a traditional Iranian concoction. Crushed ice flavoured with a sugar syrup and a slug of rose water which was then given some texture with some crushed up vermicelli noodles (you read that right). My brain was having trouble comprehending the dichotomy in textures but my tastebuds were lapping it up. Sweetness of the syrup, the brain freeze inducing ice slurry mixed with the rose water and the crunchy raw noodles. Unusual and addictive in equal doses. Maybe some nuts to replace the uncooked noodles, but then again I don’t want to mess with years of tradition just for my own personal experimentation? Not only was the food delicious but it was unbelievably cheap. Menu details are at the bottom of the page and you could easily share that meal between two and walked out satisfied.
I had to try Kefir, a milk based drink that I was hoping would be more yoghurt like and tangy. This was more warm milk with dried herbs. Too warm for my liking but I suppose this is the traditional way to have it given the Afghanistan climate? My least favourite item of the day, but if that’s the worst thing that was coming my way today, I was fine with that. Too full to try anything else on the menu, will be back!
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I was hoping to finish off the second half of Moorooka after a six week hiatus. By some stroke of fortune I met a hyper intelligent, attractive lady from Moorooka. She was a psychologist (and no we didn’t meet via a therapy session) whose love of food was only exceeded by her passion for cinema. Long story short she turned out to be a crazy (she’d say neurotic) cat lady. Just as things were gaining traction Brisbane was forced into lockdown. These COVID delays got extended further and Skype calls are a pale imitation of physical time together. The old adage, absence makes the heart grow fonder, didn’t ring true. It merely allowed her inner psychologist to kick in with extraneous over analysis. Given enough time one can convince themselves of anything and talk themselves out of a advantageous situation. The lockdown was fire retardant on the sparks of a budding relationship. Maybe I just needed more time for the Stockholm Syndrome to take effect? Like me scoffing down a handful of wasabi peas it was over in the blink of an eye – leaving me with a brief episode of watery eyes and mild heartburn. To use her vernacular my “learnings” are to put psychologists in the same sphere as reality TV stars when it comes to a potential partner. Two industries where spending time at work causes wackiness via osmosis. Worst of all she promised me a peanut butter brownie from Moorooka’s best known cafe, Todd & Pup. But this is no time for you to get linger on my doleful near miss because there is food to be devoured in hedonistic fashion. As I’ve muttered before, “lucky with food, unlucky with love.”
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Fortunately this hiccup didn’t stop the Moorooka food discovery, there was no shortage of willing participants eager to fill the void left by Ms Batshit Crazy. One of my best friends came along to experience the joy that is Afghan food as well as whatever else we could sink our teeth into on both sides of the street. In the past couple of weeks Afghanistan has suffered immensely with unimaginable atrocities that have relegated COVID to the inner pages of the newspapers. Unable to find the words to say I opted for the silent but friendly approach, one that I have perfected in many a foreign country. It has served me well previously and I was hoping that once again it would not fail me. Thinking about it now it was a stupid choice, the staff speak impeccable English and I should have used my big boy words to express my deepest sympathies.
The orange (name still unknown) vegetable soup appeared with less confusion this time. Once again the dumplings were not available however the eggplant dip remained on the menu so we got reacquainted. Just as good as the initial meeting. My friend was so taken by this dip I had to hold back him back as he threatened to walk into the kitchen and plead for the recipe. I suppose there are worse ways to make a fool of yourself? In the spirit of trying to cover as much of the menu as possible the fish made way for a meat platter. Skewered meats marinated and cooked over a flame, what’s not to like?
No idea what the butter was doing there but why waste time solving mysteries when you can rip into some chicken and lamb. The lamb was fairly dull but once you added the green dipping sauce it became the life of the party, much like a librarian after work during Happy Hour. Chunks of chicken were charred to absolute perfection and were also a hit. Wasn’t as dangerous as the fish from my the previous visit but then again you don’t want to get one of those bits of frilly parsley caught in your windpipe either. The untried dessert options were saffron icecream (I was told by my friend to wait until I get to Taringa) and baclava, which I thought I might try elsewhere, in these parts it is that common it nearly grows on trees.
Before having another meal we took a walk around to see what other options tickled our fancy. Being a Sunday there were a lot of things not open. From my first visit I saw a lot of people buying flatbreads from bakeries that didn’t do any visible baking. One of the bakeries we visited (directly opposite Zeitton) was more corner shop than bakery. Any Africian/Middle Eastern ingredient you ever needed was at your fingertips. Gallons of rosewater and handmade serving bowls were stacked to the ceiling. They also sold fresh dates which I grabbed a couple of handfuls for snacks (who knows how long we would be going without food?). The dates were only a few bucks which fell under the threshold for EFTPOS. To meet the criteria I bought some Afghani doughnuts that were staring me down from the counter. The cashier gave to me for a discount. I realise now why he was eager to foist them onto me. These things, which would have been edible if heated, were drier than the Arabian Desert. My mouth was working overtime to generate enough saliva to be able to push them down my throat. My friend had to rush back to the car and rummage through the boot to see if there was an old bottle of water that would save my life. In other news the dates were great and didn’t last till the end of the block.
Final stop for the day was Yeshi Buna Ehtio Cafe & Restaurant. Until recently I never had any idea of what were the building blocks of Ethiopian cuisine. However everything I read about Moorooka spoke highly of this place so why not see what all the fuss is about? Greeted by the owner who gave us the prime seat near the big organ. Usually if I play with my organ in the corner of an establishment like this I get hurled out onto the street, but this time made me regret that I didn’t continue with those piano lessons (I gave up after one).
The menu was extensive but I recognised injera from my time visiting West End. These injera are common through much of Africa and I longed for the spongey, malty bread again. The owner came over to offer some menu suggestions to us novices, a happy grin wrestling with the fabric on his mask. It all looked fantastic so we randomly pointed to a few things. Any attempt to pronounce the dishes would have seen our goodwill plummet to those of a Moorooka used car salesman. Most of the dishes came with an injera as sidekick so as long as I was getting my fix in one form or another, I didn’t really care.
Two appetizers, the first a medley of slow cooked tomato, onion, chilli, onion and other secrets which was served on something reminiscent of the pastry on the bottom of a sausage roll. A greasy, scrumptious mess that may well take sixteen hours off my life with every mouthful but that was a price I would pay again. The second act was a sinig – stuff a long chilli with a similar mix to that found in the previous dish and roll up in an injera. The second picture is unwrapped to give you a better idea of the internal workings of the sinig, otherwise you may think we are eating something that resembles a toilet roll (the fully clothed version is in the top right hand corner of the sils photo). The sinig tasted great with a mix of opposing textures but the sils was my winner as it was comfort food personified.
The main attraction was bought out and I need to apologise that in all the excitement I did not get a photo. The owners strides out from the kitchen with his pride and joy, a heaped serve of lamb, vegetables and spices atop this peculiar serving bowl which he held up in the air as if he had just won the Men’s singles title at Wimbledon. For the life of me I couldn’t work out why he was carrying it so high off the ground, maybe he was really proud of this dish and wanted the whole world to share his unbridled joy? Turns out he was trying to blow on the candle which was located in the hole at the bottom of the plate. For most it warms the dish whilst sitting on the table being admired, but he knew he was dealing with two hungry people of action. No need for the candle, straight onto chewing. He was having a bit of trouble blowing the candle out, due to caked on wax obstructing the hole. With his mask on I wasn’t worried about the hygiene aspect, more his safety. The combination of a naked flame in close proximity, his flammable mask and the high concentration of alcohol based hand santiser in the air was a near perfect storm. Thankfully I didn’t need to become intimate with the fire evacuation plan, he managed to dislodge a chunk of wax with a butter knife, extinguish the candle before flipping the contents of the dish onto a flat dish fenced by injera in one fluid motion. Looking for a clumsy reference point for comparison, maybe the African distant relation of stroganoff, with less sauce? Impressive.
Dessert: Baklava and Icecream (no explanation necessary). No idea why it is nearly falling off the plate?
To think that the owner had to flee Ethiopia to survive around twenty years ago (according to the scribes from the Courier Mail). Just one of the many success stories in Moorooka’s food scene. Remember, one of the best entry points to discover a culture is to be exposed to their food. Try something unknown and chances are if it is created by people that are eager to impress, there is a high probability that all and sundry will have an enjoyable time. Come with an open mind, an empty stomach. My two final pieces of advice, if you haven’t been to Moorooka you need to swing by and experience for yourself; and if you see a crazy cat lady humming tunes from movie soundtracks, best to leave her alone.
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Zeitton: https://zeitoonrestaurant.com.au/general-2, Moorooka (Afghan)
Yeshi Buna Ethio African Cafe & Restaurant: https://www.facebook.com/yeshibuna/, Moorooka (Ethiopian)