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Food is one sure-fire way to experience and learn about another culture. So with this in mind, I attended the Tamil Feast held three nights a week at CERES in Brunswick.
The food and concept have proved so popular that the experience has attracted over 30,000 diners since starting three years ago and moved from one night a week to three.
None of that stuffy restaurant business of starched napkins placed delicately on laps and waiters with hands behind their backs. Instead, diners eat in unison as in a village feast (and aren't we all part of a global village in any case).
These feasts offer great food and great fun. The helpers who serve you glow with the happiness, enthusiasm and privilege they all feel in being able to volunteer at this important social enterprise.
Plating up. Chefs and volunteers. Photo Nadine Cresswell-Myatt
One volunteer was telling me about how she first came as a customer. 'I brought some older relatives with me. I found they were becoming quite closed on the refugee question after all the media bias and stigma placed on asylum seekers by our government. I thought it better to show them through food rather than have an argument over the refugee question.
When they saw the chefs in action and learnt something of their years in detention it opened up their hearts and minds again. After seeing that powerful reaction, I became a volunteer.
With happy helpers, communal eating and great food the atmosphere at CERES Merri Table Cafe can only be described as electrifying. There are a number of feast nights on offer; the incredibly popular crab nights (book early for that one), lamb feasts as well as chicken, and vegan nights.
Although on all nights vegetarian and vegan options are available, my family attended a traditional fish night. And it was a feast indeed.
Almost all the dishes were named after the chefs who were present and who had created each dish. They are the proud Tamil cooks Richman, Nirma, Niro and Nigethan. You can read more about these amazing culinary creators here.
Aloo Bonda - so soft on the inside with a crunchy outside. Photo Nadine Cresswell-Myatt
After our entree, the chefs introduced themselves to the gathering. There were no set lines or long political speeches but just the sense that we are all in this together giving others a fair go and celebrating freedom and gathering together over good food.
Our shiny feast platters arrived with each compartment brimming over and crowned with golden papadams. There was Nigethan's Famous Fish Curry (for vegans it was Okra curry). Our small fish were whole and deboned and in a delicious sauce. Nirma's spicy pineapple curry was a definite hit with huge wedges of fresh pineapple cooked in an exquisite spicy sauce.
There was Niro's garlic dahl curry of which the toddler in our group wanted seconds and Nirma's technicolour rice, broccoli dahl, beetroot sambal (simply amazing) and his lemon pickle, which is so popular they have take-home jars available for sale.
Two of the lovely volunteers serving up the amazing feast.
If you're still hungry, you can go up for seconds, with the chefs taking this as a huge compliment. You can also meet these great guys individually as you line up. If you bring takeaway containers they will also fill these with take-home meals at the cost of $7.
The meal ends with dessert. In our case, masala cake and chai. The chai was so warm and soothing that I wish I had bought a packet to take home.
Tamil Feasts, is a social enterprise run by CERES Community Environment Park and is made up of men who first arrived in Australia as refugees and spent time in mandatory detention centres after fleeing Sri Lanka's brutal civil war.
Children can enjoy their own plates of non-spicy food. P.S We did clean up the wall before we left. Arthur really enjoyed this food one way or another. Photo Nadine Cresswell-Myatt.
Through humanities common love of food, the team share their stories, celebrate their culture and work towards equality for people seeking asylum. The endeavour provides employment to people seeking refuge and gives Australians the opportunity to meet asylum seekers first hand. It is not only your way of saying welcome but of experiencing some damn good food.
I particularly liked the booking system which saves a lot of one person doing all the organising. It allows you to book a table and then you can tell your friends and family you are going and then they have the option of adding themselves to your table. Then you can join together over this feast of fine food.