Tamil Feasts is an event that takes place three times a week in the community kitchen at Ceres. Every Monday, Tuesday and Friday you will find Nirma, Sri, Niro and Nigethan preparing their dishes alongside organiser Dori and a team of volunteers.
This was the scene that greeted me when I arrived at the venue on Tuesday night. As soon as I set foot in the room the smell of the food cooking was mouth-watering, and as an avid fan of curry, I was more than excited at the opportunity to feast on a few new varieties. But it wasn’t only the smell that was overwhelming. Seeing a packed room, with volunteers ushering guests to their tables, patrons lining up to buy refreshments as the entrees were being served, and of course the four men, Nirma, Sri, Niro and Nigethan with huge smiles on their faces, proudly preparing their food in the kitchen for the awaiting room was a sight to behold.
As the amazing bhajji cooked by Niro, with fresh coconut sambal (one of the best sauces I have ever tasted) was being served, Nirma introduced himself and the other men to the room. Nirma explained how he has been seeking asylum for 8 years, and he meet Sri, Niro and Nigethan whilst in the Mita Detention Centre in Broadmeadows. Whilst at the centre, Nirma and Sri came up with the idea of hosting a feast so they could share their stories and encourage sharing and openness in the local community. In 2014 the men meet Dori, who helps organise the Feasts, and since they started nearly two years ago almost 8000 people have attended. It was truly heart-warming to see and hear Nirma speak. Here was a man who has faced adversity that many of us could never imagine, yet after 8 years of waiting on a bridging visa, he has the ability to organise a feast, share his story, all with a huge smile on his face. It was obvious that he was so proud of not only his food, but the fact that there were so many people who have supported the Feasts both on this occasion and in the past.
After this one of the volunteers read a poem written by Sri. It was a beautiful piece that summed up his experiences so far. The main theme throughout the poem was waiting. Time may be passing but he is still stuck in limbo, and the poem dealt with some of the psychological effects this was starting to have on him.
Once everyone had finished their bhajji and sambal, it was time for the main course. Whilst the poem was being read my eyes caught the first sight of the main feast. The shimmering metal plate with technicolour rice, a beetroot curry cooked by Nigethan, a chickpea and eggplant curry cooked by Sri and the Garlic Dhal cooked by Niro, all topped with a pappadum. It had me salivating.
I immediately dug in. With my heart swelling thanks to the incredible story that Nirma had shared and the poem written by Sri, it was time for my stomach to become overwhelmed with emotion. The three curries were exceptional, honestly some of the best I have tasted in recent times. I am a huge fan of mixing multiple curries, and these three worked so well together. Add in the bonus of Nirma’s pumpkin and spinach salad (topped with passionfruit which I will now be adding to salads), Nirma’s cucumber, coriander and capsicum salad and Nigethan’s plum chutney, and the feast was complete. The flavours were all so delicious, and it didn’t take me long to finish off what was in front of me. As it is a rather informal affair, the leftovers are placed on the bench and you are free to help yourself, so I duly tucked in to a few extra pappadums to mop up the leftover sauces on my plate.
I was stuffed!
It was now Niro’s turn to take the microphone and share his incredibly sad boat story. Niro is from the east of Sri Lanka, and he fled the civil war due to the risk of persecution due to being a Tamil. Him and members of his family decided they had to get out, and Niro made his way to Indonesia where he got on a boat for Australia. After three weeks at sea on a tiny fishing boat he was picked up by the Australian Navy and the waiting began. It was truly horrific to hear what he had been through, and how he is still seeking asylum. At the end of his speech he spoke of how the Tamil Feasts have encouraged him to try and forget the past and look to the future, and how he was hopeful for this future. It was amazing to hear how he could still be positive; it was truly inspirational.
Dessert was then served and Nigethan shared some insight into Tamil culture. Nigethan explained how in Tamil culture hospitality was a main pillar of society. It wasn’t uncommon to cook a meal for the whole village; every night was like a party. It was very easy to imagine, as the four men all proved to be the perfect hosts. Not only due to the amazing food, but it was their openness to share their stories and seeing them wandering the room chatting to familiar faces, making new friends, all with huge smiles on their faces.
It was an amazing evening and one I couldn’t recommend enough. It was great to attend this special feast and hear the stories and poetry. Their resilience is truly inspiring, and the great work that they do, alongside Dori, is clearly benefitting all involved. These men may be on bridging Visas, but they are helping to build bridges between community members due to these amazing feasts. It is all too easy to just see faces in the community and not get to know the stories behind them. But it is this sharing of culture that helps to make communities better for everyone.
Dori summed it up perfectly – “people come for the experience, but keep coming back because the food is so good”.
I will definitely be back.
If your looking to book a table head to tamilfeasts.ceres.org.au
Photography Credit: Ruby Nelson-Will