A day trip to Bankstown in Sydney is an eyeful of fresh ingredients and a whole lot of culture. Even a quick trip for lunch opens up a new world.
Bankstown, past and present
Although Bankstown is only 16 kilometres south-west of the Sydney CBD it feels like it could be several continents away. The CBD of Bankstown is clustered around the railway station. The ethnic diversity of the suburb doesn’t take much hunting down. The cafes, shops, street stalls and food shops spill onto the street. The city of Bankstown and immediate surroundings are known as perhaps one of the most multicultural places in Sydney. There are over 60 languages spoken here and that makes for one interesting day trip.
Once this area was covered in Turpentine Ironbark forests and was home to the Bediagal people. Their land bordered the Dharawal and the Darung people. ( of the Merrylands area). The first explorations of this part of Sydney were made by traveling by boat up the Georges river in 1795. The area was named after Joseph Banks, a botanist who arrived with James Cook when he invaded Australia in 1770. The first town hall was erected in 1898 showing they had well and truly settled in by then. The population began to increase after World war 11 with migrants coming from all over the world to settle in Bankstown. The rents were cheap and the food already diverse due to the large numbers of Chinese and Greek immigrants who had already started to move in.
Day tripping to Bankstown
Today, it’s a straight forward trip to Bankstown station. Leave the station and you could encounter Lebanese, Greek, Vietnamese, Nigeran, Somalian and Egyptian food to name a few. It could require a couple of trips! As with most suburbs, you will experience different areas that showcase the many local cultures and food. This is a peek into the area rather than a guide on where you should go.
Bankstown in pictures
The first stop for us is a late breakfast at the locally lauded Banh Cuon, Kim Thanh, 7/ 313 Chapel Street is in the back of 313 Plaza. This is a little restaurant with a big reputation. Kim Thanh has been pumping out Bahn Cuon for fifteen years around the local community, and this is the new permanent home. Kim’s son has taken over the reins and is planning to franchise the restaurant eventually. It’s a simple enough idea.
What is a Bahn Cuon ?
Bahn Cuon is a sort of warm rice noodle dish. They use a thin fermented rice batter and spread it onto round flat disc, a bit like making a crepe. It’s then steamed and gently folded before serving warm. The sheets are thin and delicate and are sometimes served just plain with fried ecshallots and nuoc cham. They’re also served with minced pork or sliced meats or mushrooms and tofu amongst other things.
Vietnamese food is so fresh and balanced and these are no exception. They are served on a platter with fresh lettuce, beans sprouts, and fried shallots. Roll up your noodles and fillings in a leaf and eat it all with the sauce. It is a so delicious and though we are stuffing our faces at lunch time, it is generally eaten for breakfast everywhere in Vietnam.
Olympic continental deli 38/40 Bankstown City Plaza is the longest running deli in Sydney. A bastion of Greek hospitality, the shop is in its original condition. The big shopfront window sporting strings of smoked meats hanging, as if from some forgotten time, will demand your attention as you walk by.
It opened in 1956 and has been in the Karpouzis family for 64 years. Peter migrated to Australia in 1948 from the village of Paleokipos, Lesvos. After deciding to improve the local food scene he opened a deli which he called “The Olympic continental deli” in the hope it would draw some marketing attention during the Olympics in Melbourne that year.
His daughter now rules the roost here. The counters are original and there is a butchery down the back. The service is personal and friendly and they look comfortable behind that counter like – they have been there for 64 years
Nam Fong Hot Bread and Banh Mi Bay Ngo 49 and 56 City plaza are conducting the Banh Mi wars right here. Depending on which “best Bahn Mi in Bankstown” sign you read, you’ll be eating Vietnam’s most popular export- a crunchy roll filled with chicken or pork and pickled vegetables with soy and bucket loads of chilli.
Just on down Chapel street past fish markets, meat stores, spectacular Asian supermarkets, and street stalls, there is a middle eastern gem Chehade El Bahsa and Sons. Although we are here for sweets this shop also does some savoury snacks and food too. The mountains of baklava, custard, and clotted cream-filled sweets is very enticing. They have a Lebanese version of Knafeh here made with semolina custard and topped with clotted cream.
On the other side of the station, along Appian Way, there’s a different vibe. The stores aren’t out on the pavement but they are just as impressive. We pass Khalil’s Lebanese Pizza The huge oven with the blue flames will mesmerise you as you watch your flagrantly Za’atar coated manouche or pizza cook. These Lebanese breads use a yeasted dough just like pizza dough, rolled out nice and thin. This one has a pleasant fluffy texture with one side smothered in Za’atar and the other side with fresh curd-like mozzarella melted on top. Za’atar is a combination of salt, thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds. Khalils make the pizzas with cheese, sliced meats, and lots of other fillings as well. My favorite is always the plain za’atar
We’re running out of time and stomach room so we decide that Afandi Cafe on Appian Way will be dessert time (again). Although they make all kinds of snacks here, the star is the Knafeh. Here, they make a very different version of Knafeh that’s made with sweetened stretchy curd cheese. You can find this version from Palestine and Jordan and Egypt. There’s an unusual cooking method and if you like you can watch them make it at the counter. Grab an Arabic coffee or a sage tea. These could be served to you by the owner, a Palestinian who has been in Australia for only 4 years. He’s also a doctor ánd was excited to tell us he has just passed his last assessment to be certified in Australia. Let’s hope he doesn’t quit making Knafeh.
A few doors up the road is Valley View Continental Groceries and Spices this is a place you must visit. Walk past the display of vegetables and the shelves of canned goods till you get to the spice display. There is every spice you have ever heard of. The sight and smell of Biriyani Spice, and a banging Peri Peri spice were enough to have me itching to get home and cook. If you head down the back you’ll find cheese, tea, honey and a huge olive display. Save your pennies and head here for spices. My only problem with this shop is that there are no prices on the spices.