Under the table: Australia’s dazzlingly diverse underground kitchen | Australian food and drink


DDuring the Sydney lockdown, I ordered from a different home cook every Friday night, for me and my neighbors. I discovered each cook from community groups or social media pages for migrant communities in Sydney – East African, Thai, English.

Sometimes home cooks had a professional social media presence, a delivery provider, or even a website to order from; but often my lead was just a person’s name – then I had to find her and befriend her on Facebook before asking about a food delivery for the following Friday. Some had menus, others just asked “what do you want?” And let me choose from the full range of their specialty cuisine.

Among many, many other things, I ate a box of Georgian pasture with eggplant rolls stuffed with walnut paste; and such a huge Afghan feast that I ate it for almost a week.

Dishes prepared by Curry House including pittu and sambol, Jaffna crab curry and mus (black pork and yellow jackfruit curry), manyokka and onion chili sambol and egg rotti. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian

I’ve been a food journalist for eight years and had never seen most of these dishes in Sydney restaurants. It wasn’t an expensive novelty either – most meals were under $ 25, and almost all of them were delivered to my door by the person who prepared them, a friend or family member.

Sydney, like many major cities in Australia, is full of home cooks who work that way. You may not have heard of it, as many sell and deliver food only within their community.

I mean this practice is on the rise, but I don’t have any stats. There are not any. Many home cooks are moonlighting: they may not have a registered business; they may not have had a council inspection in their kitchen; they may not label all of the ingredients in the prepackaged foods they sell, or attach an expiration date, and they may not have a food handling certificate – everything you might need to run a food business from your home. residence. The dishes I described were from legally managed kitchens, but many of my meals were not.

Georgian pasture box
A Georgian pasture box that Nicholas Jordan tried, containing adjapsandali, beet pkhali, lobio, badrijani, suluguni and Georgian bread, from a registered and legal family cooking business. Photography: Shicika Gupta

Late last year, the Australian Institute of Food Safety (AIFS) said food ordered from unregulated family kitchens via social media could pose a health and safety risk (especially for consumers). people with allergies), and warned consumers that any business selling through social media is potentially illegal. . In a report posted on their website, they claimed that regulators and boards were working “tirelessly” to shut down unregistered businesses but, with the constant emergence of new businesses, it was “difficult to do so. eliminate completely ”.

On Facebook Marketplace, WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram, WeChat, and Gumtree, home cooks sell everything from elaborate tiered cakes to traditional Kenyan cuisine. You’ll find food vendors on just about any regulatory-compliant online platform that can connect one stranger to another.

Of the ten or so home cooks I interviewed for this story, those who weren’t registered operated that way either because they needed an income, but couldn’t get a work visa or government assistance; or because they didn’t see their practice as a business at all – more as a hobby or a favor for their community.

Some were in the process of being registered as home cooks, or planning to open restaurants once they had enough capital. A 2019 SBS Urdu report found that many home cooks operating in Sydney knew little or no knowledge of the regulations.

This was the case with a home cook I interviewed, who prepares specific regional Indian cuisine that is not available in any restaurant in Sydney. Originally, she agreed to speak officially, but I omitted her name, after it became apparent that she had not taken all of the steps necessary to operate her business legally.

She says she started her home cooking business after seeing comments on social media from people who missed their hometown dishes. “I didn’t think ‘What’s going to happen?’ I just said ‘You don’t need to go to a restaurant, you can just contact me’. I didn’t think I would have a positive response. I just started the word, but that night I got seven responses.

Kalani Oshadi runs Curry House, a registered and legally operating Sri Lankan home cooking business, along with two other hospitality students, Shanilka and Umanda Suraweera. She says that during the first few weeks most of Curry House’s customers were friends, and now they are mostly Sri Lankans who “have lived here for a long time but can’t cook”. Oshadi says cooking for a small community allows them to cook more elaborate or difficult dishes.

The Maison Curry team.  (Left to right) Shanilka Suraweera, Kalani Oshadi holding Koss et Mus (black pork and yellow jackfruit curry) and Umanda Suraweera
The Maison Curry team. (Left to right) Shanilka Suraweera, Kalani Oshadi and Umanda Suraweera. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian

“It’s much easier in a small community than in a restaurant. If we had started with a restaurant, we wouldn’t have lasted long, ”she says.

“People don’t know Sri Lankan food, they might be afraid to try. If it’s Italian, everyone knows what Napoletana sauce is. If it’s a jackfruit curry, even you’ve asked so many questions about it. I told you what food is, how it’s made, why it tastes like this. It takes a lot of time and effort to market a single dish.

Starting a home cooking business is cheap and easy, compared to the cost of starting a restaurant. There is no kitchen or dining room layout; no cutlery or crockery. No marketing, no front desk staff to hire, train, and pay, no liquor license (or expensive provision of pre-purchased liquor), and no additional rent.

For some of the home cooks I’ve spoken to, a single comment or post on Facebook, or word of mouth through friends, was enough to start their business. “The capital you need is really low, it’s a lot easier than building a market stall,” says Oshadi. “It only costs $ 20 to market our product on Facebook, much more convenient than doing business the traditional way.”

Unlike a restaurant working with delivery partners like Uber Eats or Menulog, most home kitchen companies I spoke with take all of their orders well in advance – they designate a day or two for delivery, then only prepare enough food to meet the orders they already have, reducing waste.

Cooking at Curry House, Greenacre
Cooking at Curry House, Greenacre. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian

Cookaborough, a new app that Curry House has just started using, is designed exactly around this model, as is another Australian Food Street start-up. These platforms are more formal than social media sales – both require their cooks to comply with food safety standards and council regulations before signing up, making it a safer bet for customers.

With so little overhead it is much easier to make a profit as a home cook, while for customers it means lower prices. It would be a win-win situation, provided home cooks follow the same safety precautions consumers and regulators expect from restaurants.

Oshadi says it is the responsibility of home cooks to register. “We feed people. It is not good when people do not follow the regulations, it is a serious health problem. She believes non-compliance could put the entire industry at risk. “Even though we are not a restaurant, we should be treated as one restaurant. “

But Nitika Garg, consumer behavior researcher and associate professor at UNSW, says regulators should think about cheaper compliance practices, as well as education and training, especially in communities. where home cooking businesses are prevalent.

Garg thinks there are all kinds of reasons people can turn to a home cook, from a perceived authenticity in the idea of ​​cooking at home, to the idea that you are supporting an individual of your own. community – rather than say, a big business.

Pittu and sambol
Pittu and sambol. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins / The Guardian

As it stands, even interpreting the rules set by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), and then enforced by state and council authorities, can be difficult for those with limited English skills. The stakes for home cooks are also high – many boards charge hefty fines for any regulatory violations.

When I reached out to FSANZ and the NSW Food Authority about regulating home businesses, neither agency claimed to review the regulations that govern home cooks. The latter says he was working with the councils “in response to anecdotal reports of increased home food production to further improve monitoring and enforcement,” and the former says he is examining the tools that companies food could potentially be used to improve health and safety.

“Make it easy for people,” Garg suggests. “Why not bring them into the fold? “


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