Reaching out: How Sahar Elsemary tells stories with food

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Before she proceeded walking, Sahar Elsemary paused in front of the halal butcher, gathering everyone together to explain what it means to be Muslim.

As a Taste Cultural Food Tours guide, Elsemary said she hopes to be able to educate people about the Middle Eastern culture, from food through to religion.

Elsemary’s desire to teach stems back to when she still lived in Egypt and was an English literature teacher.

She recalled growing up in Egypt meant eating a lot of Egyptian food, mainly because the variety wasn’t as extensive as it is in Australia. Her favourite, she said, was her mum’s rice pudding.

“I remember my mum use to cook for us this rice pudding dish, and I would eat it with the spoon until I could completely lick it over. She made it for us, especially in winter, and when the pot was still hot she’d call me saying, ‘Sahar I’m almost done pouring the pudding into the plate, so you can eat it now’. I would then start licking the bowl itself, and eat all of the leftovers.

“My dad would look over and go, ‘Sahar what you’re doing is really gross!’”

But since moving to Australia in 1997, after meeting her now-husband, who was holidaying at the time in Egypt, her tastebuds have since been exposed to other cuisines, including her favourite, Thai.

“I’m completely hooked on Thai food, and so are my kids,” said the mother of four.

“When it was raining really heavily one day, the kids told me they weren’t going to go to school, but asked me if I could take them out for lunch to House of Thai. They love food, and they’re quite adventurous with food like me.”

However, she can’t say the same about her husband’s palate.

“My husband is so fussy about his food. He’s so fussy he won’t eat anything unless it’s chicken breast, and very dry, and very really cooked.”

Although in comparison to the days when they started living together it has improved, Elsemary explained, saying during those days he didn’t eat meat at all.

“Oh my god, I love to eat meat so much. When we first got married, I was really angry and really upset because he’s like, ‘no I don’t eat meat’. But I started to introduce him to it bit by bit,” she said.

She also believed that her cooking skills to accommodate to the tastebuds of her family have been because of the help of her mother-in-law.

“When I first came to Australia I learned from her, and then when I went back to Egypt I’d watch my mum and see what she’s making. I also started looking at new recipes and I just got hooked into learning,” she said.

Elsemary said Egyptian food is similar to Lebanese food, but a lot richer and often uses more spices, such a one lentil dish known as mujaddra to the Lebanese, and Kushari to the Egyptians.

“It’s just because Egypt has been invaded and so many. Italian, French, English and Indians, so it’s so rich we even Romans, Greeks and the Turkish, so know one missed out on Egypt, They stayed for a 100 years and left,” she said.

Food also became an outlet for Elsemary when she was still figuring out what she wanted to do after moving her life to Australia. At one point, she was taking TAFE Outreach courses to battle with loneliness.

“The Outreach courses were really good for my mental health. But when I first arrived I really made the effort to get out, to take public transport, and go to different meetings, and that’s how I also met new people,” she said

The courses eventually inspired her take up a micro business operations certificate II at TAFE, which allowed her to kickstart her own catering business, Sasa’s Corner.

“The idea came about in 2012 when I thought I really wanted to open my own restaurant, but it just wasn’t feasible because of the costs involved,” she said.

“So I thought why not open a catering business because it’s a lot more affordable. Now I specialise in making these Egyptian biscuits I’ve also even cooked twice for former governor-general Quentin Bryce.”

As an extension to that, Elsemary has been a Taste Cultural Food Tours guide for the past four-and-a-half years, noting it brought two of her passions in life together: food and meeting people.

“It was by accident. While I was waiting for my son at school to come out, a lady from Taste Tour was like ‘Sahar, what are you doing now?’ and I told her I was still looking for work, and she said, ‘why don’t you join the tours?’ and that’s how I started,” she said.

Disclosure: Community Table attended the Taste Food Tours Guide of Lakemba courtesy of Taste Tours.

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