I’m a sucker for good spices. Admittedly, I don’t always know how to use them, but keeping my pantry chock-full somehow makes me feel gratified and content, like a more accomplished cook than I am. So, leaving Woolgoolga’s Satnam Indian Spice Mart – an unassuming store brimming with seasonings, lentils and pickles – laden with oversized bags of spices, ranging from those I know (fenugreek seeds) to those I’ve never heard of (charoli), makes me feel I’ve unearthed something special.
When you know the history of Woolgoolga, a town on the north coast of NSW, it makes perfect sense that ingredients synonymous with Indian cuisine are readily and cheaply available here. This quintessential holiday town with picture-perfect beaches, a relaxed, welcoming vibe, surfing and seasonal whale-watching is also home to Australia’s largest regional Sikh settlement, accounting for at least 25 per cent of the town’s 5000-plus population.
To the uninitiated, the majestic Guru Nanak Gurdwara, Woolgoolga’s largest Sikh temple, is a pristine example of Indian architecture set against a rural backdrop. When you’re travelling along the Pacific Highway, it’s a hint of what you’ll find beyond the turn-off.
Opened in 1970, the 'temple on the hill’ is central to daily life for Woolgoolga’s Sikh community. Every Sunday, the town’s 200-odd Sikh families gather there for prayers, beginning at 4am, and langar, a free vegetarian meal prepared in the temple’s kitchen.
Born and bred in Woolgoolga, Rashmere Bhatti, the co-editor of A Punjabi Sikh Community in Australia, believes the fact that the town is geographically tight-knit – you can walk to the temple – is vital to the flourishing of traditional Punjabi culture. 'The thing that’s different about Woolgoolga is the terrain," she says. 'We live near one another, so we’re always walking to one another’s houses and to temple. Being able to do that really builds and maintains contact."
I chat with local identity John Arkan while he prepares onions in his kitchen at home, next door to the temple. Elected as a councillor to Coffs Harbour City Council in 2008, John is much loved around town for his food, which he sells at markets through Curried Away, his catering business. He is also the man to see if you want a tour of the temple. 'I can see Surinder, my wife, leaving the temple now, and she’s bringing some lovely food for me," he says, looking out his window.
Woolgoolga was, in fact, home to a thriving Sikh community long before Guru Nanak Gurdwara opened. In 1968, when the town’s original Sikh temple opened on Hastings Street, it was the first in Australia. Arriving in the early 1940s, the town’s first Punjabi settlers wer e men drawn to the area from other parts of the country on the back of Coffs Harbour’s then fledgling banana industry. Initially working as labourers, they slowly made enough money to buy pockets of land and start growing the fruit themselves.
Today, it’s estimated about 90 per cent of the region’s banana farms are owned by Sikhs. John is among them, having bought his own just a few years ago. 'I love banana farming," he says in that heartfelt way someone might say, 'I love Paris." 'It’s good, physical work and you get to feel the soil and the rain. For me, farming offers a connection to your homeland, and Woolgoolga is my homeland."
John’s family has been in the banana industry in the Woolgoolga area since the early days, which may explain why a prominent street in town is called Arkan Avenue.
'My grandfather came to Australia in 1895, looking for a better life, and my dad owned a number of banana farms just down the coast in Korora," John explains. 'When he fell on tough times in 1969 and couldn’t hold onto the properties, we moved back to Woolgoolga, where the community was closer."
Just weeks after John, then aged three, and his family returned, his father died in a road accident, leaving his mother, Joginder, to raise the children. 'When I think about what that must have been like for Mum, I just can’t work it out," John says. 'She had no English language, no reading, no writing. The mind boggles at how she managed it, but somehow she did."
John, whose full name is John Jorahvar Singh Arkan, can thank his father for his given name. 'Dad’s idea was so correct back then," John says. 'He wanted his children to have English names so we could communicate with the wider community. The point was we might be bearded and turbaned but we’re as dinky-di Australian as they come."
It’s a sentiment that eloquently sums up how Sikhs such as John manage to live in Woolgoolga with their feet comfortably planted in both worlds. Though John grew up surfing on the NSW coast, he travelled to Punjab province in north-west India to find a wife. 'I have enormous respect and patriotism for Australia – it’s home – but I also have an extreme understanding [of] and love for the Sikh faith," John says. 'The fact that bananas provided a good income for Woolgoolga’s early Punjabi settlers allowed them to maintain their language, their culture and their 'look’. That’s really groovy; I’m very proud of that."
Sid Sidhu, a fourth-generation Australian, shares John’s passion for the golden-coloured fruit. Born in Woolgoolga after his father moved there in 1954, Sid has nine hectares of banana trees on a farm on the outskirts of town. 'Like the Sikh faith, which I’m very proud of, bananas are in my blood," he says, busily packing them, when I ask him what it means to be growing the very thing that the town’s Sikh community was built on. 'I travel once or twice a year to India and we speak the language at home. I don’t ever want my kids to lose that."
Like many of the farmers in the area, a few years ago, Sid diversified with blueberries. 'We have [two hectares] of those now," he says, 'and Oz Berries, a co-op that represents 72 local blueberry growers, turns over about $10 million a year. That’s good for the whole community."
Blueberries aren’t the only things that are relatively new to Woolgoolga. In this seaside town that has been lucky – or perhaps smart enough – to maintain its laid-back village atmosphere, change has gradually made its mark. The spice mart is a good example.
'When I was a child," says Rashmere Bhatti, 'Mum had to dry chilli and coriander and all types of spices herself on a big white sheet in the sun in the backyard. Then, in the 1980s, people started sourcing spices from Indian grocers. Now, of course, with even the regular supermarkets stocking things like cumin, accessing those ingredients is so much easier." In fact, specialised spice stores aside, Woolgoolga’s IGA is possibly kitted out with the largest and most impressive spice section I’ve ever seen in a regular supermarket.
Recently, Rashmere established a new business in town. Called Experience India Down Under, it’s a weekend package with plenty on offer. It includes a 'backstage pass’ to everything about the Sikh community, from temple visits and an introduction to Sikh spiritual beliefs, to home-cooked meals and a chai ceremony, plus tours of local banana and blueberry farms and a lesson in Bollywood dancing.
'I wanted to create something new, something that would offer interested people an insight into Woolgoolga’s Punjabi culture," says Rashmere. After travelling through Europe and India, where she met Jasmer, her husband, she eventually returned to Woolgoolga because it was where she wanted to raise her family. 'I was always being asked about the town’s history and, after doing research for the book, starting the weekend experience made sense."
It also makes sense that Woolgoolga is home to Curryfest, an annual event in its sixth year that shines the spotlight on curry. It has become so popular that more than 10,000 attendees relish the chance to sample every conceivable type of curry and to absorb the majesty and ceremony that surrounds all things Sikh. John’s Curried Away van is one of the festival’s drawcards. 'I love it. Serving food invariably turns into a conversation where people want to know more about Sikhism," he says. When I ask him which of his dishes, if he had to choose just one, is the stand-out, he doesn’t hesitate. 'Definitely my yellow lentil dahl. I tell people it’s the best in the world. You won’t find the recipe in a cookbook or in any restaurant; it’s my mum’s. I cook it exactly the way she does because Mum has given me so much and I can never repay her for that. I take my turban off to her."
The hit list
Satnam Indian Spice Mart
This store specialises in Indian spices; it also stocks a full range of other Indian cooking ingredients. 45 River St, (02) 6654 7866.
Planet Fruit & Vege
A good spot to pick up fresh fruit and vegies, much of it locally grown, and an extensive range of Indian spices and cooking necessities. 60 River St, (02) 6654 2488.
Staged every first and fourth Saturday of the month, the market’s attractions include live music and vibrant stalls selling everything from food to Indian-inspired clothing and trinkets. Beach Reserve, 7am–2pm.
Taste John Arkan’s food at the bimonthly Bollywood Market or at the annual Curryfest, which is usually held in early April. Visit curryfest.com.au.
Open from 5pm every night, this restaurant offers a menu full of Indian favourites, from mild to hot. 5/31 River St, (02) 6654 1900.
Its modern Australian menu is extensive, delicious and well priced, and the eatery is open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week, plus dinner on Friday and Saturday. Cnr Beach and Wharf Sts, (02) 6654 1962.
Woolgoolga Beach Caravan Park
Offering cabins and powered sites for caravans, this park has the best location in Woolgoolga, smack bang in the centre of town and right on the beach. 55 Beach St, (02) 6654 1373, coffscoastholidayparks.com.au.
The Waterside Cabins at Woolgoolga
Most of these freestanding cabins, from studio to three-bedroom, have water views, plus there’s a swimming pool. 8 Hearns Lake Rd, (02) 6654 1644, watersidecabins.com.au.
Solitary Islands Lodge
The rooms have views of the mountains and Solitary Islands Marine Park. 3 Arthur St, (02) 6654 1335, solitaryislandslodge.com.au.