An ear-piercing scream rents the heavy summer air, but Norma Dakhoul – busy mixing a batch of kibbeh nayeh – has heard it all before. The scream comes from her three-year-old niece, Alexia, who has just discovered that the door leading from the kitchen – where three generations of women are preparing a Christmas Eve feast – to the backyard – where family and friends are chatting in anticipation of the meal to come – is closed. And she’s not happy about it.
It’s a problem easily solved and Alexia is soon playing in the yard with cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Almost 40 members of the extended family have gathered at the home of Norma, her husband Edward and their children Alexander and Victoria, to celebrate Christmas with a spread of Lebanese dishes – from kibbeh nayeh (spiced raw minced lamb), to riz a djaj (rice with chicken), ‘collapsed baba’ (Norma’s version of baba ghanouj) and Christmas-specific meghli (spiced rice pudding).
The Dakhoul family are Maronites – the Lebanese arm of the Catholic church: “We’re Catholic with the Middle Eastern flavour,” says Houda, Norma’s sister-in-law.
Norma’s parents, in fact, were married in Sydney’s first Maronite church, St Maroun’s, in 1957. At that time, “Australia was looking to fill the space,” says Norma. “Dad came back and forth three times, and each time, he bought a house. The family went back to Lebanon in 1966 [where Norma was born] and then back to Australia in 1969. Mum hadn’t wanted to move back to Lebanon – women had a hard life there, cooking and looking after the family,” Norma explains. Her family stayed in Australia for another three years, before returning to Lebanon. But this time, “there were problems. The civil war started in 1975, and, in 1978, we moved back here for good. I’ve only been back for a holiday once.”
Norma now runs Lebanese cooking classes and says “cooking is so personal and regional that everyone has their own way of doing things”. That’s certainly evident as she begins to plate the kibbeh nayeh, often considered Lebanon’s national dish. Her older sister Therese – who’s usually in charge of this dish – recommends making them “oval but higher”, but Norma opts for a central oval of the spiced meat, which she surrounds with carefully shaped quenelles. “People think all we have is mezze, but we have a huge range,” she says. “I love our pickling and marinating – we really capture the flavours of the season.”
While most of this meal, eaten al fresco on a balmy December evening, is traditional Lebanese food, dessert has a few other influences – most noticeably icing sugar-dusted Greek shortbreads (kourabiethes) from Norma’s sister’s mother-in-law and a very French bûche de Noël – “as Lebanon used to be a French colony,” says Norma.
“We have such a strong Lebanese community in Australia,” she says. “We’re the only ones in the world to have retained so many traditions and family – I think that’s because [Lebanese immigrants to Australia] came from the villages of the north.” As the night deepens, cicadas begin their summer song and the shisha pipe of apple tobacco is shared among the men. There may be other influences, but the traditions of Lebanon run deep.
Photography by Nicholas Watt