Sarah Shaweesh believes that formative experiences often unfold around tables. When Shaweesh was growing up in Jordan, she was the recipient of communal feasts cooked by her aunt and shaped by the women in her family.
These memories are stamped all over Khamsa Cafe, an eatery in Newtown, Sydney, that combines Middle Eastern flavours and textures with a plant-based culinary ethos.
Sarah, whose family is Palestinian, was born in Australia but much of her childhood was in Jordan.
"Everyone lived in six units across an apartment block and my dad's sister used to cook for the whole family," says Shaweesh, who has also lived parts of her life in Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
"I've always been around women cooking together and experimenting with food. My aunt would have a spread of different dishes but at Khamsa Cafe, I wanted to [prove] that you could enjoy traditional Middle Eastern food without animal products. I wanted to show Sydney a different way of eating — that even if you're not vegan, you could still eat a colourful, beautiful meal."
Shaweesh, who learned to cook at home, got her start in the food world baking cakes for a friend's cafe. Then she discovered a talent for conceiving vegan treats infused with the flavours of her upbringing — doughnuts with rosewater and pistachio, chocolate cake topped with Turkish Delight icing.
She started her catering business, Khamsa, in 2015 before relocating to London, and opened her Sydney cafe upon her return in March this year.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, Khamsa is filled with friends catching up over dishes like Imam Fainted, eggplant stuffed with chickpea salad and couscous, and Baby Don't Freekeh: freekeh crowned with roasted baby carrots, coconut-tahini yoghurt and pomegranate seeds, and a tomato-and-spiced-okra stew served with roasted nuts and vermicelli. Solo diners pore over books with freshly juiced beetroot lattes for company.
Shaweesh says the mushroom crepes and Bedouin Roll — a breakfast roll stuffed with fried cauliflower, mint, coriander and tomato — have fast become favourites among both vegan and non-vegan customers.
Khamsa Cafe, she says, reflects her cultural background and influences. But it's also an expression of her broader worldview.
"The word 'Khamsa', which translates to five, is also the name for the Hand of Fatima which many Middle Eastern people wear [as jewellery] for protection, but it also related to the yoga principle, Ahimsa, which is about not doing harm to others," she explains, adding that the symbol is considered a symbol of peace.
"I want them to sit with people that they don't know."
"For me as a Palestinian, [cooking] plant-based food is a form of activism because I feel like animals are oppressed and it reminds me of other kinds of oppression, the ways in which my people have been oppressed."
Food can symbolise our differences, sure, but it can also be a great leveller.
"At Khamsa, I have larger, communal tables because I want people to feel that they are entering a house," she says. "I want them to sit with people that they don't know."
Shop 3/612-622 King St, Sydney
Open 7:00 am – 3:00 pm from Tuesday to Sunday
If you know the Deli, these doughnuts don’t need any introduction. You know it, I know it; they are THE BEST. We have customers who won’t even go to the pastry case, but just come straight to the register and order their usual: coffee and a doughnut. I’ve tried asking them, ‘Don’t you want to know the flavour today?’ (We change them every day.) But they always reply with some variation of, ‘Nope, I know it’s going to be good, no matter what’. And no matter how wacky the flavours sometimes get, the customer is well and truly right – they’re always good.
Battered eggplant slices meet "cheese" in this vegan-friendly eggplant parmigiana. The Chefs' Line