This was chef Simon Zalloua's travel strategy for Lebanon: jump on a bus – guided by his "minimal Arabic" – and hope that he was headed in the right direction. "I was taking trips that would take an hour and they’d charge me the equivalent of $2," he says.
It was an approach that took him to Furn bakery in Ras el Nabeh, Beirut, which sells handbag-shaped kaak – a pastry known as Lebanese purse bread. His bus trips also sent him to Lebanon's coastline, where he ate fried whitebait and lupini beans and drank beer by the Mediterranean. "You swore you were on a Greek island," he says.
His itinerary also directed him into shawarma joints, like Basterma Mano, which had been serving meat off the spit for more than 50 years – conveniently in small, snackable portions. "Over there, you'll go get a kebab or shawarma and it's tiny," says Zalloua. "So you can get two or three and still feel great."
The chef's culinary tour wasn't just about filling his appetite – via Lebanon's many bus routes – it was also a research mission for his new eatery: Jimmy's Falafel, which Merivale is opening in Sydney's CBD. It was also a way for Zalloua to tap into his Lebanese roots. Although the chef was born in Australia, and his family has lived here for decades, many relatives are still based in Lebanon. Travelling north to reconnect with them was a one-of-a-kind experience.
"I met up with some family, they took me to this really amazing institution of a bakery that my mother's grandmother opened 120-odd years ago," he says. At Zakhia Bakery in Zgharta, his family has been serving warm loaves from its stone-built oven for decades – but the shop also stands out for another reason. On Sundays, the bakery brings the community together.
"People would come from home with their trays of kafta or kibbeh and this bakery would throw it in the oven and cook it for them. It was amazing,” says the chef. "Not only could you take your kibbeh there, but you'd grab your bread at the same time, it was like a meal in itself."
Because Zalloua is planning to open a falafel joint, it was essential he try the deep-fried Middle Eastern staple while in Lebanon. A standout was Falafel Tabbara in Beirut's Hamra neighbourhood, which had been run by the same owner for decades.
"It was a one-man show and he'd been there for 35 years," says the chef. "He survived the civil war, he had stayed open all the way through it."
So what was his food like?
"It was simple: it was bread, herbs, pickles, tahini and falafel. It was like: wow. And again, it was $2. Give me three of those, please."
While Zalloua had been to Lebanon before – initially 20 years ago, with his brother, and several times since with his family – this trip especially stood out, because it was the first time he visited the country alone.
It also helped him "find what the soul of the food was about", says the chef, whose restaurant career started two decades ago. "I've been cooking this cuisine for such a long time, but sometimes you need that inspiration to get you back on track and that's what this trip was all about."
While Jimmy's Falafel features a menu that expands beyond Lebanon, there's no doubt that the country – and his family – has deeply influenced the chef's approach. In Australia, his aunty runs Rowda Ya Habibi in Sydney's Newtown. Zalloua is well-acquainted with its cabbage rolls, kibbeh, hummus and "amazing" lentil and rice. But the chef's biggest culinary influence is his mother. His palate and the way he cooks by hand – "that has come from her", he says.
"Mum's really amazing with the village foods, the stuff you're not going to find at a Lebanese restaurant." Like chicken rice and monk's soup (a vegetarian dish eaten during Lent).
Despite a childhood where he happily ate all kinds of animal offcuts ("I've been brought up with stuffed intestines, slow-cooked brains and tongue"), he credits his mother for inspiring Jimmy's Falafel and its Middle Eastern, veg-heavy focus.
"Mum's really amazing with the village foods, the stuff you're not going to find at a Lebanese restaurant."
"That region has probably the best vegan/vegetarian food in the world," he says.
Of course, the deep-fried balls are the star of the menu. Zalloua, understandably, has spent a long time getting the recipe right – frying 1,800 falafel samples over three months to perfect the flavour. "Every time we did a new recipe, we made sure to serve three or four different types of pickled chillies, the pickled cucumbers were different. It was all a group activity."
Anyone tackling falafel knows that there's a lot of conflicting opinions – and geographical differences – regarding how it should be done. In Egypt, the staple is made with broad beans, while anyone in Lebanon or Israel will bite into falafel shaped from chickpeas. Zalloua has taken a little from column A and a little from column B: his version blends the two.
His sous-chef hails from Tel Aviv, where people reach for green chilli to give falafel a fresh, fiery sharpness – whereas, in Lebanon, they don't. At Jimmy's Falafel, though, Zalloua departs from his roots and notches the firepower up a little with Israeli-style chilli. Cumin, coriander and seven spice also add earthy, punchy notes.
Also, instead of a Lebanese or Syrian-style wrap, he's opted for a pita pocket, which is more of an Egyptian or Israeli move.
"We can hand-stretch the bread every morning before we open the doors," he says.
It's hand-shaped and blasted through a wood-fired oven, and he worked with Vincenzo Biondini from Merivale's Vinnie's Pizza, to get the dough right. The falafel will be deep-fried to order. It will sizzle away for minutes in a round fryer, just like the one at Falafel Tabbara in Beirut, before it's scooped into a pita pocket and layered with hummus, tahini, tomato, pickled turnips and wild cucumbers, and jammed with a healthy smattering of mint and parsley.
"In Israel, they'll serve falafel with amba, which is a mango relish, or zhug, which is coriander and green chilli," he says – so he's offering diners those options as well. "There are so many different dimensions to falafel."
There'll also be wraps filled with fried eggplant or cauliflower, and gluten-free options too, from the takeaway kiosk part of Jimmy's Falafel. The bar/restaurant area will serve mezze: perhaps eggplant salad, hummus, broad beans with garlic and chicken liver skewers on charcoal.
"When you say, 'OK, you're cooking the food of your family and your heritage,' there's definitely pressure there," Zalloua says. But his mum has already approved his falafel ("which is important") and he thinks when his family come to Jimmy's Falafel, it will be like "they're sitting at the dining table at home", he says.
Sure, the music choices might be different, but the experience is bound to be memorable, as it's been shaped by 1,800 attempts to make falafel, bus trips for Lebanese purse bread, and shawarma joints and bakeries with decades of history.
Jimmy's Falafel has opened its doors in the Ivy Precinct in Sydney's CBD.
These triangular pasties are based on a Lebanese speciality called fatayer, and use soft bread dough, rather than pastry, to enclose the filling. I like frozen spinach for this recipe – it’s very easy to use and actually produces a less watery mixture.
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Change things up from the better-known kofta and falafel and try these fragrant Lebanese lamb balls. Inside, a pine nut-laced, richly spiced lamb treat awaits.
Grilled zucchini lays the bed for this vibrant mix of herbs and veggies, topped with sumac and, of course, Lebanese flatbread.