If the Melbourne lockdown has kept you away from its CBD over the last few months, you'll return to find something new in Federation Square. It's atiyah, a counter specialising in Lebanese manakish — flatbread which encases fillings like za'atar, lamb and cheese.
The first Australian off-grid, zero-carbon kitchen
But atiyah is not just another food stand, the project of Ben Armstrong and his mother-in-law Therese Helou is also the first off-grid, zero-carbon kitchen certified by Climate Active in Australia.
The concept of atiyah sprouted two years ago when Helou was thinking of coming back to Australia after years spent in Lebanon.
Armstrong recalls, "I asked myself, where can [Helou's] passion for food and mine for sustainability meet?"
The answer was to make the type of manakish that Helou grew up eating for breakfast and lunch, while using local ingredients and minimising carbon emissions.
The kitchen is not connected to electricity or water mains. The energy that's needed to supply it comes from solar panels connected to an accompanying battery, and a generator powered by waste cooking oil. Rainwater is collected and filtered for cooking and drinking. Another system transforms water into a cleaner and sanitiser to avoid the use of detergent and bleach. Wastewater is sent to community gardens.
"A lot of thought has gone into the layout so we can use every single millimetre in the kitchen," explains Armstrong.
"We want to be the leaders and set that standard so the industry can start changing."
The food comes in compostable packaging, and customers are encouraged to BYO drink bottles.
While he recognises that becoming zero-carbon is a lengthy and costly process, Armstrong hopes that atiyah will inspire hospitality businesses to become more sustainable.
"We want to be the leaders and set that standard so the industry can start changing," he says.
Only the best ingredients
The manakish are made with organic whole-wheat flour from Victoria and cooked on a saj, a large dome-shaped griddle.
Because za'atar is the most popular traditional topping, Helou spent a long time perfecting the right blend. "To get the za'atar, you have to go to choose the mix, it's not close by," Helou says.
"I'm usually in Beirut, but we spend summertime in the mountains so I had to travel to the other side of the mountains," she explains. "I mixed it. It's the flavour I thought everyone would like, especially in Australia. Some za'atar are very strong, but ours is very fresh."
"When you have a passion for something, you get it done."
Armstrong sent her samples of Victorian olive oil so she could pick the best matched za'atar.
Helou should have been back in Australia by now, but she had to stay in Lebanon to care for her sick mother when the pandemic hit. Then, the explosion in Beirut in August destroyed part of her kitchen. Despite the rough year, she hasn't stopped working on atiyah from afar.
"When you have a passion for something, you get it done, even during the most difficult times," she says.
Helou shared her recipes with Armstrong and coached him to make manakish via video calls.
Prices range from $4 for the za'atar manakish to $10 for manakish with ground lamb, goat labneh with olives or vegan cheese with roasted sesame. You can also order hummus, baba ghanoush and labneh as dips. Sweet toppings like hazelnut chocolate and cashew caramel are all plant-based.
Helou hopes to be back in Australia next year to continue working on the menu. And if everything goes to plan, you'll see more atiyah appearing all over the country and internationally over the coming years.
Federation Square, Melbourne
11am - 9pm
7 days now
Man'oushe (singular to the plural manakish) is a popular Levantine flatbread topped with anything from za'atar to ground meat, or Hoda's Australianised version with Vegemite and cheese. They are typically enjoyed for breakfast or lunch.
Za'atar is an aromatic, Middle Eastern spice blend commonly used to flavour dishes and season bread. Okra, whilst not widely known in Australia, is revered in other countries for its nutrients, delicate texture and unique flavour. The secret to this ingredient is cooking it whole, so the okra can maintain its lovely texture. Serve this dish hot or at room temperature.