• A Darling Square eatery helps asylum seekers rebuild their lives. (Sue Park)Source: Sue Park
The man behind food-focused social enterprise Parliament On King has a new eatery — Uma Curry & Roti. Its menu is worldly and cooked by refugees.
Lee Tran Lam

3 May 2021 - 3:08 PM  UPDATED 24 Jun 2021 - 1:12 PM

Uma Curry & Roti in Sydney's Darling Square is as inclusive as it gets.

The menu is built with everyone in mind: the meat offerings are halal, half the curries are vegan and they're all gluten-free. This curry house also showcases its refugee-run kitchen and gives asylum seekers vital work opportunities. 

So it's apt that its name is just as community-minded.  

Its founder, Ravi Prasad, tells SBS Food, "We wanted something that reflected South Asian origins. Uma is a goddess and it's also short for umama, which is an Arabic word, which loosely means community. In Europe, people call their grandmother 'uma', and Uma is also my aunty's name. So it works."

Prasad opened Uma Curry & Roti in March. It follows on from his work at Parliament On King in Erskineville with his partner Della Zhang, where they turned their literal home into a cafe to help refugees. They transformed their living room into a training ground for asylum seekers to become baristas, chefs and other hospitality employees. During the pandemic, Parliament On King has also been donating soup to people in need.

This cafe's soup is a lifeline for refugees during the pandemic
What happens when your refugee-run business is devastated by the COVID-19 lockdown? The Soup of Human Kindness is the answer.

At Uma Curry & Roti, it's spiced comfort food that brings people together.

"This is what my Indian family would eat at home: curry, rice and roti. So it was a good fit culturally for everyone and personally to me," he says.

The menu here can cross borders: the flaky roti comes from Sri Lanka, while the Burmese curries are made by head chef, Sally, a refugee from Myanmar who started cooking at Parliament On King six years ago. There are Pakistani and Bangladeshi dishes, too. The menu's multicultural nature reflects the worldly origins of its staff. The refugees that rotate between Uma and Parliament On King have come from all points of the globe; some have fled war zones and others are escaping religious persecution.

5 standout refugee initiatives that harness the cultural power of food
Food brings people together, creates conversations and crosses cultural boundaries and here's how you can get involved.

"One chef I interviewed today…had been trafficked. So it's a very big thing for her to be moving out into the world," says Prasad. "Some of them have lived through terrible trauma."

It's why he builds a strong sense of community at his eateries — particularly when asylum seekers have fled their homelands in stressful circumstances, often by boat. They usually emerge from long periods in detention centres and find themselves in a new country where they know no one.

"Everything we try to do is as family," he says. "The loudest noise in the kitchen is people laughing."

Prasad says cooking can help refugees connect with society in a powerful way.

"When you present someone with your food — something from your home, your family, something of your story — and someone says, 'oh my God, it's beautiful, tell me about the food', you start to understand that you bring something really beautiful that's really important and special," he says.

"More than anything else in the world, people need to belong," he says. "If there's anything we do, hopefully, it's open a door that people can walk through, a place they can belong … I think that's really at the heart of what we do."

"If there's anything we do, hopefully, it's open a door that people can walk through, a place they can belong."

That's what they’ve done for head chef, Sally, who comes from a restaurant-running family in Myanmar. Her brother is also a chef in New York and her late sister was also a talented cook.

"All the recipes are my family's," says Sally. "We had a family business in our country. We always used them."

In Uma's kitchen, colourful supplies of garam masala, turmeric, roasted chickpea powder and other spices line the wall. Sally toasts cumin to add extra flavour to dishes and she marinades her potatoes before deep frying them to create her pumpkin and potato curry. "It tastes better. That's my way," she says.

On the day of SBS Food's visit, Sally's helped out by Vivian, a refugee from Iraq, and Mojdeh, from Iran, who is spending her first day at Uma.

"I miss working," says Mojdeh, who left Iran when she was 16. "I was in Turkey for four years. Every day I went to work."

She was a barista at a busy venue in the northwestern city of Balıkesir. "I made a lot of coffees," she says. In fact, Mojdeh would regularly make more than 30 types of coffee. That's how many were on the menu at her workplace, where she'd add flowers, strawberries, chocolate and nuts to flavour the coffee.

This Instagram account showcases the rich flavours of refugee-run businesses
Welcome Merchant helps refugee-led eateries and food companies gain a following – from Palestinian knafeh bakers to Persian jam makers.

Vivian, who is from Baghdad, also has hospitality experience. "I worked in Syria in many restaurants. I worked here in Liverpool at an Iraqi restaurant."

Although she loves cooking for Parliament On King and Uma, she'd love to have a career in fashion design.

"I used to work in Turkey in wedding dresses," she says. "Me and my sister used to make a lot of dresses."

Sometimes the team is helped out by Sue Park, operations manager for Uma and Parliament On King. During our visit, the rice cooker malfunctioned and the kitchen found itself overrun with rice orders — and nothing but uncooked grains to offer guests who wanted something with their curries. So Park sprinted around Darling Square looking for a solution. The first eatery she approached didn't have rice, but someone suggested she try Hakatamon Ramen, nearby.

"We're out of rice, can you help us?" she asked one of the employees. "And he said, 'maybe it's better to go to Chinta Ria, because they have the long-grain rice [and that's better for curry]."

"I'm done begging man," joked Park, who was very happy to take the Japanese restaurant's shortgrain rice. She was given enough to feed eight guests.

She offered to bring back some curry as payment. "It's OK, we're neighbours," Park was told.

"That's so sweet," she says.

Since Prasad started helping refugees seven years ago, he's seen them flourish. Hani, from Somalia, has become a published writer with a growing profile. "Last month, she was on the ABC on two programs in the one week," he says. Krish from Sri Lanka runs a roti-making business part-time and has collaborated with Welcome Merchant on guest cooking classes. Fatima, who is Bangladeshi, recently got her first hospitality job outside of Parliament On King and Uma, cooking at St Vincent's Hospital.

"When she came in and told the news, it was transformative for her," he says. "When we met her, she was like: 'I'm not good enough, I'm not fast enough'." Now she's a confident chef.

Uma and Parliament On King can be crucial stepping stones for the refugees who come their way.

"For everyone here, this is the first job they've had since coming to Australia. That's a huge thing," says Prasad.

But some of the biggest successes can be seemingly small things, like Sally cooking her family's Burmese curries for an Australian audience, or Mojdeh stepping back into the world of hospitality.

Or, the sound of laughter in the kitchen — and people from across the world connecting over curry and roti.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

Uma Curry & Roti
Shop 4, Darling Square, The Exchange, Ground Floor, 1 Little Pier Street, Haymarket
Wednesday – Saturday midday – 3 pm
Thursday – Saturday ​​5 pm – 9 pm

Meet the Syrian refugee family who are feeding Adelaide
Abdulghani Alrahmo began Syrian catering business Melh Wa Sekkar because he could no longer be an electrician. Then he won an award for his first job.
Meet the refugee behind these memorable Sri Lankan cooking lessons
Nige Sithirasegaram learnt how to cook while in Australia's detention centres. Now he's sharing his culinary education with the community.
Meet the lunch club helping Syrian refugees settle into Australia
Sharing Friday meals means gaining important skills, creating stronger social ties and it's also a chance to cook with Australia's top chefs.
Persian-Australian brunch and saffron tea is served at this refugee-run eatery
Hamed Allahyari opened Melbourne’s Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea to offer fellow refugees work opportunities.
How chefs are helping refugees rebuild their lives
These trailblazing chefs are connecting refugees with jobs in the kitchen and beyond.
Beautiful events by women from refugee backgrounds
Merchant Road is a Melbourne catering not-for-profit, designing unique events that are training grounds for inspirational young women.
The refugee project serving up work skills and delicious dinners
Scarf trains young refugees and asylum seekers in hospitality, with a 70% success rate in finding them jobs. You can see the trainees in action at the Scarf dinner series, currently at Melbourne's Bhang.