• This is what Island Dreams Cafe calls its lemon chilli chicken dish. (Canterbury-Bankstown Council)Source: Canterbury-Bankstown Council
Alimah Bilda runs Island Dreams Cafe, the only Sydney eatery dedicated to the melting-pot cuisine of this Australian territory.
Melissa Woodley

29 Nov 2021 - 2:45 PM  UPDATED 29 Nov 2021 - 2:45 PM

Most Australians have heard of Christmas Island, but they might be unfamiliar with the rich culture and cuisine of this territory and its neighbouring islands. With Island Dreams Cafe, Sydney’s only Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) islands eatery, owners Alimah Bilda and Aman Mohd shine a light on the food of their ancestors and keep the history of their birthplace alive.

Located around 3000 km northwest of Perth, Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Pulu Kokos) comprises 27 coral islands, of which only two are inhabited. The population of 600 is 80 per cent ethnic Malays who reside on the Home Island and are largely segregated from the ethnic Europeans that live on West Island.

The islands are named after British sea captain William Keeling, who spotted them in 1609, as he was returning from a voyage to Indonesia. It wasn't until 1826 that colonisation took place. One of the first settlers was Scottish merchant, John Clunies-Ross; his family would end up running the island for nearly 150 years. Much of the Island’s current population are ancestors of the Malay workers he brought from Malacca, Penang, as well as parts of Indonesia to work his copra (coconut) plantations.

“John Clunies-Ross was like the king of the island and my people were his slaves,” Bilda explains. “They were brought to work there, with no proper pay.”

The British formally annexed the islands in 1857; the region became part of its colony of Singapore, before the territory was transferred to Australia in 1955. All the Cocos settlers were awarded Australian citizenship, however some decided to “return” to their home towns.

Although it is now an Australian territory, the islands have their own cuisine, with influences from other countries, such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. At the neighbouring Christmas Island where Bilda was born, the food has roots from Singapore and Malaysia. She lived there for 10 years before her family were asked to leave.

“The government was telling all the people that the island was going to be made into a navy base. They said: ‘You’ve got to move. Whoever's a Singaporean can go back to Singapore, and whoever is white can go back to Australia.'” she recalls.

Bilda’s family moved from Christmas Island to the mainland in 1973. It was only after living in Perth for a few months that Bilda came to realise how the forced racial segregation she had grown up with was not the norm.

“I did not know anything was wrong on the island, until I came to Australia,” she says. “Everything was segregated. Everything from the white [population] to the Asians to the Malays.”

Their family stayed in Bunbury for a few months before moving to Port Hedland, which is a remote town located 1600 km north of Perth. It was here that Bilda started spending more time in the kitchen and became interested in learning dishes from her mother, who was a self-taught cook.

Bilda carried these lessons – as well as recipes from her two grandmothers – with her when she moved to Sydney's southwest in 1996. Adjusting to city life was challenging and she experienced a significant cultural and emotional shock. One thing that always brought her comfort was cooking the traditional foods of her Cocos ancestors.

“It was always my dream to open up a cafe, to have my cuisine, the Cocos Islands cuisine and Malay cuisine and sort of fuse it together,” she says.

Within six months of her arriving in Sydney, Island Dreams Cafe was born. Bilda describes the food served at her cafe as Malay cuisine with a Cocos Islands influence. The recipes she cooks have been passed down generations, with many dating back to the 19th century.

“It was always my dream to open up a cafe, to have my cuisine, the Cocos Islands cuisine and Malay cuisine and sort of fuse it together.”

The majority of the dishes on the menu are considered Malaysian food today, such as nasi lemak, rendang, satay and kue-kue. However, Bilda has adapted these to the Australian palate, so they appeal to people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

“When we started out in 1996, it was very hard to break through in this area," she says, referring to the venue's location in Lakemba, in Sydney's southwest. With the local Lebanese and Arab communities in mind, she adjusted her menu. “It was hard to get them to try my food, so I had to make it a bit different. Even though I stuck to the traditional, I took a different approach like giving the food a bit more sauce or a little bit less chilli.”

One dish that defines Cocos Islands cuisine is ayam pangang, which Bilda makes using her grandmother’s recipe.

“Ayam is chicken and pangang means grilling, but I needed to call it something different here, so people understood what it was, so we call it lemon chilli chicken,” she explains. “I make mine with more sauce, while my people in the island eat it more dry and cook it in their own oven made from charcoal over fire.”

Although Island Dreams Cafe’s food has influences from Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines, Bilda wants people to understand that Christmas and Cocos islands have their own distinct cuisine.

“I'm trying to get people to see that we are not Malaysian, we are Australian,” she says. “We have our own culture, and we have our own cuisine.”

She also wants to clear up misconceptions about the classification of her ancestors as Malaysian people. They are Malay by name and originate from the Malay kingdom, which existed long before Malaysia was founded in 1957.

Four generations of her Cocos Malay family have run Island Dreams Cafe over the past 25 years. Lakemba is very different to what it was in 1996 and Bilda has seen an increase in the diversity of her customers. These include migrants from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Somalia, and even some asylum seekers who have come through Christmas Island detention centre. Bilda will continue to live her dreams running her Christmas and Cocos islands cafe and is grateful for the connection it provides to her island home.

Love the story? Follow the author Melissa Woodley here: Instagram @sporkdiaries

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