History

SERVING SYDNEY SINCE 1992

Radio Cairo was borne from a desire to do something looking culturally forward in Australia using food and music, in a Sydney of late 1980’s early 1990’s when Indian restaurants were quite happy using old chipped crockery, staff spoke or pretended to speak very little English and Brown was a themed decorator colour. What does someone with a Sydney Uni arts degree, majoring in social anthropology do in the realisation few are interested in the diversity which is Sydney, Australia; translated “truly difficult to find a decent job” I loved music, even dabbled at playing a tune, I quickly realised “stick to food”. After spending quite some time learning my culinary ropes both in service and cooking from the then truly 5 star Menzie’s hotel of the late 70’s to pizzerias operated most by incredibly affable Italians and Greeks who made making a customer feel special an art form; the food they served was incredibly simple and delicious-those were days when I had to convince people to buy pizza, seafood and pasta as they were seen to be “foreign” exotic food.

Having met a Moroccan Mr. Hassan M’souli a co-dishwasher in one of those Italian sweat-shop restaurants circa 1980’s I realised how close the connection was in our not so vastly differing cuisines. With a little research you realise nutmeg from Ache and cinnamon from Sri Lanka has been finding its way to Morocco and beyond via Maldives, Basra (Iraq) or Somalia and Maghreb (Nth. Africa) since the times of the Roman Empire: Roman’s loved spices from Asia. These trading hubs referred to by the French as “entrepots” classically places like Timbuktu, Aden and Zanzibar are apart of all our history and especially Hassan’s and mine. These entrepots and the supply chain were closely guarded secrets for thousands of years until Portuguese expansion into Asia. Hassan eventually became my partner in a restaurant I built called “The Mosquito bar” with a tag Afro-Asia cuisine-my card read “chief bottle washer” (for those Brit’s out there) since initially I did all the buying, cooking, taking orders and serving; thankfully Hassan joined my adventure. On with the story and a titbit of history!

The first Europeans to enter the spice trade were Portuguese, soon followed by the Danes, yes Danish who built forts like Tranqbar in South India, then the French in Pondicherry, South India and Fort Fredrick, Sri Lanka, followed by Dutch and British. There was money to be made. After initially trading the Portuguese, Dutch and English East-India companies decided to colonise, this meant subjugation, social manipulation and commercial farming for profit in other words “exploitation”. When locals protested to land acquisition they we expelled to other colonies. In Indonesia, Javanese and Sulawesi princes and their followers were banished to Sri Lanka; in the middle of Colombo, Sri Lanka, in an aptly named location today called “Slave Island” the Indo-Malay people still speak Bahasa 300 hundred years on. In turn Sri Lankan’s were sent off to Mauritius, African colonies and on to the Caribbean: the unofficial national dish of Guadeloupe (an island located near Haiti, between Cuba and Venezuela) is “Colombo Chicken” with it’s roots in Colombo, Sri Lanka and the Malabar coast of India, melded with French-Creole and African inspiration: yummmmmmy!

In Sri Lanka (the country I was born in, but will never be allowed to live in-another story for another time) during 100 years of Portuguese occupation African mercenaries were brought from Mozambique to fight the Sinhala kings; African’s also fought for the Portuguese in Macau. The subsequent 100 years of Dutch colony increased the African intake, also bringing Indonesian and Malay fighters into the mix; as did the English colonists for another 100 years. What survived is the Kaffir people of Sri Lanka who speak “Sri Lankan -Kaffir” a creole Sinhala-Swahili language, have a dance style called “Baila”, styles of music straight from Mozambique “Kaffiringna and Manja” and a style of cuisine all their own.

During Dutch occupation, Dutch traders would only allow Moslem people to occupy their forts in Sri Lanka, trading nearly exclusively with Moslem’s who acted as middle men with local populations. Most of this Moslem population came from Iraq, arguably Basra though not quite Sinbad. The Maldives located between Iraq and Sri Lanka is populated by a race of people (Maldivian’s) who are Sinhala (Sri Lanka) mixed with Arabs. These days a similar mixed race population of Moslem people, called Moors in Sri Lanka, now comprise nearly 10% of the population and have a style of cuisine all their own.

Finally the Chinese influence-during Portuguese times Portuguese “blackbirded” (kidnapped) Southern Chinese (Cantonese, present day Guangzhou) based in Monte Forte, Macau, maned largely by African mercenaries. These Cantonese people were to be taken as far as Brazil to work in Portuguese colonial plantations as “Kooli” labourers with no hope of ever returning. Kooli-meaning technically “indentured” labourers, with some chance of returning; mostly a piece of paper to get around anti-slavery laws. A great many of these Chinese came through Sri Lanka and many settled. To this day the most popular restaurants, even in the most remote places in Sri Lanka are Chinese: not dissimilar to Australia. The Chinese influence is fundamental to many cuisines influenced by a Kooli slave labour market, be it Sri Lanka, Mauritius, anywhere in the Caribbean.

Human cultural engineering for the sole purpose of European personal, corporate and sovereign profit resulted in a great deal of upheaval in mostly agrarian people’s lives, not dissimilar to our world today. Human nature is what it is, history tells us that. Thankfully a truly great outcome is diversity, a striving towards a better understanding of each others cultures. Taking myself for example I am of Sri Lankan (Wijeyekoon), English (Martin), Irish (Kennedy), Scottish (Anderson), German Jewish (De Worms), Portuguese (Perera) descent. To this day I argue my “British Empire” credentials-I wouldn’t exist without Empire. I’m not English, Scottish or Irish I’m the whole lot, I’m British; I was born in Ceylon a British colony: Oh I forgot to mention the Welsh, well; my children are half Welsh. Back to food!

Radio Cairo is about having a good time, eating tasty food, prepared using the best ingredients with skill. Atmosphere is that of some street shack where you may find yourself some day, some where, when you say to yourself “how simple, how tasty and how much fun was it”. My cuisine is deliberately diverse-after all Creole in New Orleans wouldn’t exist without French occupation in South India (trading spices), what would North Africa, Europe or Mexico do without cinnamon from Sri Lanka, the finest turmeric from India, cloves from Sumatra and Zanzibar, pepper from Laos and Sumatra, coffee from Ache, Sumatra and Sana’a, Yemen, pimento berries (allspice) from Jamaica, saffron and barberry from the borders of Iran and Russia, prickly-ash berry from Sichuan. The people, the food, the music, the spice-let’s celebrate the simple good things in life; everyday; without having to first apply for a bank loan.

Radio Cairo is your local restaurant, located on the boundaries of Cremorne, Neutral Bay and Mosman, in the Northern harbour-city of Sydney, Australia. “Thank you very-very much” to my local community for your support over many years: as the old saying goes “I couldn’t have done it with out your support”. Food writers have rarely understood what I’m up-to, then again for me it’s always a work in progress-I think great for Australia “a really great country, a place I call home and totally a work in progress” I hope Radio Cairo makes a small difference? One food writer many years ago flippantly commented “you couldn’t think of a better place for a first date!” The reviewer didn’t quite understand the text of my cuisine, however, he did connect with the intangible, which to me is what makes a restaurant great!

A “Huge” thank you to all my regulars over the years and the children of regulars who are now regulars & staff.

SRIAN PERERA