Recipes for Ramadan: Calisha Bennett’s Cocos Islander ayam panggang

Although they are an Australian territory, many people in Australia are unfamiliar with the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a pair of atolls and 27 coral islands some 2,700km north-west of Perth. They are midway between Australia and Sri Lanka, and closest to the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The religion is Islam and the two main islands (Home Island and West Island) are only inhabited by about 600 people.

I was born to a sixth-generation Australian father and a Cocos/Christmas Islander mother in Port Hedland, north-western Australia, in the mid 1980s. My parents raised me to feel a close connection to the ocean and to nature.

While originally from the Cocos Islands, my grandfather and grandmother moved over to Christmas Island in the 1950s, due to unfair treatment by those governing the island. My grandparents told us that many Islanders worked collecting coconuts for export and, instead of paying them cash, they were paid with food tokens.

The Islanders’ access to the food stores was restricted, which seems a horrible way to control people. At one stage, the Islanders were almost starving, so my grandfather and some other men broke into the storage shed and took some food for the people.

My grandfather had a rifle pointed at him and threatened that, if he ever did anything like that again, he would be banished. It was not long after that that my grandfather left the island and ended up on Christmas Island.

My mother was born on Christmas Island and the family moved to Port Hedland in 1973, when my mother was 13 years old.

In his early 20s, my father was a keen surfer, travelling around Australia discovering amazing surf spots and working different labour jobs along the way. He stopped a while in Port Hedland, and was doing work for the council when he met my mother.

Their instant connection and romance were met with resistance due to the cultural stigma of my dad being a “white man” and a non-Muslim. They rebelliously eloped back to dad’s home town in Adelaide. A while later, mum’s family said they would accept their relationship if she would just come home. After studying Islam and learning more about its teachings, my dad wholeheartedly converted to the faith and they married not long after.

My parents were a free-spirited couple, who bravely overcame the challenges and stigma associated with being from different races and cultures. They raised us with an appreciation for Australia and western foods as well as mum’s traditional Islander foods.

Cocos Islander foods have an Indo-Malay influence with rice being a staple, as well as dishes with traditional Asian spices, chillies, coconut-derived ingredients and rich flavours.

The Islanders have also developed their own unique foods over the decades, particularly things that could be eaten when food stores were low, such as dried fish, colourful crackers and – my favourite – dried shredded chilli fish and coconut, served with sun-dried rice (kerak and serundeng). The islands’ natively grown coconuts and vast array of freshly caught fish, shellfish and other types of seafood are also big features.

In the Perth community, my mother was always known for her home cooking abilities, hosting ladies’ lunches and regularly donating food whenever there were fundraising causes. Feeding people and sharing food is seen as a form of charity in the Islamic faith. In a Prophetic narration the Prophet Muhammad is reported as saying: “The best of you are those who feed others.” (Ahmad)

We grew to become a big family of 10, eight kids in total – two girls and six boys. As a family we were outdoorsy and adventurous yet would still commit to daily prayers, eating halal foods, fasting in Ramadan and other essential aspects of the faith.

Ramadan was always known as a special and sacred time with iftar (breaking of the fast) dinners every second day or so with family and friends and nightly prayers at the mosque during the holy month.

It has been enriching for me having come from two different cultural backgrounds and having the Islamic culture in addition to that. My own personal diversity has driven me to want to understand my identity to greater depth, to distinguish my faith from my heritage, and celebrate how they complement each other.

My children’s father and I both grew up in the same area in Perth. We went to the same school and he knew my brothers. At the start of 2018, we moved to Sydney and we love it here so far.

Now, as a mother of five children myself, our family has an additional culture because their father is Turkish. We have four elements of culture, customs and foods, which all play a role in our home culture and the children’s identities. Making traditional foods never fails to excite them.

For our family and community, the act of eating and sharing foods is a means of celebrating our cultures as well as a praiseworthy spiritual practice.

I have chosen to share an aromatic and spicy Islander chicken dish, which we all love, and which I think will have you salivating!

Imagine yourself sitting on the front patio of a beach side shack on Cocos Island, gazing at a golden sunset and overlooking the white beach sand and crystal blue ocean! This will take you there.

2 whole chickens, cut into pieces
2 handfuls of dried chilli,
(soaked in hot water) or fresh long red chillies
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp cumin seed
5 candlenuts
2 onions
6 garlic cloves
optional
1 inch piece of ginger
1 can coconut cream
Salt
Small cube of belacan (shrimp paste) or chicken stock
Oil
(vegetable or coconut)
1 whole lemon,
juiced

In a spice grinder, mortar and pestle or food processor, blend the chillies, coriander seeds, turmeric, cumin, candlenuts, onions, garlic, ginger, coconut cream, salt, belacean/stock and oil to a thick paste. Add a little water if needed to make it smooth.

Marinate the chicken pieces with the paste. Cover and place in the fridge for a few hours.

Place the chicken into an oven tray, baste with the lemon juice and cover with foil and roast in the oven for one and a half hours at 180C. Turn the pieces regularly and remove the foil for the last 30 minutes of cooking time.

Serve with steamed jasmine rice and be sure to eat with your fingers, for the traditional eating experience!

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