Behind the scenes at Sydney’s month-long Ramadan night market

By Amber Schultz

More than 1.2 million people are expected to attend the Ramadan Night Markets in Lakemba, Sydney this month.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone

Mohamad Zarka started preparing for the Ramadan Nights Markets five months ago, getting ready to serve thousands of customers each shift at the month-long celebration.

He’s purchased hundreds of kilograms of pastries and cheese for his restaurant Yummy Yummy Knafeh, putting in an order for 100 buckets of ghee – a type of clarified butter – back in November to make his signature cheesy Middle Eastern dessert.

“I’m preparing to be flat out. We spend around four hours preparing over a hundred trays, then during the night, we don’t stop and just keep going and making more,” Zakra said. “It’s bigger than the Easter Show.”

Mayank Varma and Helly Pham travelled from Wollongong to visit Yummy yummy Knafeh.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone

The Lakemba market in south-west Sydney is organised by Canterbury-Bankstown Council, partnering this year with Multicultural NSW. The event is in its fifth year and celebrates Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

Fairy lights have been strung across Haldon Street to illuminate the 72 stalls and local businesses, with surrounding roads closed and free shuttle buses transporting people from nearby regions. Stores sell waffles and deep-fried Oreos; others sell green, yellow and red chicken wraps – the colour of the sauce indicating the wraps’ spice level. There’s a huge mix of cuisines including Malaysian, Lebanese, Syrian, Pakistani and Turkish.

“Knafeh, knafeh, knafeh, come try it before you die,” one stallholder yells. “Come try, don’t be shy,” another seller yells, clanking metal coffee cups. “Yallah Yallah Yallah!”

Sydneysiders and interstate travellers flock to Yummy Yummy Knafeh at the Ramadan Night Markets to try the dessert.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone

Despite the threats of rain, by early evening during the week, more than 2000 people are at the event, which runs from dusk until 3am. Last year more than 1.2 million people attended across 30 days, attracting crowds of up to 30,000 on weekends.

Mayank Varma and Helly Pham live in Wollongong but travel to the area frequently to try new restaurants. “During the festival, everyone’s out and it’s far more rowdy, so it’s quite fun,” Varma said.

This year, they decided to come on a weeknight to help avoid the crowds. “We’re lucky: we haven’t had to wait in line for food,” he said.

Social media has helped a number of businesses grow. As people queue up inside his knafeh store, Zarka pulls out a ring light and starts filming for his Instagram and TikTok accounts.

Evan Shublaq works at Palestinian stall Afandi, selling Arabic coffee – a medium roast Turkish coffee with cardamom added. He explains to customers how he prepares their drink, swirling the pot over hot sand to brew it.

“[We prepare] the coffee the traditional way,” he said. “There are a lot of tourists here and people from different cultural backgrounds trying it for the first time. They are just happy to see the process.”

Arslan Nazir lives locally and has attended the event several times over the years, and arrived with his two-year-old Alysha Khan and cousin Talha Butt. This year he’s dieting along with fasting and is trying to resist the tempting dishes. Instead, he plans to buy a new prayer mat.

The event is a highlight of the year for locals Talha Butt, Arslan Nazir and two-year-old Alysha Khan.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone

“When I first came my perception was, ‘I’m probably going to see [Arabic] people’, but you see so many nationalities here. It’s good,” he said. Last year nearly 80 per cent of attendees came from outside the Canterbury-Bankstown LGA.

City of Canterbury Bankstown Mayor Khal Asfour said the markets attracted a larger crowd each year. “The popularity of the event has grown substantially over the years, and we see people visit from all parts of Sydney and interstate,” he said.

The council has invested $2 million into Ramadan Night Markets – a significant increase from last year’s $770,000 – which has mostly gone to traffic management, police, security, waste services and staffing fees.

Costs are offset by a $500,000 grant from the state government, stallholder fees and event sponsorship. Last year, the event generated approximately $33 million for the local economy.

Ramadan Nights Lakemba runs every night until the 20th of April and is open from dusk until 3 am.

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