With one successful restaurant chain under his belt – the wildly popular Al-Aseel – Wally Mostafa decided on something more personal for his next venture. The result was Bekya – a Middle Eastern restaurant with heavy influences from Egypt.
After successfully opening two branches in Sydney – within the Gateway Building in Circular Quay as well as at Harold’s Park Tramsheds – Bekya has managed to bring a fresh new approach to Middle Eastern cuisine by combining generations-old recipes with what’s available locally.
We chatted to Wally, and co-owner Tiago Conceicao about the inspiration behind Bekya, and what they’re bringing to the table.
The meaning of Bekya
Anyone who’s lived in Cairo doesn’t need to be told what bekya means. But for the rest of us, Wally explained it.
“Bekya is an old Egyptian trade, and it’s still a trade in Egypt today. It’s a man pushing a cart in the street, and just selling whatever he can find. So without using the words ‘street food’ or anything like that, I use the word bekya,” he said.
“The word and its associations are meant to conjure images of Egyptian street culture, but we don’t call Bekya Egyptian cuisine,” he explained.
The word itself is from Egypt, and it’s a familiar expression people heard yelled through the streets in the cities. The bekya men shout it to announce their presence – they push carts filled with all manner of items, whatever they can find, like a mobile thrift store.
When people hear the familiar shout – Bekya! Bekya! – they know they’re hearing an opportunity to possibly chance upon some treasure, depending on what the bekya man has that day. On days the bekya man has produce from a local grower, customers line up to stock their kitchens at a discount for example.
For Bekya the restaurant, the food they sell evokes the excitement, and perhaps a little bit of the unknown that comes with listening to the bekya man coming down the road with his cart full of produce.
What you can expect from the kitchen staff at Bekya are plate after plate of the kind of cuisine you might get at a street market in the Middle East.
Serving up the essence of the Middle East, crowned by influences from Egypt
Egypt’s location in northern Africa puts it adjacent to the Middle East, a blend of cultures that’s bound to surface in the locals’ cooking – locals like Wally’s family.
“Egypt was a very cosmopolitan society with many cultures. Our food reflects those cultures. But we’re not an Egyptian restaurant. We’re Middle-Eastern with an Egyptian influence,” he said.
Though the food might be a mix of two different cultures, it isn’t right to call it fusion cuisine. The Middle Eastern aspect is easy to understand – the restaurant leans heavily on Egyptian flavours, but the menu itself reads very much like a Lebanese feast: slow cooked meats, stewed vegetables, falafel, and spiced rice.
‘Fusion’ is generally a chef-created idea like, What would happen if I made Peruvian chicken but added Indonesian spices to the sauce? The Egyptian influence on Middle Eastern food, on the other hand, is the kind of natural crossover of ingredients that happens when different cultures live among one another.
To see this in action, you only need to consider the history of Bekya’s signature dish, Koshari. That’s because, as ancient as Egyptian civilisation is, koshari only dates back to the 19th century, and its list of ingredients reads like a shopping list for an international foods market:
- Rice, which isn’t native to Egypt but introduced by India
- Lentils, same deal as rice
- Macaroni, courtesy of Italy, just across the Mediterranean Sea
- Chickpeas, one of two native ingredients
- Onions, the other native ingredient
- Tomatoes, native to the Americas, arrived in Egypt by way of Italy
- Chilli Peppers, native to the Americas, arrived in Egypt by way other African countries
If this sounds like the kind of thing you make at the end of the week when you’re down to a bunch of random staples, then you’ve pretty much figured out the history of the dish.
Koshari was something that just kind of happened. Cultures of all kinds were coming into contact in the port cities of Alexandria and Cairo, and their food cultures were influencing each other. Koshari evolved as a dish of convenience for poor and working class families who had to make do with what was around. These ingredients were all around them.
Bringing out generations-old recipes with fresh, locally sourced ingredients
The seven ingredients above form the basis of koshari, but since it’s a dish that evolved out of improvisation, everyone tends to have their own take on it. That’s no different at Bekya, where the source of the recipe is the ultimate in authenticity.
As Mostafa told us, “The recipes that we use are recipes that I have from my family – nothing out of a textbook. Authenticity can be explained many ways – for us it’s authentic because this is what we’ve been using for many many years, from grandma to mom to me.”
The idea that these are family recipes isn’t just about their origin. It’s also found in the way Beyka’s meals are best enjoyed.
“We’re very family-focussed. Middle Eastern food is generally for sharing,” Wally said, before reminding us that “just because we might put a lot on the table we don’t drop down the quality. You get a lot of quality for great value.”
That quality can be traced right back to the numerous local farms Bekya sources ingredients from.
“In terms of our produce and where we source it, we’re fortunate that Australia has come a long way in many years. All of our fava beans, lentils, chick peas, we get it all locally from farms. 10 years ago you couldn’t do that. In general, 99 per cent of our produce is local.”
As for quality control, he’s got that taken care of. “My mum still comes through and she puts the guys on the spot. She’ll taste things and say ‘This is not how you do it!”
Managing Bekya’s growth with a little help from technology
Sourcing through farms is something Wally is used to doing, but never on the scale that they’ve had to do with Bekya’s Tramsheds location.
“We’re a family-run business coming from a 60-seat eatery to a 150-seat restaurant, so just by sheer size the dynamics are a lot different to running a smaller-sized venue. We’ve had to look at how we roster, how we manage, how we hire, our deliveries, how much we order – it’s just taken it to another level.”
In the early weeks, they hadn’t quite anticipated how busy they’d be, and found themselves running out of food before closing. This problem didn’t last long, however, as Tiago explains.
“Starting a new business with a hospitality-focussed point of sale system – you learn a lot of things along the way, almost on a daily basis. In the early stages, almost an hourly basis! Kounta made it quite simple to discover and implement any changes that we needed to.”
In addition to better understanding their purchase and consumption patterns, Kounta has also help them improve communications between the front- and back-of house.
“When the team is placing the orders they’re not constantly going up and interrupting the chef with comments and requests. When they’re really busy in the kitchen it doesn’t help having 10 different people constantly stopping your thought process. Kounta allows us to put their messages in and communicate any order changes with the chef via that channel,” Tiago said.
Bekya’s growth also meant the need to add more staff to their payroll. The nature of the industry generally means unpredictability with staff, but Bekya easily managed the increase in employee numbers (and therefore the need to give more attention things like to rostering and communication) via Deputy.
“The team was growing quite quickly – we started with a small team but realised we needed more and more after a while. We have a lot students and travellers working for us, with different requirements of when they can and can’t work. Deputy allowed us to start bringing people in and immediately understand their availability, it just makes life easy for us in terms of creating rosters for them, particularly across two venues,” Tiago said.
It almost seems fitting that Bekya has landed here, in Sydney’s Harold Park Tramsheds – where the flavours of the world are coalescing, in what amounts to a modern day street market.
The fresh ingredients matched with time-honoured recipes all contribute to what Bekya is striving to create: food that’s delicious and exotic without being fussy or pretentious – the perfect meal for a family to sit down to, which is how these traditional dishes were intended to be eaten anyway.