A visit: Uma Curry & Roti, a Haymarket curry house run by refugees & asylum seekers

A visit: Uma Curry & Roti, a Haymarket curry house run by refugees & asylum seekers

It’s 12.30pm on a Wednesday, and May Sally Win, culinary maestro of Parliament on King is crisping up roti’s for lunch as a queue of patrons grows outside. But this is not their usual Erskineville headquarters; instead we’re at Uma Curry & Roti, Parliament’s new Haymarket outpost, and the crowd is more neon-lit corporate than breezy inner-west.

Nestled in the middle of artisan food court Maker’s Dozen at Darling Square, Uma marks a significant new chapter in Parliament’s social enterprise project, the International Shift. Aside from providing hospitality training for refugees and asylum seekers, they’d also run a catering arm that was growing right up til the pandemic hit. ‘Even before then we’d outgrown our kitchen, but our plans were put on hold for over a year.’ says Ravi Prasad, who co-owns Uma and Parliament with wife Della. ‘Then Lendlease offered some incentives to get us in (to the Maker’s Dozen), so we said yes. This is a great opportunity to grow what we do, at a time when we really need to.’

Social impact aside, Uma offers a genuinely unique menu that combines a warm, anti-glam, home cooking ethos with the refinement in taste you’d expect from a top tier restaurant. At the creative helm is Win, whose grandfather had a well-known restaurant in Burma prior to the civil conflict. Her position as Uma’s head chef has thus enabled a consistent platform for her culinary pedigree to shine through. ‘All my family talks about is food. My sister makes food for special community events. My brother is a fine dining chef in New York. When I mention the name of my grandfather’s business, Burmese people still know,’ Win mentions with pride. ‘Burmese people really like my food, because it’s (familiar but) different from them.’ The result is six or so Burmese-ish curries that are uniquely ‘Sally’, and these change on a weekly basis, along with staples of rice, roti and sambals, some of which are vegetarian and vegan-friendly.

Clockwise from top left: head chef Sally May Win, positive feelings abound, and a sampling of what’s on offer any given week at Uma.

The chemistry and camaraderie amongst Uma’s well-oiled team has been years in the making, and it shows. At the front counter there’s a striking mishmash of cultural accoutrements amongst which are a statue of hindu goddess Durga, sitting side-by-side with a framed line from a poem in Jawi. The latter belongs to operations staff Vivian Al Janabi, originally from Iraq.

Perfectly placed at front-of-house is manager Sue Park, whose effervescence and enthusiasm for Uma’s mission is genuine and infectious. ‘We love each other and what we do, so being able to portray that – people have noticed that we bring a village feel to Darling Square both in person and on socials.’ Whilst locally born, Park has relished the opportunity to bring together her Korean background with experience running her own Korean-inspired café in Parramatta and years of ESL teaching.

As for the name itself, the story is threefold. ‘”Curry House”’ reflects my Indian family’s culture. This is what my aunties cook.’ Says Prasad. In Arabic, umah means ‘community’ whilst Umama is a girl’s name. Then there’s Uma, an alternate incarnation of the aforementioned goddess Durga. Befitting then, that such a versatile word be selected to signify the next stage of Parliament’s project. ‘So it works for all our Arabic, Muslim and Indian friends,’ says Prasad. ‘In a sense I feel a bit closer to what we’re doing here, I guess it’s rooted in family.’

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