Story and photos by Eleni Christou/Community Kouzina.
*This is the third post in a special series dedicated to SSI’s collaboration with the Community Kouzina project in the lead up to the New Beginnings Festival for Refugee Week 2017.
Greeting all who enter, pouring cups of tea and offering chairs to people standing, Akbar treats the Community Kitchen, and those present as if they were in his own home. Well known among fellow volunteers and SSI staff for his hospitality and generous serving portions, Akbar has volunteered in both the Friendship Garden and Community Kitchen for the last 17 months. For many volunteers like Akbar, the Community Kitchen and the Friendship Garden are an extension of their homes; integral spaces enhancing the social fabric of the Centre for Community.
In June 2015, Settlement Services International partnered with Cumberland Council (previously Auburn City Council) to create the Friendship Garden at the Auburn Centre for Community. Nurtured by newly arrived migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and people of CALD backgrounds, the garden functions as a space where volunteers can grow, connect and share food as well as knowledge and skills. With a focus on encouraging volunteers to build on their existing techniques, the Friendship Garden also offers an opportunity to gain expertise in permaculture principles. Situated below the Community Kitchen, volunteers, ingredients and tools traverse between the two communal spaces, and in the overlap, fortnightly lunches are conceived, dedicated to Friendship Garden volunteers. Utilising ingredients grown and harvested in the Friendship Garden, the fortnightly lunches are also an opportunity for volunteers to host their own lunches, particularly when they may not have the space in their own homes.
Raised in Tehran, Iran, Akbar has been cooking for himself since a young age. A combination of experimentation and recipes inherited from his parents, Akbar soon became a confident cook and found a job as chef on tours, visiting neighbouring countries to Iran. The travelling role allowed Akbar firsthand insight into new cuisines and as a result, his cooking attributes culinary influences from Azerbaijan and Turkey, however Iranian food remains his forte; “different parts of Iran are known for their different food, just like their different languages. Persian food is all about Spices. But just not too hot”.
Using fresh lemon balm mint harvested by the volunteers, Akbar prepares a series of dishes that cater to a variety of dietary preferences for the Friendship Garden lunch; Lamb Shank Stew, Roasted eggplants, dill and broad bean rice and a yoghurt dip. With the help of volunteers, chopping ingredients and washing dishes, the food is prepared and arranged on commercially size platters and wheeled down to the Friendship Garden on a multi-tiered trolley. A paved and shaded area is transformed into an intimate and communal lunch setting with chairs in a circular arrangement, allowing the diners to face each other. Volunteers, who have paused their gardening for lunch, gather around a banquet table as Akbar, in his typically generous style fills plates with enormous portions, ready to replenish when they near emptiness.
**Special thank you to Ladan for interpreting and assisting in the kitchen.
Mahiceh – Lamb Shanks with saffron
2 onions chopped
Vegetable oil to taste
1 teaspoon of turmeric
4 cloves of garlic
For the Tomato Sauce
4 grated tomatoes
2 teaspoons of tomato paste
1 tablespoon oil
Tumeric, salt and pepper to taste
1/2 tea spoon saffron brewed in a cup of hot water
Combine tomatoes, tomato pasted and two cups of hot water, oil, turmeric, salt and pepper in a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Lower heat and cook on a low temperature for 30 minutes or until it thickens.
Brown the onions in oil on low heat for 10 minutes
Add the lamb shanks and brown until the meat is sealed.
Add the turmeric and 3 cups of water. Heat until boiling, cover and reduce the temperature.
Add thickened meat sauce and saffron. Stir together for a further 5 minutes.
Allow to cool slightly before serving.