Story and photos by Eleni Christou/Community Kouzina.
*This is the first 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.
Fragrant, bittersweet and with the vibrancy of sunset yellow, saffron is a core ingredient in Persian cuisine. Distinguished as one of the world’s most expensive spices, saffron is recognised for its powerful medicinal properties, antioxidant source and textile dyeing qualities. Influential in the smallest of amounts, saffron boats such potency, that only a few a grams are required to scent, flavour and colour a dish; a characteristic especially advantageous when cooking lunch for up to 200 people.
Community Kitchen at the Auburn Centre for Community is a fortnightly social day for Settlement Services International’s (SSI) asylum seeker clients and volunteers. Born in 2013, the Community Kitchen is a social space, within the Centre’s industrial kitchen, with a commitment to genuine community interaction, self determination and combatting isolation. Every fortnight Community Kitchen is hosted by a different chef or group who prepare lunch for anywhere between 50 to 200 guests. The menu changes dramatically each fortnight with feasts ranging from Sri Lankan to Afghani to Persian and beyond. Culturally inclusive in regards to dietary restrictions, the meat used (normally chicken or lamb) is halal, vegetarian options are always available and fortnightly lunches are often linked to cultural celebrations. Particularly, for asylum seekers who have not yet been granted the right to work, the Community Kitchen offers a strong sense of pride and autonomy for SSI clients to share knowledge, learn food safety and handling skills, while simultaneously managing the kitchen and other volunteers.
Mostafa, started volunteering at the Community Kitchen three years ago. During his first year as an asylum seeker in Australia, and without work rights, Mostafa told his case manager he wanted to do volunteer work, and in particular, utilise his knowledge of Persian food. Mostafa’s case manager suggested Community Kitchen and after only six months, Mostafa was leading the Community Kitchen lunches. In addition to cooking, Mostafa taught volunteers important techniques such as knife handling skills. “For the first two years, it was very regular. I would be here every fortnight at 8.30am or 9am. Helping to set up, all the way through to packing down at 5pm”.
Mostafa’s strong attention to detail manifests in the presentation of the food he creates. “The taste is just as important as the design. How you present the food. The food in restaurants should be different to what you have at home”. Dedicated to challenging his culinary boundaries, Mostafa complimented his knowledge of Persian food gained from his parents, with studying Persian chefs on Youtube. “There are many ways to cook a dish. You just have to choose the best one”. Mostafa’s commitment to honing his craft can also be found in the wider community; a regular face at the Addison Road Community Centre Street Food Markets in Marrickville, Mostafa has managed stalls on a numerous occasions selling Persian dishes such as chicken and lamb stew, eggplant dips and sweets like Sholehzard (Persian rice pudding).
After a year of volunteering at the Community Kitchen, Mostafa found a job as a kitchen hand in a Rose Bay Italian restaurant. The position enabled him to observe professional chefs and learn a new cuisine, and in turn, bring fresh ideas and recipes back to his volunteer days at the Community Kitchen. Mostafa’s Community Kitchen repertoire now includes Italian dishes in addition to his well known Persian meals.
Three years on and now working full time, Mostafa is no longer a regular volunteer at the Community Kitchen, however on this occasion he took a day off work to step in for a last minute cancellation. While Mostafa is preparing his feast, volunteers are busily working alongside him, chopping salad ingredients as per his instruction, washing the large pans required to cook a meal for 100 people and discussing with pride the use of saffron in Persian cuisine. Mostafa explained that the radiant, bittersweet spice previously had the same economic value as gold, a source of pride that was echoed throughout the day among the other volunteers. “Saffron in Persian cooking is like cheese in Italian cooking you know.” smiles Mostafa.
Zereshk Polo (Barberry and Saffron Rice) - Feeds four
700g Basmati Rice
3 Tablespoons Saffron**
2 Tablespoons of Salt
2 Tablespoons rose water
20g Sliced pistachios mixed with a a tablespoon of rose water
Canola oil to taste
8-12 Hours prior to cooking. Cover the rice in water, ensuring the water level is 2 inches above the rice) and 2 tablespoons of salt.
Boil 2 - 2.5 cups of water on the stove, drain rice and place in boiling water
Cook rice for 10-15 minutes or until 80-90% cooked.
Drain the rice again, add oil, salt and half of the saffron. Mix together and add the butter on top.
Make two to three holes in the rice.
Place a tea towel between the pot and the lid and allow the rice to steam cook for 20-40 minutes
Rinse the barberries and pistachios with water (they can also be rinsed with rosewater).
Place 1 tablespoon of rosewater , 1 tablespoon of saffron and 1 teaspoon of sugar in a small pan. Add the barberries and on low heat, cook for 5 minutes.
Add the remaining saffron to the rice and stir through thoroughly. Combine pistachios with the barberry mixture and dress the rice as per your preferred design.
**For this recipe, it is best to grind two teaspoons saffron into a powder, place in a small teapot with 3 tablespoons of hot water and brew for 5 minutes before using.