• Zahra Armian, Kate Spina, Bindi Lea and Adiam (Adi) Tefera, who are taking part in the initiative. (Four Brave Women)Source: Four Brave Women
Try Ethiopian food for breakfast and Iranian for dinner at a new cafe in Sydney’s inner west run by refugee women.
Rachel Bartholomeusz

6 Mar 2018 - 3:16 PM  UPDATED 9 Jan 2020 - 9:37 AM

Sydney’s inner west isn’t well known for authentic Iranian food or Ethiopian coffee culture, but that could be about to change.

Four Brave Women, opening later this month in Summer Hill, is a cafe run by refugee women that will serve Ethiopian-inspired breakfasts, and an Iranian buffet for lunch and dinner.

The menu will change every eight weeks as a new group of refugees takes over the kitchen, preparing feasts from their cultural background.

For the first eight-week rotation, Zahra Armian will be cooking a spread of Iranian dishes. She will be joined by her husband Hassan, as well as her brother and his wife.

Zahra, 28 and Hassan, 31, worked together at a restaurant in Iran before fleeing the country six years ago – he grilled kebabs, she was on the salad station. They are eager to return to the kitchen.

“I’m so excited, I want to start as soon as possible,” says Zahra, who is known in the local Iranian community for her cakes. At the café she’ll bake yazdi, small tea cakes flavoured with rosewater and cardamom.

They will also be making family recipes like lubia polow, an aromatic rice pilaf cooked with green beans, beef and tomato. Chicken drumsticks will be braised in saffron, vegetables and eggs cooked into fritters known as kuku, and Zahra has Iranian salads mastered.

But Hassan likes her ghormeh sabzi best. This comforting, slow-cooked lamb is rich with a medley of green herbs that, along with the addition of dried limes, give the dish its uniquely fragrant flavour. “All our food smells very beautiful,” says Zahra.

Food will be served buffet style, $10 for a small plate, $13 for medium or $17 for large, leaving Zahra free to chat and make new friends.

It’s an initiative from The Trading Circle, a non-profit organisation that empowers women to trade their way out of poverty.

The menu will change every eight weeks as a new group of refugees takes over the kitchen, preparing feasts from their cultural background.

“The idea for the cafe came out of seeing that people really want to support refugees, particular in the inner west, but there’s often not a lot of ways to tangibly do it,” says national manager Bindi Lea.

Fate intervened when the site of a former Italian restaurant became available across the road from the Trading Circle’s current shop.

The Trading Circle is affiliated with Good Shepherd, an organisation founded by four nuns who came to Australia by boat in 1863, leaving behind everything they knew. It’s these four women for whom the cafe is named, though the parallels are clear.

And while The Trading Circle’s main objective is to promote women’s empowerment, the kitchen is not a female-only space. Husbands and brothers and sons and uncles will share the workload with the women they love.

Hassan says that although he and Zahra have prior restaurant experience in Iran, it would be more difficult for them to run a food business in Australia.

That’s where Kate Spina steps in, a chef (she's worked at several hatted restaurants across NSW, including Eschalot, The Rock, Pier, Flying Fish, Cafe Paci) and nutritionist who is mentoring the groups on how to successfully translate their home cooking into a restaurant kitchen.

Spina says often the hardest thing is learning to cook on a much larger scale. The secret to adapting these family dishes to a commercial kitchen, she says, is having a good written recipe. “You’re trying to keep the spirit of the grandma who adds a pinch of this or that, but [you need to] make recipes that work.”

The women order and buy all the ingredients themselves, pay $180 a week for electricity, and 20 per cent of the profits goes back to The Trading Circle to cover overheads and fund projects to support women in developing countries.

“The idea is that they hopefully come away with the skills that they need to make money when they have a restaurant of their own,” says Spina.

A restaurant of her own is a dream for Adiam (Adi) Tefera, a 33-year-old single mum.

She will be running a permanent coffee cart at the cafe each morning, with takeaway breakfast foods influenced by her mixed Ethiopian and Eritrean background.

“I’ll be making kitcha firir, which is a common Ethiopian breakfast eaten with tea,” says Tefera. It’s made from shredded, stir-fried flatbread, coated with spiced clarified butter and berbere, a spice blend. She will also use berbere to spice up Sydney’s favourite egg-and-avocado combo.

“The idea is that they hopefully come away with the skills that they need to make money when they have a restaurant of their own."

Tea will be made in the form of garam chai, spiced with cinnamon and cardamom, the coffee is sustainably sourced from Ethiopia, and Tefera plans to run traditional coffee ceremonies once a week in the shop.

One day, she wants to open the first vegetarian Ethiopian restaurant in Sydney.

“I’m a single mum so it’s hard, but I’ve been given this opportunity and I’ve got to take it – for me, and for my son,” says Tefera, smiling widely. 

Four Brave Women

Open for dinner only April 6-8, then full hours from Monday April 9, Mon-Fri 6.30-9.30am, Tue-Sun 11am-2pm; 5.30-8.30pm

26 Lackey Street, Summer Hill, NSW 

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Cauliflower frittata with herb salad (kuku with shirazi)

Kuku is an Iranian egg dish popular served as a side or main meal. This kuku is as good hot as it is served cold for a picnic or light lunch. For a family-friendly option omit the chilli.

Iranian rice with broad beans and dill (baghali polo)

When in season, baghali – fava (broad) beans – have many uses in Iranian cuisine. Baghali polo is one of our favourites. Cooked with rice and dill, the bean dish makes the perfect accompaniment to stews and sauces. The list of ingredients can be found almost anywhere and as far as Iranian dishes go, it is one of the simplest we've learnt to cook.

Ethiopian veal and basil curry (alicha)

For convenience, in this recipe we have used regular basil instead of Ethiopian basil, and bok choy instead of gomen (Ethiopian greens that are traditionally used for this dish).

Iranian lamb and herb stew with barberry rice (khoresh ghormeh sabzi bah zereshk polo)

Iranian rice is first par-boiled, then cooked with oil or butter to form a crust known as the tahdig, which literally translates as ‘the bottom of the pot’. The rice is tinted yellow with saffron; a prized spice in Iran that is so precious, it inspires folk stories. Iranian tables always house bowls of fresh herbs and pickles so that guests can add to their dishes as they please.