When Hamed Allahyari became an atheist, he kept it a secret. After all, he lived in Iran, where people have been jailed or executed for believing in something other than the official religion. But after two years, he was no longer safe.
“Finally they came to arrest me,” he says. “And I left my country.”
So in 2012, he fled as quickly as he could – eventually making his way to Jakarta, then taking a chance on a fishing boat headed for Australia. He ended up in an asylum detention centre for five months, before arriving in Melbourne on a bridging visa – which had fairly restrictive conditions. “For the first two years, I couldn't work,” he says. And when Allahyari finally got the official go-ahead to look for jobs, it was tough: despite his hospitality experience, he kept getting turned down because the referees listed on his CV lived in Tehran, not Australia. “I went to lots of different restaurants,” he says. “Some people said to me, ‘leave your CV here, we will contact you if we need you.’ Then no one contacted me.”
So he volunteered in the kitchen of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). “I started to help other cooks feed 200 people every day,” he says. Then he ran cooking classes with Free To Feed, an organisation that connects refugees with paying diners keen to learn about their culinary heritage. This led to a small catering business, serving food at markets and festivals with asylum seekers he’d met through Free To Feed.
Allahyari wanted to open a restaurant and it was a conversation with Jen Morillas, another ASRC kitchen volunteer, that inspired what would become Cafe Sunshine & SalamTea – the business they now run together. They were discussing how tough it is for refugees to get work (“there are many people like me: because they don’t have references and qualifications in Australia, they don’t find jobs easily,” he says), so she suggested opening a social enterprise cafe-restaurant that hired asylum seekers and gave them necessary work and experience. To get started, they applied for grants and, thanks to the assistance of the Victorian Government’s Pick My Project scheme, the pair were able to open Café Sunshine & SalamaTea in July.
“It’s good now: we have nine people, they are asylum seekers and refugees,” says Allahyari. “We hope this project gets bigger, so we can employ more people.” His staff – who’ve sought refuge from Iraq, Mexico and other countries around the world – help him serve Persian-inspired dishes, such as saffron rice with pistachios and barberries, spiced olives and tomato pomegranate salad.
The chef’s menu has been carefully vetted – dishes only made the cut if they ranked highly with the people he’d fed at the 200-plus Free to Feed cooking classes he’d conducted over the years. “From the first cooking class, I started to do research about Australian tastes,” he says. “In three years, I made a list of Iranian dishes liked by Australian people.”
All the rating and number-crunching paid off, because he ended up with useful menu-refining intel.
“In Iran, the number one favourite dish that everyone loves is chelo kebab, and chelo here on my list is number 15. There are 14 dishes that are more popular,” he says. The kashk bademjan is at number one – something that surprised his friends in his homeland, who prefer meat and lamb dishes to charred eggplant richly flavoured with fried onions, turmeric, fried garlic and liquid whey left over from yoghurt. While Australians might classify it as a dip, in Iran it’s a main dish, to be enjoyed with bread.
Another chart-topper is the fesenjoon, a traditional chicken stew braised with walnut paste, fried onions, pomegranate and Iranian spices such as saffron. “It’s a very special dish we have at celebrations,” says Allahyari.
He also offers a vegan version of this sweet and sour chicken staple. “That’s my made-up dish! That’s not something you have in Iran,” he says. To cater to Melbourne’s many vegetarians and vegans, he created an alternative with carrots and tofu. “Some of my Iranian friends like that vegan version more than the chicken one.”
Another not-so-traditional dish is the “dadami”, a dish inspired by his father, who’d return home with big bags of labne whenever he visited Allahyari’s aunt in north Iran (she produced yoghurt from her own cows). His father would add herbs and make a thick yoghurt dip that his family snacked on with bread between lunch and dinner.
When people kept asking about the version Allahyari served at cooking classes, he decided to call it “dadami dip”: daddy’s dip. At Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea, the chef makes it with red onion, chillies and seven Iranian spices. He’s even adapted it for the smashed avocado dish served at brunch. It’s part of the Persian-Australian approach to the daytime café’s menu: think Persian omelettes, falafel plates, vegan protein balls studded with barberries, rose petals and other Middle Eastern ingredients, or specials such as ash reteh, a Persian noodle soup meant to bring good luck. There are also vegan dishes, such as beetroot tempeh sandwiches, with dairy-free options (cashew cheese, almond milk) made in-house.
At night, the venue becomes SalamaTea – which is “100 per cent Persian”, says Morillas. Along with the sweet and sour fesunjun (chicken or vegan versions), smoky eggplant kashk bademjan, and other Persian dishes that ranked well on Allahyari’s list of customer-tested dishes, you can enjoy the food with zero-waste wine from ReWine.
“In Iran, drinking alcohol is illegal,” says Allahyari. “But we were very young, we wanted to try it.” So, with his friends back in his homeland, he’d score arak that was smuggled in from overseas, and they’d dilute the highly alcoholic drink with sour cherry syrup or pomegranate juice. You’ll find these cocktails on SalamaTea’s menu.
There’s also Persian saffron tea, which is touted as a common anti-depressant in Iran (he says people would warn you against ordering it, because it supposedly made you laugh too much – no caution is needed with SalamaTea’s version, though). There’s also a sour cherry tea – a flavour that Allahyari goes to great lengths to source locally. He found a farm that allows people to visit its orchards and pay for what they pick. “I’m the only person going every year to get sour cherries,” he says, noting that the fruit is not yet popular in Australia.
Café Sunshine and SalamaTea’s inclusive approach isn’t just reflected in its staff, but its library of books by people from refugee, Indigenous and LGBTQI backgrounds. Morillas is keen to get in Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But The Mountains and They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks, by Habiburahman. The authors are both asylum seekers who’ve been detained by Australia. It’s one more way that the business conveys the story of refugees – and humanises their plight.
The chef, meanwhile, is still evaluating his menu and likes to take his food out to customers for feedback: he’s forever readjusting the rankings of customer favourites.
He recently told one diner that the dishes are “like a taste from my grandmother, from my mother”, and the guest replied: “I could feel that in your dishes.”
“When I’m making this food, I add extra love,” Allahyari adds. “That’s the number one important ingredient that anyone could include, is love.”
21 Dickson Street, Sunshine VIC
0491 605 775
Monday – Thursday 7 am – 3 pm
Friday 7 am – 11 pm
Saturday – Sunday 8:30 am – 11 pm