For Sabrina Melei, few rituals have the power to create community quite like the act of sharing a meal.
When Melei and her father Jalal Dastyari opened their restaurant, Persian Basement, on Lane Cove's Longueville Road back in 1998, there weren't many places where Persian families could convene to celebrate their milestones. The family-run eatery has taken on this role for twenty years and counting, with Jalal playing a key part.
"We came to [Australia] after the war and my dad was a general in Iran for the revolution – we had to come because it wasn't safe for our family anymore," she tells SBS Food.
"We realised that there were a lot of Persians who wanted a place to have their graduations and engagements and birthdays. [Families] who might be Armenian and Syrian, from Turkey or Azerbaijan, all come here to have their celebrations. [We moved into] a bigger venue four years later."
"Families who might be Armenian and Syrian, from Turkey or Azerbaijan, all come here to have their celebrations."
In Sydney, food trends mirror the shifts sweeping through the city. But Persian Basement deals in the pleasures of the familiar; of traditional recipes perfected over time. Melei says the restaurant is best known for its BBQ kebabs, chicken tenderloins or ground lamb marinated, chargrilled and served with saffron rice.
"[Our kebabs] get cooked on metal skewers, which is really important because the middle of the meat gets cooked with the heat of the metal rather than wood," she explains.
Melei recommends the jujeh kebabs, part of a $12 to $14 menu available for lunch Wednesday to Friday.
"Our jujeh kebabs are popular - instead of marinating in yogurt, we use lemon juice, cracked pepper and saffron."
The special menu also features much-loved Persian-style casseroles like geimah, a concoction of diced lamb, split peas, wild dried lime and fesenjan, which sees chicken marinated with pomegranate and baked with ground walnuts. Fesenjan originates in the Gilan province, near the Caspian Sea, and epitomises the sweet and sour notes that are a hallmark of Persian cooking.
"[To make our fesenjan], fresh walnuts are grinded into a grinding machine so the whole base is thick, and then we add the pomegranate molasses and saffron so the chicken is cooked to perfection," she says. "We've had chefs come in to try it and add it to modern Australian menus. It's this balance of sweet and sour, and [diners] often haven’t had anything like it."
The recipe for the fesenjan at Persian Basement, Melei says, has been passed down her father's side of the family.
"Whether you're from the north, south, east or west of Iran, you cook it differently," she says. "Some cook it sweet and others cook it sour but ours is right in the middle."
Melei says Persian cooking takes love, labour and patience.
"When I was a kid, all I remember is my aunties and grandparents sitting around the water fixture in our backyard cleaning and chopping all the herbs in preparation," she says.
At Persian Basement, these qualities have stood the test of time.
"[Customers] celebrating their 21st birthday with us have had their 16th birthday with us and christening with us," she laughs. "[Clients] ask 'do you remember my daughter?' and I say, 'Oh God, I remember when she was one'."
7/54 Burns Bay Rd, Lane Cove
Wed - Thurs 12pm - 8:30pm
Fri - Sat lunch 12pm - 3pm
Fri - Sat dinner 7pm - 11pm
Sun 12 - 4pm
Think those golden baklava-ish flavours, but in a moist cake with sticky, dark caramelised sides.
This is a riff on the traditional Persian rice dish called tahdig, which is tinged golden from saffron and cooked on the stovetop to develop a crusty rice base.
The beautiful colour of the saffron creates a golden glow in this exotic drink.
Pomegranate molasses is the sour element here, lending a depth and richness that you’ll not get from anything else – it’s easily sourced from Middle Eastern, and some general, supermarkets. A specialty from two regions along the Caspian Sea, Gilan and Mazandaran, this Irani dish is traditionally made from beef and served with rice. We've gone for a fresh feel by pairing goat skewers with grilled vegetables and bread.