• At Brisbane restaurant Zeitoon, chef Ali Mohammadi is proving that the food of his childhood has universal appeal. (Instagram)Source: Instagram
At Brisbane restaurant Zeitoon, chef Ali Mohammadi is proving that the food of his childhood has universal appeal.
Neha Kale

10 Nov 2020 - 10:07 AM  UPDATED 16 Nov 2020 - 8:40 AM

For Ali Mohammadi, food isn't just a form of everyday nourishment. It can also be a portal to the divine.

Mohammadi remembers attending religious functions in Iran as a teenager. The dishes he tasted at them – made lovingly by cooks and distributed to the community – lured him into the kitchen for good.

"During religious functions such as Ramadan, they donate food to everyone – and they have really good cooks [making] that food," Mohammadi, tells SBS Food. "The taste of their dishes affected [me]".

He says his mum helped him learn how to cook. "When I was in my late teens, I started doing more cooking at home. That is what drew me to food. My mum was a great cook and I learnt a lot from her."

Mohammadi, along with his wife and two children, immigrated from Iran to Brisbane eight years ago. He spent his first few years in Australia working in kitchens, where he became acquainted with the way the country's multicultural nature shapes its culinary ethos.

"[In Australia], you have to have good customer service, but you also have to accommodate the tastes of many different cultures – not just specific cultures," he points out.

Persian cuisine has a 2000-year-old history. Known for its sweet and sour flavours, it's often laced with citrus, nuts and herbs, and pays careful attention to texture.

Persian cooking has influenced many, shaping dishes from Syria and Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, where it travelled in the 16th century along with the Mughal emperors.

Mohammadi's formative memories include dishes like keema with split peas and adas polo, aromatic rice cooked with berries, lentils and caramelised onions. 

He recreates this mix of tradition and innovation at his restaurant Zeitoon in the Brisbane suburb of Moorooka. 

At Zeitoon, Mohammadi serves dishes such as ghormeh sabzi, lamb stewed with herbs and kidney beans, zereshk polo, slow-cooked chicken simmered with tomatoes and cinnamon, and zeytoon parvardeh, marinated olives with pomegranate and crushed walnuts.

And then there's mirza ghasemi. The dish, which Mohammadi will show viewers how to make in Culture in the Kitchen (a series of cooking classes which will be hosted by Multicultural Australia and premiere in November on YouTube and Facebook) sees eggplant charred slowly with tomatoes, fresh garlic and turmeric.

"Persians and Afghans love eggplant," he grins. "But mirza ghasemi a very specific recipe. It's a dish that you cannot change."

Mirza ghasemi was invented during Iran's Qajar period by Mohammad Ghasem Khan, the then governor of Rasht, the capital of the northern province of Gilan. The dish, Mohammadi says, is served as an appetiser during family gatherings and celebrations.

"It's a dish that you cannot cook every day – you make it for parties and weddings," he says.

The delicate, smoky dish, he says, involves a level of care and precision.

"The eggplant has to be medium-sized, not too small and has to be cooked on wood coals," he says. "You have to peel the skin off the eggplant. And you have to make sure you turn it over, so all the sides are cooked."

"I want people to be able to enjoy the food and the culture of the food."

Mohammadi says Persian cooking is underrepresented in Australia. But he believes that the cuisine's balanced flavours – which are intense without spiciness – are universally appealing. 

"There aren't many Persian restaurants in Brisbane and in the whole of Australia – I want people to be able to enjoy the food and the culture of the food," he says. "I have customers from many different cultures. Persian food accommodates everyone." 

What to eat to celebrate the Persian New Year
A table filled with the seven s’s – here’s a guide to making sure your Nowruz feast ticks all the boxes.
15 + dishes to impress your Persian mother-in-law
Dishes to cook if you want an in with your new Persian family.
How celebrating family became the heart of this Persian menu
Time stands still at Persian Basement, a Lane Cove institution that’s been turning out Persian casseroles and BBQ kebabs for 20 years.
WATCH: Persian omelette
What an eye opener this dish is - read the recipe and you’re thinking herb frittata - assemble it and you realise that herbs are the supreme stars and eggs simply bind it all together.
Persian love cake

Think those golden baklava-ish flavours, but in a moist cake with sticky, dark caramelised sides.

Crispy-bottomed Persian rice

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.