Saba Taghavi grew up in Tehran, with a family of matriarchs obsessed with food. The aunts on his dad’s side of the family were always cooking, whether it was traditional Persian dishes or 'exotic' recipes such as lasagna, which they found in magazines that were smuggled into Iran.
When he moved to Australia from Iran at 26 years old, he missed the meals he'd grown up with – and the local Persian restaurants here couldn't replicate the taste of home.
“I just didn’t like the food, what I had experienced in my childhood was different to what I had in restaurants,” he says. “In general, Iranian restaurants are not necessarily the best places to introduce people to Persian cuisine. In Iran, we have restaurant food and homemade food." The women oversaw the food at home – which was his favourite kind. The restaurants were run by men and focused on meaty offerings, like kebabs.
“Persian cuisine is a big variety [of dishes], it’s not just grills and stews, we have small bites like bread and sandwiches, and we have a variety of soups, from very watery soups to thick and rich soups.”
Taghavi, 39, may have a background as an art director, but he was keen to research Iranian cuisine and learn more about the dishes of his childhood – so he could introduce them to a wider audience. This is why he opened Shila Kitchen, a Persian tea house, in the inner-western Sydney suburb of Balmain.
Before launching the restaurant in December 2019, he tested his dishes on some of the toughest critics going – the older Iranian generation. “I was catering for one of my friends and their parents. I was nervous serving my dishes to them – the older generation are very specific about how they like things and they will tell you when you are wrong,” he says. “I got my first confirmation [something was right] when one of the parents turned to me and asked me how I did this dish.”
When planning the menu for Shila Kitchen, Taghavi spoke to his mother and aunts about family recipes. That’s when his mother revealed that Taghavi’s great-grandfather was a chef to the royal Iranian family in the '40s and '50s. It explained why he could never find replicas for his family favourites in Australia.
“I think my tastebuds kept those memories of the way my grandma was making those dishes, I was searching for those tastes,” he says.
When the restaurateur called his relatives to double-check how they made Persian food, he learnt how they'd incorporate spices that weren't typically used by Iranians, or approached traditional recipes differently. Like their version of a spinach dip called borani esfenaj.
"Most places cook the spinach with a little salt and pepper and have it with plain yoghurt. The way I saw it in my family, they caramelise the onion first and when cooled down, added it to the spinach and yoghurt mix and they were adding a little bit of dried fenugreek. The combination of the sweetness of the caramelised onion and fenugreek is a specific taste I could never find anywhere else.”
The dishes on offer at Shila Kitchen include slow-cooked dishes such as beef sabzi (cooked with Persian herbs, red kidney beans and dried lime) and lamb gheimeh (with split peas and tomato sauce spiced with cinnamon, turmeric and cardamom), both served with saffron rice. There's also fesenjoon: duck confit with a sauce of pomegranate molasses and ground walnuts.
“Persian cuisine is a big variety [of dishes], it’s not just grills and stews."
The key to a classic Persian table, according to Taghavi, is an array of sides, similar to Korean banchan, and a bowl of herbs, served like Westerners would offer a salad.
“The idea is the main food has a very simple character and all the side dishes around it create a very different personality of that dish,” he says. “We have three different categories as side dishes: yoghurt, pickles and herbs. If the taste of the food is too strong, you can cool it down with yoghurt." This can be served by itself or as part of a variety of dips (including a cucumber and dried mint condiment, similar to tzatziki).
“If the food is not as exciting or tasteful as you want, there are pickles – which can be sour, salty or spicy. They can add extra bite to your main dish."
And instead of salad, "there are usually about four or five herbs served in a basket, which bring a little bit of freshness to the food".
Herbs play a big part in Persian cuisine. “We dry these herbs and sometimes we fry it. When we dry mint and then we fry it, it creates a very strong taste,” Taghavi says.
He's passionate about researching lost Iranian recipes and bringing them to light. "Even after a year running Shila Kitchen, I am still discovering this cuisine,” he says. "It’s a cuisine of forgotten history … There are Iranian villages who have their own way of doing things and not everyone knows about it. There is a lot to learn and my task is to go and discover it.”
Saba Taghavi's saffron rice
Serves 4-5 people
- 3 cups basmati rice
- 1 tsp salt
- 50 g butter or 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 4 ¼ cups boiling water
- 50 ml saffron liquid
- A few threads of saffron
- Pinch of sugar
- 100 g small pieces of ice
1. To make this for dinner, start this recipe in the morning as the rice requires a day of soaking. Wash the rice gently (as it’s fragile and can be easily damaged) and soak the grains in heavily salted cold water for a minimum of three hours (if you have time, let the rice soak for five hours in total). Take caution with the rice, as soaking it makes the grains even more fragile. After three to five hours of soaking, thoroughly drain the rice and set aside.
2. To make the saffron liquid, grind the saffron threads in a small stone mortar and pestle. Once the saffron threads have begun to break down, add a pinch of sugar, which helps with reducing the saffron into a fine powder.
3. Mix the ground spice with small pieces of ice, and leave the mixture in a cold place until the ice melts. This liquid is ready to add to a dish at any stage. Keep the liquid in the fridge until required. You'll have more than you need for this recipe, so you can use the leftover saffron liquid in other dishes or in a tea.
4. In a wide-based pan over low heat, add some butter or oil. Add the drained basmati rice to the pan and give it a good but gentle stir to ensure the butter or oil coats the grains. Add salt to taste (a level teaspoon of salt may be enough, but adjust to your preference) and stir again.
5. Add 4 ¼ cups of boiling water to the rice, stir once to make sure all the rice is spread out and submerged in water. Be careful not to stir the rice mixture too much.
6. Cover the pan tightly with a lid and continue to cook on the lowest heat for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the water should be completely absorbed and the rice fluffy and white. If not, leave the pan cooking until it is done.
7. Make sure to check on the rice to ensure it does not dry out or burn.
8. Pour the saffron liquid into three different parts of the rice and replace the lid. Don't stir and leave the rice for 10 minutes.
9. When you’re ready to serve, gently run a fork through the rice to separate the grains, and you’ll see you have two coloured types of rice: an orange-red section and white section. A traditional way to serve the rice is with a stew.
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