At No. 32 Restaurant & Bar in Crows Nest on Sydney's lower north shore, you'll find Hesam Nourifard's wholesome food with Middle Eastern and Japanese flavours, featuring local ingredients.
These dishes reflect the Persian head chef's route to Australia via Asia, but ultimately pay homage to his birthplace. "Am I the Japanese chef? No. I'm from Iran. I'm from Middle East. I'm a Middle Eastern chef," the 30-year-old tells SBS Food.
Nourifard grew up in Tehran, the capital of Iran. His parents wanted him to attend university abroad after finishing school, but his love for cooking meant he trained in restaurant kitchens in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Hong Kong first. By 2009, Nourifard finally moved to Australia to study architecture at Wollongong University, but he couldn't get cooking off his mind. His best friend Hamed Vardough suggested he pursue that path — so Nourifard did, undertaking a commercial cookery certificate while working across several kitchens in Sydney's multicultural food scene where Japanese cooking particularly resonated.
Nourifard appreciated the similarities between Japanese and Persian food. "For example, if you want to eat barbecue in Japan you have to go to places they call yakitori. In Iran it's the same thing," he says. "There are places that will only sell offal and barbecue right in front of the shop and they don't sell anything else."
He also admired the discipline and teamwork in Japanese restaurant kitchens. "In big kitchens, not all your skills are needed, only certain skills are … and you need to perfect them." Inspired, Nourifard shot off to Tokyo, Japan, in 2013 to learn more. "When you go to those restaurants, you see 10 apprentices, but they're all doing one thing." One might be washing rice, another rolling nigiri.
In the following years, he continued to expand his skills in Australia and France, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was missing. So, in 2016, he went back to the Middle East. He travelled around Iran then Turkey, Lebanon and Dubai and found what he'd been looking for: he realised he was a Middle Eastern chef at heart. So he started learning, eating with people and absorbing it all. "I really enjoyed the tastes because everything was closer to my childhood."
"For example, if you want to eat barbecue in Japan you have to go to places they call yakitori. In Iran it's the same thing. There are places that will only sell offal and barbecue right in front of the shop and they don't sell anything else."
That childhood can be traced to a home filled with so much food it could be mistaken for a restaurant — like most Persian households. It was about enjoying family feasts during special occasions: fish with herb-infused rice and fermented garlic over Persian New Year, or his maternal grandma's clay pot lamb stew when extended family visited his grandparents' farm in Golpayegan in Isfahan province in central Iran.
"Every time we'd go to the farm, the clay pot lamb was there because they had a clay oven," he says. His grandma would get the massive cookware from a nearby bakehouse and fill it with lamb shoulder, whole onions, star anise, cumin and other spices. Then she'd put on the lid, seal it with wet clay and place it in the oven.
As the lamb cooked, the clay lid baked onto the pot, locking the moisture inside. When the lamb was ready, Nourifard enjoyed the challenge of carefully breaking off the lid. "With my grandmum, we would go all around it [using] this small hammer that breaks sugar cubes … It has a sharp edge. So, you go around, around, around and you find your spots, and break, break, break."
Nourifard's fingers would often get burnt in the process, but he didn't let that deny him this joy. "I have so many memories of burning my hand with the steam. My fingers would just get burnt, but I would keep it quiet so they don't stop me from [helping] next time."
He admits his grandma's lamb is in a league of its own, but hopes she'll be impressed by his own version. "I think I have achieved something, how pink the lamb is, how the star anise … has to be activated. She was like, 'these stars don't shine by themselves — you have to push them [by pressing them]'."
You'll find a rendition of Nourifard's grandma's clay pot lamb stew at his restaurant.
Another favourite memory: his father barbecuing joojeh kabab (saffron chicken kebab). This dish was always about the saffron marinade and using just the right amount of mayonnaise. "Mayonnaise can kill the dish, but it is also the beauty of the dish. If you put too much, the dish becomes too sweet. And if you don't put enough, it will dry out." The chicken must also have the right consistency of lemon juice. "You dilute the mayo with lemon juice. If you dilute too much, you make a brine, if you use too much it becomes too sour." Too little of it, though, and your chicken won't have enough acidity.
His dad also emphasised the importance of cooking with the bone. "Dad had a special way of cutting it," he says. "So, basically you have to cut it from where the bones are still attached to a piece of meat. Without bone, it's not as tasty."
"I have so many memories of burning my hand with the steam. My fingers would just get burnt, but I would keep it quiet so they don't stop me from [helping] next time."
Then there was the preparation. "He would just explain and explain and explain. He says it's all about how you massage the meat: massage and massage and massage." His dad said to roll the chicken pieces against one another since massaging them with your fingers would break the meat's fibres.
If Nourifard could sum up what his family imparted to him about food, it would be: "Don't be shy in quality and quantity." This even applies to the simplest of meals, like lettuce pieces dipped in sekanjabin, a Persian sweet and sour dressing he'd devour at his paternal grandparents' place in Tehran. "I would just dip the actual lettuce in there and believe me or not, I could smell it already when I just talk about it."
Nourifard brings those family feasts of his childhood to his menu today. He also imbues it with flavours from other parts of his journey, particularly his culinary experiences in Japan and Australia, and he thanks his adopted country for the space to do this. "Australian people are welcoming," he says. "If you're doing something new, people will come and celebrate you, without caring where you're from."
Saffron miso spatchcock recipe
This is the chef's take on his dad's Persian saffron chicken recipe, which is easy to cook at home.
- 600 g spatchcock (you can also substitute with a chicken, cut into 80-100 g chunks)
Egg yolk mayonnaise
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- 500 ml grapeseed oil
- 1 tbsp white wine vinegar
- ½ lemon, juiced
- 1 large brown onion
- 200 ml lemon juice
- 600 g egg-yolk mayonnaise
- 30 g soy sauce
- 70 g sweet white miso
- 20 ml mirin
- 3 g saffron threads
- 12 g salt
- 30 g sugar
- Start this recipe a day ahead. To make the mayonnaise, add egg yolks to a bowl. Whisk yolks and add mustard while you continue whisking.
- Add about 250 ml of oil slowly while whisking. Keep whisking until the mixture thickens.
- After adding half the oil, add 1 tbsp of vinegar. Keep whisking while you slowly add the rest of the oil.
- Add a pinch of salt and lemon juice for taste.
- To make the marinade, slice the onions thinly. Put gloves on and crush them until mushy then soak them in lemon juice. Separate onions from lemon juice and set both aside.
- Dilute the mayonnaise by slowly drizzling in the lemon juice. Fold in the onion and soy sauce, then fold in the miso and mirin as well.
- In a mortar, add the saffron threads, remaining salt and sugar and mix the ingredients with a pestle until the mixture is nearly pale pink in colour. Add this mixture to 100 ml of hot boiling water and place in a jar. Add more saffron if you want a red colour.
- Once the saffron liquid has cooled, add it to the marinade.
- Marinate the whole spatchcock or chicken pieces for 3 to 12 hours — the longer you can marinate it, the better.
- Barbecue the bird on a low setting or in the oven at 185°C for 14 minutes.
- The chicken is ready to serve. With the cooked spatchcock, cut it into 2 drumsticks and 2 marylands and cut the breast in half, then half again, before serving.
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