By: Fabián Marcel Vergara DeLeón, fabulous Taste Tour Guide
Persian cuisine is ‘food’ in one of the sincere senses of the word. It is a cuisine of which has continually refined itself, surviving into its venerable age. I adore Persian cuisine. Or Iranian cuisine, whatever you’d like to call it. It embodies heartiness, colour, spice and balance. Yet I always find myself asking friends and acquaintances in Sydney if they are familiar with Persian food and more often than not, their responses range from a simple ‘no’ or ‘not really’ to ‘Where is Persia?’
So I’m writing this article as a rudimentary introduction to Persian food in Sydney, which will hopefully entice you to try some and familiarise you with some of the more basic elements of this underrated cuisine in our great city. In my humble opinion, one of the best places to get Persian food at a great price is Shandeez Restaurant in Fairfield. A short walk from Fairfield train station, this quiet establishment lies on the Ware Street artery of Fairfield’s commercial shopping area. The kitchen at Shandeez serves up Persian style kebabs as well as traditional Persian comfort food.
Iran (or Persia) was part of the Silk Road, bridging Asia, the Middle East and Europe. So it comes as a surprise to many that Persians are very particular about their rice. Rice is at the very heart of Persian cooking. This is exemplified in the fact that the Persian language has three words for rice, as opposed to English which has only one: Berinj means ‘uncooked rice’ and is the root of the word ‘biriyani’, chelo means ‘cooked rice’ and polo denotes a rice dish with meat in it, a cognate of the word pilaf in English. Persian rice is long grain. It is normally soaked and then boiled and steamed, giving it its distinctive fluffiness. To give the rice a certain richness, it is then tossed with butter and saffron, also imparting its distinctive yellow colouring.
When the rice is prepared like this, it is the centrepiece of a meal. The zereshk polo at Shandeez is an ode to rice. A piece of chicken cooked in saffron, turmeric and garlic is laid at the edge of the plate, next to a delicate mound of still steaming, fluffy yellow and white rice. Barberries or zereshk are delicately strewn through the rice. Barberries which grow in skirts of shrubs along the Iranian mountains, have a strong sour taste when raw, but they are cooked over a low heat with some sugar to sweeten them. The combination of the tart sweetness from the red barberries and the richness of the pale yellow rice is a revelation. The barberries natural flavour cuts through the rice in the most sublime way.
Kebab is also something the world has to thank Iran for. What started off as soldiers in ancient times butchering an animal caught in the wild and then cooking the meat on their swords was elevated to new heights in Persia. Turmeric, saffron, sumac, pepper, parsley and garlic are infused into beef mince, lamb or chicken to add wholly new dimensions to the meat. They are then cooked over coals to impart a smokiness to the meat and to cook them as gently as possible. The seasoned kebab chef knows when exactly to turn the seekh or skewer so one side doesn’t burn or stays raw. It will cook through evenly, leaving a nice char on the outside but a tender and cooked inside.
At Shandeez, the kebabs are one of the many standouts. The kebab menu is huge, but your best value for money is the Shandeez Special. For $20 you get a jujeh, a chicken filet kebab marinated in turmeric and saffron, a barg, a lamb kebab marinated in onion juice, garlic and saffron, and a koobideh which is a beef mince kebab with parsley and onions. At Shandeez, this all comes served with Persian rice and bread.
There are also some vegetarian options in Persian cuisine. My two favourite non-meat dishes are kashk-e-bademjan and mast-e-mouseer. Kashk-e-bademjan is a flame roasted eggplant peeled and mashed then dressed with kashk or fermented whey and liquid saffron. The eggplant has a smokiness that seeps into the whey topping that becomes almost like melted cheese. Mast-e-mouseer is a thick garlic yoghurt mixture that lies between an Indian raita and Levantine toum garlic sauce. The flavour of mast-e-mouseer is almost like a gradient beginning with a toasted savory garlic flavour and then blending into the tart, tangy mildness of the yoghurt. Both of these dishes are best eaten with bread.If you want a drink befitting of your meal, I recommend trying Shandeez’s doogh. Doogh is a traditional buttermilk-based drink mixed with mint. It is adored by Persians and considered to be beneficial to ones health. However, this is very much an acquired taste so is forewarned. It is salty and sour. If tea is more your thing, Shandeez also has Persian tea heating in a samovar. Persians drink their tea black with a lot of sugar and at all times of the day.
I hope this article has given you some insight into the wonderful world of Persian cuisine. If you’d like to try some, I can’t recommend any place better than Shandeez restaurant.
Shandeez Restaurant, 40 Ware St, Fairfield NSW 2165