A couple week-ends ago, a block long section of Hunter street was closed to traffic and used instead as the largest dining room in the city to host a charity luncheon catered by some of the best chefs in town. Babak, or Bob Abbaszadeh of recently opened Cafe Zeytoon, was one of them, dishing it up alongside Tony Harrison of Bar Petite, Lesley Taylor of Le Petit Deux and half a dozen others.
“It was great cooking with all those guys. There isn’t much of a sense of competition between us, we are friends.” The absence of competition amongst the city’s best restaurants is probably because of and thanks to what makes Newcastle special: big enough to welcome variety and addition to the culinary landscape, while still small enough to find gaps to fill.
“Persian Delight” cooking class at The Essential Ingredient Newcastle.
Just over 3 months ago, and about a year after landing in Australia, Iranian couple, Babak and his wife, Freda, opened Cafe Zeytoon (olive in arabic) on the corner of King and Bolton Street in the Newcastle CBD, adding a Persian flavor to what is slowly but surely becoming a prime destination for foodies in the Steel city, joining Spanish ‘Boccados’, French ‘Le petit deux’ and hispter HQ ‘Good brother’.
Abbaszadeh began his journey as a cook in the Iranian capital of Teheran, around the age of 8. While his mother took night classes at the University, Abbaszadeh began cooking for the family, both out of necessity and passion. The love of cooking runs in the family with Abbaszadeh crediting his mother for teaching him how to cook and observing his father, also a professional chef, preparing enormous feasts for parties and neighborhood gatherings.
Abbaszadeh then went on to study International Culinary Art in Teheran and completed apprenticeships in Italian and French as well as Persian restaurants in his home city. A couple of years ago, Abbaszadeh moved to Malaysia for a year, pursuing his culinary studies. Eventually, the couple settled in Newcastle, a city where she had worked in the past, and 3 months ago, achieved the long-standing dream of opening their own restaurant.
Over a cup of Persian tea, infused with cinnamon, cardamom and rose petals, I caught up with Babak to find out what defines Persian cuisine, what Novocastrians can expect to find on Cafe Zeytoon’s menu and what are this chef’s essential ingredients, both at work and at home.
+ Hi Babak, what are a couple of things people might not know about Persian cuisine?
Persian cuisine is in fact, quite mild. A lot of people think that it is quite close to Indian food, but although it might look similar, it tastes completely different. Persian cuisine is slow and doesn’t go into extremes: it isn’t too salty, too hot or too greasy. Even desserts aren’t too sweet. Instead, we use spices like cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric to heighten the flavors of dishes. We also use a lot of dried herbs, particularly dill, coriander and mint. Persian cuisine is very flexible. Most meat dishes can be turned into vegetarian dishes and the balance of flavors can be adapted to any personal preference. It is more about the method than the ingredients.
+ Could you describe the menu at Cafe Zeytoon?
We are open for breakfast and lunch everyday and offer a combination of western and Persian options – salads, sandwiches or more traditional rice dishes – accompanied by Persian coffee (Single shot espresso brewed with Zeytoon’s spice mix) or saffron tea (loose leaf black tea, with saffron infused milk). We also serve dinner on Friday and Saturday nights – the menu is 100% Persian, changes regularly and features a number of saffron rice and slow-cooked meat or charcoal grilled vegetable dishes.
+ What are some signature dishes?
In the entrees, ‘Borani Bademjan’ is heavenly: chargrilled eggplant mashed with garlic and herbed yoghurt. There is a long tradition of pickling in Persian cuisine and ‘Zeytoon Parvadeh’ is olives cured in pomegranate molasses, crushed walnuts and herbs. It is delicious and has a distinctive middle-eastern, slighty sour, flavor.
In mains, a favourite is ‘Chenjeh’: a grilled lamb leg skewer, grilled tomato served with saffron rice and shirazi salad and for the more adventurous, ‘Del’ is a Tarragon marinated lamb heart on grill, served with radish and baby spinach salad, on bread or rice.
+ How do Novocastrians respond to offal based dishes?
Surprisingly well. A few days ago, a table wasn’t quite sure if they wanted to try ‘del’ so I suggested they have another dish instead but when I brought their food over, I included one lamb heart skewer, just for them to have a taste. I then cleared another table and when I turned around, the whole skewer was gone. They obviously thought it was pretty good! The thing about offal is that it is extremely nutritious and full of protein with hardly any fat. When cooked well, it can be delicious but few people know what to do with it.
+ What is the essential ingredient of Persian cuisine?
Rice, undoubtedly! Rice is the centerpiece of all dishes in Persian cuisine. Iranian rice, produced locally, is a medium grain rice with a delicious aroma. It is produced in small quantities and rarely exported outside of Iran. Basmati rice is the closest alternative but the rice is cooked in a very different way to Indian or Asian cuisine.
Usually infused with saffron, it is cooked twice: first boiled, then drained (eliminating a lot of starch) and finally, steamed. This technique achieves a rice which is light and fluffy, and because it is drained in the process, it is light in carbohydrates and calories as well.
+ What do you cook at home?
If I am not cooking Persian food, then I usually cook Italian: homemade pasta, fresh tomatoes, basil and lots of olive oil. Nice and simple.
+ Thanks Babak.
Babak regularly hosts “Persian delight” cooking classes at The Essential Ingredient Newcastle.
Follow Cafe Zeytoon on Facebook
43 Bolton St
(02) 4926 5500
Monday to Thursday: 7:30am – 3:30pm
Friday: 7:30 am – 3:30pm and 6:00pm – 9:00pm
Saturday: 8:30 am – 9:00 pm.