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Our story on a plate: Café Sunshine & SalamaTea.

24 August 2021

Having fled his homeland, Iran, to escape religious persecution, Hamed Allahyari is dishing up authentic Persian dishes and work opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers at his Melbourne eatery.

Explore


Our story on a plate: Café Sunshine & SalamaTea.

24 August 2021

Having fled his homeland, Iran, to escape religious persecution, Hamed Allahyari is dishing up authentic Persian dishes and work opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers at his Melbourne eatery.

Hamed Allahyari at Café Sunshine & Salamatea in Melbourne

Chef Hamed Allahyari is dishing up authentic Persian dishes and jobs for refugees and asylum seekers at Melbourne’s Café Sunshine & Salamatea. Image: Chris Middleton.

Dadami dip is one of the star dishes at Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea in Melbourne’s west – and it’s travelled here from the north of Iran, via owner Hamed Allahyari’s family. His aunt lived in the region and would produce freshly made labneh from her cows. Whenever his father visited from Tehran, she’d send him back with a massive supply of the thick, strained yoghurt.

“After two weeks, we would get sick of it,” Allahyari says. “lt was in the fridge for a long time.”

To avoid throwing it out, his father would get creative: adding it to pastries or cakes. But the “best” thing he’d produce with labneh was a dip with mixed herbs, sesame seeds and a judicious sprinkling of seven different spices, which Allahyari would take to school, much to the envy of his peers. “Everyone loved that dip,” he says.

Dadami dip and jewelled rice dishes at Café Sunshine & Salamatea

Dadami dip is one of the star dishes at Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea in Melbourne’s west – and it’s travelled here from the north of Iran. Image: Chris Middleton.

In Melbourne, this dish became a hit during Allahyari’s cooking classes for Free to Feed, a social enterprise that helps refugees connect with the community through their cuisine. “People would ask me, ‘what’s that dip, does it have a name?’” There wasn’t one, because this spiced labneh creation was something his father had made up. “All the ingredients are Persian, but you can’t find it in any restaurant,” he says. Eventually Allahyari called it dadami, “because in the north of Iran, dadami dip means daddy’s dip”.

When he opened Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea in 2019, he knew this had to be on the menu. It’s now a bestseller, of course.

Free to Feed has played a big role in Allahyari’s business – in fact, the eatery might not exist without it. “In three years, I had over 2,500 students who came to my cooking class. Those people were always asking me, ‘Hamed, do you have a cafe or a place where we can come to eat?’”

With this demand in mind, he knew he’d eventually open an eatery. So he used his cooking lessons (which ran from 2016 to 2018) to workshop his future menu. When he served Tehran street food, jewelled rice or other Persian specialities, he’d ask guests for their honest thoughts.

“For example, falafel in Iran, it’s not very spicy, it’s very plain,” he says. But once he packed it with cumin seeds, fennel seeds and turmeric, people really liked the flavoursome changes. It’s how he serves falafel now.

He also rated guest reactions to his food, asking them to single out their favourite dish. In the Notes app on his smartphone, he’d put a star in front of any item people rated best. “I had hundreds of stars in front of my falafel,” he says. “I had 280 stars for fesenjoon.” So that Persian slow-cooked chicken dish with pomegranate molasses and walnut paste is on his Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea menu – as is his vegan version flavoured with tofu and carrots. He removed the traditional fried onions to make the plant-based dish low-FODMAP, too. “I love to have everything for everyone,” he says.

Such community-minded thinking is what inspired him to open Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea: he wanted to run a venue that offered work opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers. Allahyari knows first-hand how hard it can be for new arrivals to find a job here.

 

Hamed Allahyari at Café Sunshine & Salamatea in Melbourne

Hamed fled Iran to escape religious persecution and settled in Melbourne, where he now offers work opportunities and training for refugees and asylum seekers at Café Sunshine & Salamatea. Image: Chris Middleton.

“The first two years, I couldn’t get a job because my English was a second language, because I couldn’t find a reference from Australia.”

Allahyari also knows how difficult it is to flee your homeland. “Because I became an atheist in my country, my life was in danger,” he says. The authorities were coming to arrest him, so he escaped as quickly as possible. “I didn’t have time to go by the embassy to get a visa.” Instead, he escaped to Jakarta and attempted to get to Australia via boat.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘Okay, Hamed, if you’re going to die, it’s better to die in the ocean by shark, not die in Iran by the government’. They hang you because you change your religion,” he says. “It was the most dangerous thing I’d ever done in my life, but to be honest, I didn’t have any other option.”

When he opened Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea, he had nine asylum seekers working for him. Over time, they’ve arrived from Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and other parts of the world. He trains them in the kitchen, on the coffee machine and instructs them on taking orders. Once they’re confident, he refers them to other Melbourne cafes and restaurants. “One of them is planning to open her cafe,” he says. Like Allahyari, she’s from Iran and will be serving Persian food. Another worker from Ethiopia recently found a job at a café. “I’m so happy,” he says. At Cafe Sunshine & SalamaTea, Allahyari doesn’t just serve dadami dip and other highly personal dishes – he offers second chances and hope, too.

Our Story on a Plate is a series unpacking the cultural influences behind some of Australia’s most popular restaurants and profiling the people who are sharing their stories through the medium of food.

In case you missed it, we spoke to one Adelaide family reclaiming the narrative of their Afghani heritage through their restaurant and cookbook Parwana and visited Pepito’s, the Sydney taberna operating as a loud and proud outpost of Peru.

Café Sunshine & Salamatea, 21 Dickson St, Sunshine VIC 3020

By Lee Tran Lam