When we arrive at the Auburn Centre for Community for our Flavours of Auburn cooking class, we’re given a recipe booklet with “eat, learn and greet” printed on the cover. The premise of the night is simple: we will cook a meal of Iranian and Pakistani food and share the feast afterwards. At heart, it’s a celebration.
Flavours of Auburn – which has been run monthly by the non-profit organisation House of Welcome for the last five years – is a community enterprise developed by the Auburn Small Community Organisation Network (ASCON) and Cumberland Council, designed to showcase the eclectic flavours of one of Sydney’s most culturally and linguistically diverse suburbs. (In addition to cooking classes, there are also monthly food tours.)
Hosted by cooks from refugee and asylum-seeker backgrounds, Flavours of Auburn teaches a smorgasbord of cuisines, including Ethiopian, Afghani, Zimbabwean, Congolese, Moroccan, Fijian, Egyptian and Sudanese. The classes encourage storytelling, personal connection and cultural exchange.
Syedeh Shah, originally from northern Pakistan, has been involved with the House of Welcome for five years. Today, she’s teaching a class for the first time. “The House of Welcome is my home,” she says smiling.
For her shinwari karahi she deftly butchers a whole chicken and tosses it, with garlic, into a deep vat of canola oil. She instructs us to add in quartered tomatoes skin-side up so the skins can be pinched with tongs once the tomatoes soften. We make a curry, which is ready when the oils separate and form a luscious slick on top.
The class is a collaborative affair. All hands are on deck – or rather, in blue gloves – grasping at green chillies, potato peelers and coriander. We chop onions squinting through stinging eyes, and are called upon to stir, taste and smell. Mint is blitzed in the blender, puffs of flour dissipate above the steel countertop, and the warm scent of spice fills the kitchen. There is nothing staid about this cooking class. When we make roti, Shah shapes the dough into a perfectly smooth dome before slapping it onto the counter. She shepherds us into a line to try the motions ourselves. A roti conveyer belt is soon formed with people pulling, rolling and cooking flatbread.
Iranian chef Aliyeh Toobah has taught at least 10 classes. We make her sambooseh, a Persian pastry filled with turmeric spiced potatoes, peas and parsley and marvel at how every culture has its own variation of dough stuffed with something. The pastry is folded into triangles and we attempt to mimic the way Toobah crimps and twists the edges to form an elegant plait.
On the stove, the chana pilau (chickpeas and rice) is bubbling away. Plump chickpeas float on top of basmati rice, which is bright yellow from cumin, turmeric and lemon. On the other hob, an equally giant vat of adas is simmering, green lentils softening with potatoes to form a thick soup.
At the end of the class, dinner is served in a nearby room. As with any feast, there are plenty of leftovers. The Iranian adas rests on top of the Pakistani chana pilau in tightly packed containers to take home.
The cost of the cooking classes goes towards paying the chefs and buying the ingredients. Whatever profits remain go back into the program. “When the [participants] are happy and learn about other traditions, that’s a good thing. You have to share what you can. I like sharing my food and my culture,” says Shah.
Toobah agrees. “I like sharing my cooking in this class. We speak together. You speak about your culture and I speak about my culture, we are laughing together. I love this.”
The next Flavours of Auburn cooking classes are: Congolese and Zimbabwean (September 6), Afghani (September 20), and Moroccan and Tunisian (October 18). Tickets are $70, with special pricing for Cumberland Council residents and concession-card holders. Book here.