Before Asal Sweets in Sydney there was Amir in Tehran. The 20-year-old bakery was known all over the city and many restaurants and grocers stocked its biscuits, cream puffs and sponge cakes. The owner, Amir Nikandish, was running a successful business, but he left it all behind to bring his family to Australia.
Now Nikandish is in semi-retirement. He’s still in the sweets industry but he works for someone else – his son. Simon Nikandish now owns and runs both sweet shops (the one in Granville opened three years ago and the Merrylands store opened in February) but relies on his dad and sister (Sara Nikandish) for recipes, labour and support. “I'm following my dad's recipes. It's a bit different from other Persian places. We want to use different ingredients to make sure people love it,” says Simon.
Persian sweets can be roughly arranged into two categories, shirini tar (French-influenced pastries with fruit, cream centres or custard) and shirini khoshk (traditional Persian dry pastries made with rice, chickpeas, nuts and dried fruit). You’ll see the difference in the display cabinet. One side has crumbly rice biscuits; chickpea pastries; syrupy yoghurt-flour fritters; and sesame-glazed bars of puff pastry. The other looks like a valley of European pastries. Brittle cream puffs look like fluffy coconut biscuits; roulette sponge cakes (“rollot” here) are topped with pistachio dust; and there are Danish-Persian pastries with creamed-fruit centres.
The best of the lot are the walnut biscuits on the shirini khoshk side. They look and feel crunchy, but as soon as you snap one in half you’ll see they’re almost mousse-textured in the centre. The whole biscuit is like melted-dough, similar to what you’d get from a perfectly baked macaroon. “It’s a very unique and traditional Persian sweet. It’s very hard to make, a very long process,” says Simon.
Along with the cream puffs, they’re extremely popular among Asal’s Persian customers. Some of them even stop in and have a few with a bowl of nuts and some tea, but the vast majority buy them in bulk to take to their friends and families. “In Iran, when you go to visit someone, you should always give a present,” says Nikandish. “Some people bring wine or whatever, but in my culture you bring sweets.”
Nikandish says Asal is lucky to have such a strong Persian following. Sydney doesn’t have a large Persian community and unlike other migrant communities it’s not particularly localised into any one area. “That's what encouraged us to grow,” he says. “It was really hard at the beginning (Nikandish and his family struggled with building, development applications and council regulations) but when I opened and the pastry came out of the oven and people tasted it, I remember those days absolutely. People would say, ‘Wow it's like I'm in Tehran’.”