In the kitchen at Mazar there’s what looks like a square, tiled bath covered in giant tea towel. The towel hides a giant shield-like plate of metal, which when flipped open unleashes a thick cloud of steam. When the mist dissipates you see the metal base covered in a gargantuan stew of rice, lamb shanks, capsicum and raisins. The device is called a qozon and it’s a hallmark of the cuisine of central Asia.
Mazar’s owner, Abdul Moeen, built it himself. He and his family are Tajik people from the north of Afghanistan. “North food is more like Central Asian food; Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, they have pretty much the same culture of cooking the food. We don't spice the food too much, it's about how you cook it.” Mooen says the cuisine is limited in ingredients but rich in taste. “It’s heavy. When you eat this you'll want to fall asleep.”
The most distinct dish is Uzbeki palaw, the main meal from the qozon. Moeen’s brother-in-law, Muzafar Nuri, makes it the traditional way, by slowly steaming several kilos of onions. The qozon keeps all the moisture in, so the onions turn in to a soup that’s used to braise a heap of lamb shanks. After several hours he adds rice, capsicum and raisins. Then it’s simply a case of waiting for all the flavours to mingle into one delicious, savoury mix. “A good memory for me is when I first opened. One old man was sitting here, he was having rice. I saw tears in his eyes and he said, ‘After 25 years this is the first time I've seen this food, it's like my home food’,” Mooen says.
Nuri is the speciality qozon chef. Afghanis from other regions handle the charcoal-fired kebab grill and bake fresh bread in his tandoor oven. Nuri’s wife and Mooen’s sister, Roya, makes Mazar’s two other signature dishes: mantu, Afghani steamed dumplings sloshed in yoghurt and a savoury dhal, and bulani, which is like Turkish gozleme but with more structural integrity and instead of meat or spinach they’re stuffed with pumpkin, potato or chives. Mooen tells us that traditionally all these dishes would be eaten with salad and sides of seared eggplant, soft pumpkin and Afghan kofta.
Since Mazar opened it’s been a cultural hub for Merrylands’ Afghani community. These days Mooen can barely drink his tea without a customer interrupting with a grin, a slap on the shoulder and a few words in Dari. The customers themselves seem to stay for hours, particularly anyone sitting on the restaurant’s two pillow-fenced floor mats. After they’re done eating palaw, bulani or mantu, they have several rounds of tea with some chewy cheese or a few of Roya’s homemade sweets.
178 Merrylands Road, Merrylands
(02) 8677 8787
Mon to Sun 12.30pm–10pm
Local Knowledge is a weekly Broadsheet series shining a light on the unassuming, authentic Sydney restaurants that are worthy of appreciation beyond the neighbourhoods they serve.