The heart of the home is undoubtedly the kitchen, where so many budding chefs first learned their love for cooking. There they saw how their mothers, grandmothers and aunts created culinary magic. From handmade noodles thrown into a small Hong Kong kitchen, to stuffed zucchini flowers picked fresh from the garden, these are some of the standout dishes that inspired Sydney chefs to make cooking their profession.
Sharon and Violet Salloum
Sydney-based chef, restaurant owner and cookbook author Sharon Salloum says Monday night is her highlight of the week with her family. Her mother, Violet Salloum, usually prepares her favorite Syrian dish: mukloubi bi lahmi.
“It’s an inverted dish of layered, slow-cooked lamb, fried eggplant and basmati rice,” explains Sharon. “It’s my absolute favorite.”
Sharon, along with sister Carol, drew inspiration from their family’s cooking for their acclaimed Darlinghurst restaurant, Almond Bar, which closed during the pandemic. They continue to welcome guests to their Ashbury cafe, 3 Tomatoes.
Mukloubi bi lahmi is a time consuming labor of love as the ingredients are cooked separately before being topped with rice and cooked in the final pot with stock. Violet uses homemade ghee to fry almonds and pine nuts to give texture to the dish, then serves it with a dollop of cool yogurt on top.
The smell of the ghee as it simmers on the stove brings back fond childhood memories of Sharon watching Violet slowly and painstakingly work in the kitchen.
“I probably used to irritate her, I always got in her way and asked a lot of questions, I just wanted to know everything,” says Sharon.
Sharon and Violet Salloum harvest parsley for tabouli. Photo: Nick Moir
“But I’ve learned a lot from her, and from my grandmother, and from all the aunts in my life.”
Now it’s up to Sharon to serve her mother’s mukloubi bi lahmi on Monday night, but it’s a risky business. The dish must be gently turned out of the pot onto a large plate, and one wrong move can turn a beautiful dinner into a dog’s breakfast.
“It’s a very big pot. It feeds 10 of us!” says Sharon.
“A few weeks ago I wasn’t there and someone else tried…it was an absolute mess. Rice everywhere!”
3 Tomatoes, 121 Holden Street, Ashbury, 02 8065 1288, 3tomatoescafe.com
Jessi Singh and Prem Kauro
Chef and hospitality entrepreneur Jessi Singh spent his childhood on a farm in the Punjab region of northern India, where he would sneak in from milking the buffalo to watch his mother, Prem Kaur, cook in the kitchen .
“Men traditionally worked the land, they didn’t interfere in the cooking,” Singh says.
“But I was always in the kitchen and they were always yelling at me to get out.”
In a shared household, where several members of the extended family lived under one roof, the kitchen was always full of mothers, aunts, and grandmothers vying to see who could cook the best dahl, or who had the best recipe for saag.
For Singh, it was his mother’s mustard green saag that came out on top.
“It was my all-time favorite. It took two or three days of cooking because she had to take the mustard greens and cook them over a low heat, simmer and simmer,” he says.
“She would serve it with some tomato, onion, ginger, garlic and a huge pat of homemade whipped butter. It was very simple, but it was the most comforting food.”
Singh owns and operates “inauthentic” Indian restaurants Don’t Tell Aunty, in Surry Hills, and Daughter in Law, with locations in Melbourne, Adelaide and Byron Bay.
He attributes his success as a chef to the women of his family, who eventually gave in to his requests and taught him their tricks, leading him to start his international culinary career.
“They are all so proud to tell their friends how they taught me to cook and how I use their recipes,” he says. “I still call them for cooking advice.”
Don’t Tell Aunty, 414 Bourke Street, Surry Hills, 02 9331 5399, donttellaunty.com.au
Arnold Wong says his grandmother, Bi Show Fen, lives on in the memories of her traditional Northern Chinese cuisine. Photo: Delivered
Arnold Wong and Bi Show Fen
Every day, until her mid-80s, Bi Show Fen walked the streets of Hong Kong for over half an hour delivering home-cooked meals to her grandson, Arnold Wong, a 2021 Good Food Young Chef of the Year finalist.
“That was her way of showing her love for us,” Arnold says.
“She died when I was 12 years old, but I always think she’s up there, watching me cook for others. I think she’d be proud.”
Wong has worked for the past few years at Newtown restaurant Cafe Paci, where he has come to discover his own cooking style.
He says his grandmother brought a wealth of culinary knowledge with her when she fled northern China during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s. However, his favorite dish was her zha jiang mian.
“It was like a fried, salty, fermented bean sauce with minced meat poured over wheat noodles. She made the noodles herself when she was younger.”
Wong says his grandmother’s simpler dishes, like her tomato scrambled eggs, are still a reminder that good food doesn’t have to be complicated.
“It’s a very healthy, comforting Chinese dish,” he says.
“I remember my grandmother’s version was so simple and so easy to make, but when you eat it, you realize it’s enough. You don’t need expensive things.
“Looking back, while she didn’t directly inspire me to become a professional chef, the thought of her cooking inspired me to rediscover my cultural heritage.”
Cafe Paci, 131 King Street, Newtown, 02 9550 6196, cafepaci.com.au
Anna Polyviou says that mother Eugina always does everything for her family, especially in the kitchen. Photo: Delivered
Anna and Eugina Polyviou
After visiting her mother’s house, pastry chef and television personality Anna Polyviou’s suitcase is so full of homemade halloumi, vine leaves and freshly baked bread that she struggles to get through airport security.
“That’s how she has always shown love, by cooking for people and feeding people,” says Anna.
“I remember seeing her in the kitchen as a kid. The smell, the aromas… I wish I had appreciated it more, as I do now, but I didn’t understand all the love that went into it then.”
‘Now I am the same. I learned that from her.’
As a Greek Cypriot woman, Eugina Polyviou can make a mean moussaka, pasticcio or fish soup any day of the week. But Anna has a soft spot for her mother’s stuffed courgette flowers.
“It’s funny, you know, zucchini flowers are seen as a bit of a luxury these days, but we grew up with them. We used to pick them straight from the garden,” says Anna.
“She stuffs the flowers with rice, minced beef and pork…then she puts in a lot of lemon, a lot of parsley and different herbs.
“It’s been smothered in the oven and it’s so delicious.”
The mother-daughter team will open XO Bakehouse on Illawarra Road in Marrickville later this year.