Lincoln Tan discovers Auckland’s hidden restaurant dishes – Dolmeh meals at Rumi

Herald ethnic affairs reporter and dedicated foodie Lincoln Tan introduces you to a world of hidden restaurant delights around Auckland.

It is not easy getting Iranians to have Persian dinners out at restaurants, says Reza Sarkheil, because most believe the best food is found at home in their mother’s kitchen.

But what happens when the restaurant’s chef is an Iranian woman – Reza’s mum – and the dishes she cooks are from family recipes that have been passed down for generations?

“Iranians find comfort in home food, especially when they’re overseas and away from their families what they crave most is authentic home cooking,” said Reza, 38, owner of Rumi, a Persian restaurant in Parnell.

His mother Shahla Sarkheil, 64, helms the restaurant kitchen as its head chef.

Persian cuisine at Rumi is actually Iranian, but Persian is used because Iran is historically known as Persia in the West and one that’s often used by the Iranian diaspora.

When some Iranian nationals who were working on the Lord of the Rings film set came to Rumi asking for some home cooking, they jumped at the chance for a dinner of dolmeh felfel (stuffed capsicum) and dolmeh bedemjoon (stuffed eggplant).

Dolmeh, or stuffed dishes where vegetables like capsicum and eggplants are used as containers filled by other food have been eaten for centuries in Middle Eastern countries.

In Iran, that can be traced to at least the 17th century where eggplants, cucumbers, cabbage leaves and quinces were cooked stuffed with ground meat, rice, saffron and sautéed mint.

At Rumi, dolmeh felfel and dolmeh bedemjoon are two of the traditional dishes available by special order for Iranians hankering for a taste of home.

Reza says dolmeh preparation and cooking takes time, and also its stuffing can differ to suit individual preferences which is why they are available only by special order.

“Dolmeh is grandmother food, and is usually done with love by grandmother preparing dinner for their grandchildren,” he said.

“I grew up eating this, especially in the winter time when it is a bit cold, but with every bite you can feel grandma’s love and that warms you up.”

The stuffing can vary, as with the spice level and whether the consumer is a vegetarian.

Traditionally, ingredients used for the stuffing include minced beef, chopped parsley, mint, tarragon, rice, leek, onions, turmeric and scallions and boiled in a sauce that’s either chicken or vegetable based with tomato paste.

“It takes a bit of skill and knowledge about how to cook so that the texture of the vegetables get soft enough, and yet not fall apart,” he said.

Reza first moved to New Zealand in 2006 and sponsored his parents who came at the end of 2014.

Three months after they arrived, Reza started Rumi with a menu that was largely inspired by his mother’s cooking, and family recipes that have been passed down for generations.

“I honestly think that my mum’s cooking is the best, and of course I couldn’t wait to share that with the rest of Auckland,” Reza said.

“My dad, who is now 68, has been in hospitality since he was 18 and he supported the idea of opening Rumi because there is a lack of authentic Persian food here in New Zealand.”

He said they took a risk and went with a menu that was fully Persian that people “would either like or hate”.

“But I am assured that after six years, and judging by the number of regulars including Iranians, I think people like it,” Reza said.

Reza said he opened Rumi for two main reasons – to give his parents something to do in New Zealand and to share his mother’s mouth watering Iranian dishes.

“I know that not many New Zealanders can get a chance of going to have dinner at the home of an Iranian, but I think they can have something even better in Rumi and my mum’s cooking,” Reza added.

• Rumi, 251 Parnell Road, Parnell; https://www.rumi.co.nz

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