Sydney’s top chefs reveal mum’s favorite childhood dishes

The heart of the house is undoubtedly the kitchen, where so many aspiring chefs have learned their love of cooking. It was there that they watched their mothers, grandmothers and aunts create culinary magic. From handmade noodles tossed in a small kitchen in Hong Kong to freshly picked stuffed courgette flowers from the garden, these are some of the standout dishes that have inspired Sydney chefs to make cooking a career.

Sharon and Violet Salloum

Sydney-based chef, restaurateur and cookbook author Sharon Salloum said her highlight of the week was sitting down to dinner with her family on a Monday night. Her mother, Violet Salloum, usually prepares her favorite Syrian dish: mukloubi bi lahmi.

“It’s an upside-down dish of layered stewed lamb, fried eggplant and basmati rice,” says Sharon. “It’s my absolute favorite.”

Sharon, alongside her sister Carol, drew inspiration from their family’s cuisine for their famous Darlinghurst restaurant, Almond Bar, which closed during the pandemic. They continue to welcome diners to their Ashbury cafe, 3 Tomatoes.

Mukloubi bi lahmi is a time-consuming labor of love, as the ingredients are cooked separately before being layered with rice and cooked with broth in the final pot. Violet uses homemade ghee to fry almonds and pine nuts to add texture to the dish, then serves it with a dollop of fresh yogurt on top.

The smell of ghee simmering on the stove brings back fond childhood memories of Sharon watching Violet slowly, meticulously, work in the kitchen.

“I was probably annoying him, always getting in his way and asking a lot of questions, just wanting to know everything,” Sharon says.

Chef Sharon Salloum with her mother Violet at her mother's house in Granville.  In the garden harvesting parsley for tabbouleh Photo Nick Moir May 6, 2022

Sharon and Violet Salloum harvest parsley for tabbouleh. Photo: Nick Moir

“But I learned a lot from her, 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 nights, but it’s a risky business. The dish should be carefully removed from the pan onto a large plate, and one misstep can turn a beautiful dinner into a doggy breakfast.

“It’s a very big pot. It feeds 10 of us!” Sharon said.

“A few weeks ago I wasn’t there and someone else tried…it was a mess. Rice everywhere!”

3 Tomatoes, 121 Holden Street, Ashbury, 02 8065 1288, 3tomatoescafe.com

Jessi Singh and Prem Kaur

Chef and hotel entrepreneur Jessi Singh spent his childhood on a farm in the Punjab region of northern India, where he would sneak after milking buffaloes to watch his mother, Prem Kaur, cook in the kitchen.

“Men traditionally worked in the fields, they didn’t get involved in the kitchen at all,” Singh says.

“But I was still in the kitchen and they were still yelling at me to get out.”

In a shared house, where several extended family members lived under one roof, the kitchen was always crowded with mothers, aunts and grandmothers competing to see who could cook the best dahl or who had the best recipe for saag.

For Singh, his mother’s mustard green saag came out on top.

“It was my all-time favorite. It took two or three days to cook because she had to take the mustard greens and cook them over low heat, bringing them to a simmer and simmering them,” he says.

“Then she would serve it with tomato, onion, ginger, garlic and a huge chunk of homemade whipped butter. It was very simple but it was the most comforting food.”

Singh owns and operates “non-authentic” Indian restaurants Don’t Tell Aunty, in Surry Hills, and Daughter in Law, which has locations in Melbourne, Adelaide and Byron Bay.

He credits his success as a chef to the women in his family, who eventually gave in to his demands and taught him their ropes, preparing him to begin his international culinary career.

“They are all so proud, telling their friends how they taught me to cook and how I use their recipes,” he says. “I always call them for cooking advice.”

Don’t Tell Auntie, 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.

Arnold Wong says his grandmother, Bi Show Fen, lives on in the memories of her traditional northern Chinese cuisine. Photo: Supplied

Arnold Wong and Bi Show Fen

Every day until the mid-1980s, Bi Show Fen walked the streets of Hong Kong for more than half an hour to deliver home-cooked meals to her grandson, Good Food Young Chef runner-up Arnold Wong. of the Year in 2021.

“It was his way of showing us his love,” says Arnold.

“She died when I was 12, but I still think she’s up there watching me cook for others. I think she would be proud.”

Wong spent the last few years working at Newtown Cafe Paci, where he began to discover his own style of cooking.

He says his grandmother brought with her a wealth of culinary knowledge when she fled northern China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. His favorite dish, however, was his zha jiang mian.

“It was like a refried, salted, fermented bean sauce with minced meat poured over wheat noodles. In her youth, she made the noodles herself.”

Wong says her grandmother’s simpler dishes, like her tomato scrambled eggs, always remind her that good food doesn’t have to be complicated.

“It’s a very healthy and 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 stuff.

“In hindsight, even though she didn’t directly inspire me to become a professional chef, the thought of her cooking did inspire me to rediscover my cultural heritage.”

Cafe Paci, 131 King Street, Newtown, 02 9550 6196, cafepaci.com.au

Anna Polyviou says Mother Eugina always goes above and beyond for her family, especially in the kitchen.

Anna Polyviou says Mother Eugina always goes above and beyond for her family, especially in the kitchen. Photo: Supplied

Anna and Eugine Polyviou

Pastry chef and TV personality Anna Polyviou’s suitcase is so overflowing with homemade halloumi, vine leaves and fresh bread after a visit to her mother’s house that she struggles to get through airport security. .

“That’s how she always showed her love, cooking for people and feeding them,” Anna says.

“I still remember seeing it in the kitchen when I was a child. The smell, the aromas… I wish I had enjoyed it more, like I do now, but I didn’t understand all the love that there was back then.”

“Now I’m the same. I learned that from her.”

As a Greek Cypriot woman, Eugina Polyviou can cook moussaka, pasticcio or fish soup any day of the week. But Anna has a weakness for her mother’s stuffed zucchini flowers.

“It’s funny, you know, zucchini flowers are considered a bit fancy 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 tons of lemon, tons of parsley and different spices.

“It’s braised in the oven and it’s so delicious.”

The mother-daughter team will open XO Bakehouse on Illawarra Road in Marrickville later this year.

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