Arash Aminzadeh and Hassan Mohammadi with Persian flatbread called sangak at Ziba Cafe, Henderson. Photo/Michael Craig
Ziba Cafe doesn’t serve many dishes, but each one is a sensory delight. The restaurant’s Iranian owners are committed to authentic Persian cuisine and helped Amanda Saxton find a meal that suited her needs.
Choosing is hard
at the Ziba Cafe in Henderson. I was in a hurry on a recent Sunday, but hesitated between spicy kebabs and a slow-cooked lamb stew that looked so pretty. Persian restaurant co-owner Arash Aminzadeh sensed my helplessness. “Take the skewers,” he advised softly. “This stew tastes best if you have time to eat slowly, over conversations with friends.”
Aminzadeh never thought he would end up in the food business. He studied electrical engineering in Iran and his passions have always been music and photography. Life, however, “took me somewhere unexpectedly”, says the 48-year-old.
Aminzadeh’s family fled Iran to Pakistan in 1999 as refugees. They arrived in New Zealand in 2001, four days after the September 11 attacks. In Auckland, Aminzadeh enrolled in a computer course. But love derailed his plan: the woman he fell in love with was in Iran and Aminzadeh needed some real work to get his New Zealand visa. So he embarked on what became a 15-year career in retail – during which Aminzadeh married his love, had two sons and practiced photography in his spare time.
Then his friend Hassan Mohammadi imported a three-ton oven from Iran. The plan was to start supplying Middle Eastern grocery stores with a Persian flatbread called sangak. Aminzadeh joined, and in late 2019 their successful sangak business spawned Ziba Cafe. It is the third restaurant that Mohammadi, 53, has owned since he began his career as a dishwasher in 1998, the year he left Iran for New Zealand.
At Ziba, Mohammadi and Aminzadeh do everything themselves: Mohammadi in the kitchen, Aminzadeh everywhere else. Their days often go from 5am, when they start baking, to 8pm when the restaurant closes.
“It’s madness,” admits Aminzadeh. “But we are totally focused on high quality food and creating a good experience for our customers.”
Entering Ziba is like entering a pāua shell. Colorful fabrics – sewn together by Aminzadeh’s mother – cover her ceiling and a peacock tapestry hangs on a teal blue wall. Persian artifacts abound, including a beautifully stitched buttercup yellow dress belonging to Mohammadi’s daughter. He bought it for her when she was 8 (she is now 20), in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan, to wear to a school event celebrating cultural heritage.
A friend of Mohammadi’s provided the bright kilim cushions that soften the banquettes on one side of the restaurant. Sturdy wooden tables are accented with flower pots. Aminzadeh assures me that the decoration was done with a lot of love and little budget.
Ziba’s menu is neat and short. Mohammadi and Aminzadeh don’t want to modify Persian cuisine for the Kiwi palate. Instead, they serve authentic dishes that naturally appeal to heat-sensitive Kiwi tongues (as long as you’re an omnivorous Kiwi, there are no vegetarian options). You will find three types of shish kebab, two stews and various sides.
Let’s start with the skewers. Koobideh is grilled lamb mince, chenjeh is chunks of lamb, and joojeh is chicken breast. Mohammadi marinates each appetizing piece for at least 24 hours, which he says is the secret to good Persian meat. The lamb is sprinkled with coriander powder, paprika and turmeric; chicken with saffron, cayenne and yogurt. They are served with grilled tomatoes, salad, and sangak bread or saffron rice ($25-$42). I had the koobideh that Sunday and passed out.
Hearty dizi ($28) — named after the stone pot it’s cooked in — is a peasant stew of bone-in lamb, chickpeas, white beans, potatoes, and dried limes. He loves companions: you’ll find fresh sangak bread, pickles and mast-o-khiar (Persian tzatziki) in Ziba. Dizi is the dish that Aminzadeh advised me to save to enjoy with friends.
While the other stew, Ghormeh Sabzi ($25), features diced lamb, the herbs are the hero here. It starts as a mountain of fresh parsley, cilantro and spinach, sautéed in dark green mud. Fenugreek leaves add sweetness. Dried limes give an intriguing and bitter side. It’s deep and delicious and is reminiscent of the Indian saag.
Ziba had a stop-start entry into the market, opening just before Covid hit. But he built up a loyal following. Iranians, in particular, travel long distances to eat here. A couple come from Taupō every weekend, says Mohammadi. Maybe not just for Ziba, but they make it a point to drop every visit. Henderson is a hollow suburb and Aminzadeh and Mohammadi say they have enjoyed introducing people from all walks of life to Persian cuisine.
Ask anyone who has traveled through Iran what has stood out to them the most, and I bet they will mention the warmth and friendliness of the locals. This hospitable spirit, I am happy to report, is alive and well in Ziba.
386 Great North Road, Henderson
Opening hours: Tuesday 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday noon-3 p.m.
Telephone: (09) 218 1111
Dine in and take away
BYO (wine only) and license (beer and wine sold)