Food in Pop Culture

Asa From Shahs of Sunset: Rapping at Elat Market + L.A.'s Persian Food Culture

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Thu, Jan 24, 2013 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Asa Soltan Rahmati from Shahs of Sunset - BRAVOTV.COM
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  • Asa Soltan Rahmati from Shahs of Sunset
If you're following the L.A.-based reality show Shahs of Sunset, (and we're certainly not judging you if you aren't) you've probably become acquainted with Asa Soltan Rahmati. And if that's the case, you've probably noticed that her favorite things are music, gold and Persian food. In what we guess is her debut single, recorded in Farsi and first posted in 2009 titled "Fessenjoon," Asa raps an homage to her Iranian roots by highlighting some hallmark cuisines, which include -- you guessed it -- fessenjoon and badenjoon, pomegranate-walnut stew and eggplant and sun-dried yogurt dip, respectively. (Fresh green herb stew, ghormeh sabzi, did not make the chorus due to, we believe, rhyming complications).

OK, so the video is ridiculous and even uncomfortable to watch at times for obvious reasons: namely her brother lurking in the background as she dances and flings her hair around. And after a chorus of chanting the above-mentioned cuisines, she raps about the lost Iranian identity and the social, political and religious problems plaguing our race as she leans on her immaculate white BMW.

While it's not likely she'll be up for a Grammy anytime soon, this self-proclaimed artist is actually onto something.

For Iranians, food is a ritual, a bonding and visceral experience beginning at the means from which the ingredients are gathered to with whom a meal is shared. The most important familial connections and conversations unfold during the shopping, preparing and finally eating (which explains why it's indefinitely lunch/dinner time for the Shahs cast).

And in Los Angeles, the genesis of a home-cooked Persian meal begins at Elat Market, Asa's destination in the opening scene. If you don't know already, Elat Market is a Kosher grocery store indispensable to the lives of Jewish Iranians in L.A. because for those Iranians who abide by the Jewish dietary laws, there's been only a handful of markets accommodating both their cultural and religious needs. But more than that, it's the headquarters, the watering hole, if you will, for Iranian mothers and grandmothers to shop, gossip and keep tabs on new nose jobs.

It's also the only place where you can find body wax, tobacco for your hookah and dried fruits all on one shelf. Perusing the produce aisle, you may find a seasoned shopper wearing latex gloves to excavate the cucumber bin for the most ripe and ready harvest. Next to her, you'll find a group of unimpressed housewives and retired men sharing a peeled tangerine to taste before committing themselves to a bag full.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ORLY MINAZAD
  • Photo by Orly Minazad
Further down the aisle, anxious ladies in scarves stand by the fresh herbs waiting for a new bushel of Persian basil, tarragon, cilantro, parsley, dill and radishes to arrive, at which point they will ban all niceties with one another and fight their way to earn the most coveted bundles. (Those of you paying over a dollar for a couple sprigs of tarragon at Trader Joe's, take heed. Elat Market is a better bargain for herbs, vegetables and fruits if you can maneuver your way through the mosh pit of old ladies).

It's common practice to leave your cart parked on the side of the aisle while you shop, because otherwise you won't be able to get through the crowded labyrinth. However, never place prized items or meats and fish you've already paid for in your unattended basket, because if your bag of handpicked cucumbers is missing when you get back, you have only yourself to blame. (Think about it. Would you rather spend half an hour picking out the perfect fruits or would you rather wait for someone else to do it and then snatch it while they're on another aisle?)

What you won't see at Elat Market are lines. Yes, the concept of lines and waiting has mysteriously disappeared from the Farsi dictionary along with "sorry I just shoved my shopping cart into your ribs." No place is this more evident than at the butcher section of Elat Market where older women who don't speak a word of English after having lived in America for over 20 years, can communicate in perfect Spanish to the Hispanic employee exactly what kind of meat they want and how they want it cut.

But when you say "Excuse me, I was here first," they have no idea what you just said. You could be speaking in tongues as far as they're concerned. They are allowed to do this because they can smell the pungent scent of naivety and inexperience of outsiders. So before entering the trenches, practice your strategy. (Fighting off a pack of hungry wolves for a dead deer carcass would be an appropriate simulator).

When you think about it, the whole ordeal is not unlike The Hunger Games.

But despite the chaos and primitive nature, there's something curiously beautiful about this microcosm containing the people who still adhere to a culture of familiarity and comfort of the old country, which may have been the subject of Asa's misplaced and nostalgic rap. Because sometimes, just when you think the old man humming Persian folk songs will body slam you to the lentils and split peas if you don't move out of his way, he bows and smiles, waiting for you to pass before picking up a bottle of rose water.

See a full translation of Asa's rap after the jump.

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