On Sunday, May 19, Cortez in Echo Park is hosting a dinner featuring recipes from Louisa Shafia's The New Persian Kitchen from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The menu is based on dishes from the cookbook, but the process of selecting which ones to include was collaborative. Shafia sent a list of suggestions to Cortez co-owner and chef Marta Teegen, who then added input on what would work best with what's available at the farmers market. The two share an appreciation for seasonal ingredients — an element echoed throughout the cookbook.
“Persian cooking has always been taking the bounty of the garden and making it the center of the meal,” says Shafia. “The word for paradise comes from the Persian word for a walled garden in the desert.”
“Since ancient times, Iranians have been able to grow all kinds of things because the country has a temperate climate — unlike most of the Middle East. They figured out a way to bring melted snow water from the many mountains that surround Tehran into the desert areas.”
The title of Shafia's cookbook refers to her approach to Persian cooking, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. “I think of Persian food as bedazzled food in that it's really beautiful and colorful, using a lot of fruits in savory dishes. There is a lot of emphasis on sour flavors. Traditionally, there is really not a whole lot of meat used.”
Shafia grew up in Philadelphia, exposed to a cross-section of cultures at home with parents of mixed religious background and in the city which she found to be very progressive. She was sent to Quaker school from kindgarten through 12th grade. “Neither of my parents are very religious in their respective religions and in Philly, Quaker schools have the reputation for being the best. They wanted me to have the best education possible.”
Shafia gained a love of cooking as a creative process from her mother, leading her to interpet traditional dishes and come up with her own. At book signings, she's noticed the cookbook has attracted a following of Iranian Americans, fitting as they were among the readership she had in mind.
“It's for people like myself who have a parent from Iran, but grew up here and never really learned all the classic dishes. They want simplified versions of those classic Iranian dishes,” says Shafia. “It's also for other Americans who may have heard a little bit about this cuisine or who are just curious about learning new kinds of ethnic cooking. Many people have not even heard of Persian cooking.”
Shafia's attempts to travel to Iran for cookbook research were unsuccessful, as she encountered issues with getting proper documentation. She spent time in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Istanbul instead. The experience was often communal, frequently involving friends and family among whom she picked up new recipes and tested her own; it was not unlike cooking and eating in Persian families.
“One time I went over to my cousin's house to learn a few dishes like a rice with fava beans and dill. I got there at ten in the morning and I think we had to leave at six o'clock,” recalls Shafia. “She and her husband said to me then, 'You're leaving already? We thought you're going to stay for dinner.' Normally if you're at someone's house for eight hours, they would be ready for you to leave. It's a whole different notion of time and being with other people.”
For her next cookbook, Shafia plans to focus on the Silk Road. “I've gotten really fascinated with the exchange of cultures and ideas between Europe through Asia. It's really fascinating that Iranian food has a lot in common with Russian food, Hungarian food, and even Chinese food,” she says. “I'd like to explore those commonalities in the next book and hoping to draw in a bit more of heritage from my mom's side, which is a mix of Ashkenazi Jew from Germany, Poland, Austria and Russia.”
Currently based in San Francisco, she'll soon return to Brooklyn. Shafia runs a company called Lucid Food, which began as a catering company before it transitioned into consulting and menu development.
Sunday's dinner menu will include roasted stuffed artichokes with mint oil, a fresh herb platter, lamb kebabs in pomegranate-walnut marinade, grilled shrimp with dried lime powder and parsley sauce, rice with rose petals and barberries, and mulberry yogurt cake.
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