Persian food isn't all kebabs and hummus. That's the essential takeaway from Louisa Shafia's new cookbook, The New Persian Kitchen, in which she sheds new light on the foods of her Iranian family's heritage. Unlike most countries in the Middle East, Shafia explains, Iran has a temperate climate with year-round snow-capped mountains, and hundreds of years ago figured out how to use the snow to irrigate the desert to grow fresh fruits and vegetables (the word "paradise" is actually a Persian word referring to walled gardens in the desert), so the cuisine is full of fresh produce and flavors. Shafia will be in town for the next month doing various dinners and events, and we sat down with her to learn more about her view of Persian cuisine.
Shafia's father is from Iran and she grew up familiar with Persian food, but as she explains, a lot of modern Persian food is rich and oily. "My goal with this book was to bring Persian food back to its roots. It's really about fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, not a lot of fattiness or meat. It's cooking from the garden," she says, laying out a cuisine that sounds an awful lot like the local one.
And it turns out that Iran and California have more ties than you'd think. They're on the same latitude and have similar temperate climates. "It's really cool being able to make these recipes here in California because everything grows here. Citrus fruit, vegetables like eggplant and artichokes, nuts, dates, pomegranates," Shafia says. "It's kind of the perfect place to be making all this food and the right climate: Nice and dry, cool at night and hot during the day, a lot like Iran."
To research the book, Shafia traveled to Istanbul -- she couldn't get a visa to Iran -- and ate her way through the city. "It's the closest I've ever been to Iran, and the cuisines have a whole lot in common. I was able to taste the things in their native environment," she says. And she got plenty of ideas. One of the first nights she was there, she had a fresh grilled fish with a parsley, olive oil, garlic, and lemon that she adapted into her grilled shrimp with lime powder and parsley-olive oil sauce (page 87). Same with the Turkish roasted red pepper dip (page 33) that she said was on every table kind of as "a condiment that goes with everything."
Shafia also got in touch with her roots during a month in in Los Angeles last winter hanging with her extended Persian family and eating at Persian restaurants in the city, which by some accounts has the largest Persian population outside of Iran. In L.A., she learned more about her heritage and culture at family gatherings and informal dinners, and by spending entire days cooking with and learning from family members. She also picked up a killer date shake recipe from Cafe Glace in Westwood, though hers is made with yogurt instead of vanilla ice cream for a healthier, breakfast-friendly beverage (page 167).
In San Francisco, there are several opportunities to try Shafia's food and meet her in person. One of the most exciting is her collaborations with chef Hoss Zare at Zare at Fly Trap, the upscale Persian restaurant in SOMA. "It's really exciting for me because I've admired his cooking for a long time. It's exciting to see him interpreting my recipes," she says. The multi-course menu will give a tour of Iran's geographical cuisine range, from the seafood-heavy dishes of the north near the Caspian Sea to the spicier foods of the south. That dinner's on Saturday, May 4 at 5:30 p.m. at Fly Trap; earlier that day, Zare and Shafia will be doing a cooking demo at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market (12 p.m.).
Shafia will also be doing a dinner at Bar Tartine on Monday, May 6, which will feature small tastes from the book; signing books at Omnivore on April 25 at 6 p.m., and again at Book Passage in Marin in May 2 at 5:30 p.m.