In Persian cuisine, Hanif Sadr says that komaaj is a pastry bread. Sadr named his catering and restaurant business after a northern Iranian version of the bread that his grandmother used to make. The recipe he serves is made without sugar but it comes with honey or jam. In other parts of Iran, he says, it can be made sweeter or more savory like bread. When I tried a few of his dishes, komaaj wasn’t on the menu. Sadr was in Iran at the time and his new sous chefs hadn’t been able to practice the “tricky” recipe with him before he left.
Sadr started Komaaj as a catering company and occasional pop-up restaurant five and half years ago. Then, in August of 2019, his first “collaborative project,” differentiated as Komaaj Kitchen, opened at the Cafenated Coffee Company in Berkeley. Plans for a second and a third location in San Francisco and Oakland were also in the works. Because of the pandemic, they had to shut down the operation in Berkeley and put an indefinite hold on the space in Oakland. But after delaying the initial March opening in San Francisco, Komaaj Kitchen started a lunch and dinner service this fall. “The catering kitchen [in Pinole] was open the whole time,” the chef and owner says.
Before COVID-19, Sadr would visit farms and forage in northern Iran once a year to research new ideas and test out ingredients. Usually his trips would take place in late spring or summer. But this year he postponed his visit while he worked out a way to save the company with his business partners.
“I haven’t been to Iran in the fall for the past five or six years,” Sadr says. On this trip, he had a chance to try new recipes and forage for new fruits and herbs. He discovered one sauce in particular that’s specific to autumn.
“It has fresh pomegranate juice in it,” he explains. “This fresh, sour sauce is more like a salad dressing, or used for pickling or to marinate meat.” The additional ingredients include garlic, herbs, walnuts and pomegranate seeds mixed together in a blender. “You can roast turkey with it or make grilled chicken,” Sadr says, adding: “A couple of spoonfuls adds a flavorful, colorful touch to the dish.”
Persian food was a tough sell for me as a half-Iranian kid, culturally divorced from my heritage with undeveloped taste buds. My Tehrangeles aunts and grandmother didn’t visit often, but when they did they would sometimes bring a pot of khoresht, a strong-smelling stew such as fesenjān or ghormeh sabzi. Many cycles of the moon passed before I started to crave, let alone appreciate, the complicated aromas emanating from those dark green herbs set to simmer on the stove. My stepmother wisely co-opted tahdig, a crispy rice, from her in-laws. She ladled her Julia Child-inspired French sauce work upon it. We ate half-Persian dishes in our home, which suited my younger half-Persian self.
Sadr’s menu deviates from what most Americans, including me, have come to expect at an Iranian restaurant. First of all, there’s no parboiled, fried tahdig to be found. Instead, Komaaj serves a fluffier herbed rice, one made with turmeric that turns the grain bright yellow and a second, sabzi or “green,” with dill, chives and parsley. During the week, the menu is notable for being largely vegetarian, with a fish dish or two. The complex flavors of the meat stews show up on the weekends — but don’t go to Komaaj in search of kebabs.
With over 300 recipes at hand, Komaaj offers a different take on Iranian cuisine. Northern Iranians, Sadr says, eat rice flour-based breads and use rice flour to thicken their soups and stews. Because there are so many varieties of nuts in the region he says, “the technique of using crushed walnuts or hazelnuts to thicken stews or in marinating is, technically, northern Iranian.” The wide range of vegetables, herbs, and fruits cultivated there accounts for the large number of vegan and vegetarian options.
Sadr set out to contradict the notion he’d heard in podcasts and interviews that Persian food was heavy and meaty. “I wanted to present Iranian cuisine in another way. I was tired of us [Iranians] being mentioned as just kebab and rice eaters, or for just a couple of famous, meat-based stews,” he says. Despite the risk of alienating carnivores, Komaaj Kitchen, and catering, only serves meat in fall and winter (there is, it must be said, a chicken and plum stew on the weekend menu that deserves your attention).
The chef admits that it may be harder to convince customers who haven’t tried the food that vegetable-centric dishes will satisfy them. But he wants to show that there can be a variety of delicious, vegetarian Persian dishes. Bay Area diners, Sadr says, are adventurous. After a plate of his sumac-roasted eggplant, you might never go back to baingan bharta again.
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. (Sat & Sun 3 p.m.)
Dinner: 5 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
3359 26th St., San Francisco