Louisa Shafia is a poster child for the American melting pot. Shafia’s Persian father came from a Muslim family in Iran, and her Ashkenazi Jewish mother grew up in Philadelphia. She had a Catholic nanny and attended Quaker school. As a child, Shafia, who has never been to Iran, also had a soft spot for the dishes from her dad’s culture, though at the time she didn’t think of those recipes as Persian food.
Little wonder then that as a chef Shafia is comfortable playing with pomegranates and seasoning with sumac. But it hasn’t always been so. Shafia, author of the lovely eco-conscious cookbook Lucid Food, has a predisposition for produce-centric cooking, and has dabbled in Silk Road-recipes in the past. But in her latest cookbook, The New Persian Kitchen, Shafia immerses herself in the cuisine of her father’s family, in dishes dotted with classic Middle Eastern ingredients like pistachios, saffron, tamarind, dried limes, and rosewater. Persian food turns out to be a good fit for Shafia’s wholesome style of cooking, the cookbook also features whole grains, quinoa, and tempeh and loads of vegetarian options. The book is as much about her modern American sensibility as a cook as it is a mash note to the ancient Iranian food of her roots.
During an extended stay in San Francisco that included events at Zare at Fly Trap and Bar Tartine, the New York-based Shafia, 43, who has cooked in restaurants on both coasts and calls San Francisco her spiritual home, spoke with BAB about her new book and shared a recipe too.
How would you describe Persian food for the uninitiated?
Persian food is a really interesting mix of different Silk Road influences as well as its own native thing. There are a lot of native fruits and vegetables in Iran–pomegranates, citrus fruit, dates, are some of the iconic ingredients–and then there are influences from Russia, China, India, Eastern Europe and the Arabic world.
There are lots of spices in Persian cuisine, but there are no chile peppers in Persian cooking, with the exception of way down south near the Persian Gulf, so while there’s a lot of seasoning in this cuisine there isn’t spiciness to the food. You’ll find things like turmeric, saffron, dried limes, rose petals, tamarind, pomegranate molasses, Angelica powder, and fenugreek, these are all interesting flavors unique to that part of the world.
Who cooked Persian food for you growing up?
Mostly my mother: Like most Iranian men back then, my dad didn’t really cook, although he has one signature dish, which is rice with lentils or adas polo. My mom is an amazing cook, when I was at home she was really into Julia Child and took Chinese cooking classes. She made Persian food occasionally and it was always delicious. One of the favorite meals of my childhood was bademjan, which is eggplant and tomato stew spiced with pomegranate molasses. That’s in the book. Lamb kebabs, fluffy saffron rice, yogurt with cucumber and mint, are all foods I grew up eating. Once in a while my mother made fesenjan, a special occasion, sweet-and-sour dish. It’s a classic Iranian stew, known as khoresh, and it forms the center of a Persian meal. There’s a magical combination of rich ground walnuts, tart pomegranate syrup, cinnamon, and saffron simmered with seared chicken.
What did you learn about Persian food while writing this book?
I didn’t really know the whole underlying philosophy around Persian cooking, which is that there are energetically hot foods and cold foods. It’s not that different from the Ayurvedic tradition of earth, ether, air, fire, and water or traditional Chinese designations of yin and yang, which makes sense, because they’re all on the Silk Road, so I’m sure they all exchanged ideas. Take a kebab sprinkled with sumac and served with rice, raw onion, and a yogurt drink. Onions have antibacterial properties and sumac and yogurt aid in digestion. So the ingredients are selected to help the body digest hunks of rich protein. Here, meat and onions would be considered “hot” and sumac, yogurt, and rice are classified as “cold.”
I had never worked with dried limes and they are offer a wonderful, bitter-sweet, intense citrus essence, which imparts a concentrated flavor. I have a dried lime tea in the book. I love to eat them. Some people put them aside after they’re cooked but I find them a really nice counterpoint to some of the rich flavors in the cuisine.
I really learned about saffron. I didn’t even know that the traditional way to prepare saffron in Iran is to grind it and then steep it in a little hot liquid for as long as you can before cooking it. It releases flavor and intensifies the color.
What about rice? Was there a lot to learn there, too?
Yes, there’s a very specific approach to making rice in Iran. You take white, Basmati rice, soak it in cold water for about an hour to remove the starch, then par boil it in very salty water, drain it and shock it. Next, you heat a pan, put in a decent amount of cooking fat, prepare a bottom layer with that par-boiled rice, then pile the rest of the rice in a pyramid shape, and poke holes in it to air it. Cover, turn it on high for ten minutes, and then turn it on very, very low for about an hour. What that does is it creates two different dishes in one pot: On the top you have beautiful, fluffy, white rice where all the grains are separated. Then on the bottom you have tahdig–it’s the Iranian soul food–if you’ve done it right you should have a crisp, golden layer of crunchy rice.
Was it a conscious decision to use the word Persian rather than Iranian in the book’s title?
It never occurred to me to have Iran in the title. I’ve always thought of the food and the culture as Persian because that’s how we know it in the Western world and that’s what I grew up hearing. And, of course, Iran has immediate negative connotations for many people in the U.S. When my father left Iran he never went back and never saw his parents, who lived in Tehran, again. He moved here, attempted to Anglicize his name, and if people asked he said he was German, which was silly because he does not look German. My dad didn’t want to be identified with Iran. This was during the time of the Iranian Revolution, when there were American hostages. It was a different time.
But as I’ve been touring around the country and talking about the book I’ve actually become much more comfortable substituting the word Iranian for Persian half the time. Now I use them both interchangeably.
How has your own cooking changed since working on this book?
Now I use dried limes and dried mint all the time. I put dried mint in soups and season grains with it. I make dried lime tea and put dried limes in stews and rice. And sumac is one of those things that’s now on my table like salt and pepper. I think of it as a combination of lemon juice and MSG, in that it sets off the flavors of other food. I put it in salad, it’s an excellent meat tenderizer, and it’s great on grilled fish or chicken.
What do you know about Persian cuisine in the Bay Area?
I’m a huge fan of Zare at FlyTrap. I admire what Chef Hoss does there: He takes Persian food and flavors and does something innovative with them. He incorporates elements of California cuisine and classic French cuisine, and takes these beautiful traditionally Persian ingredients that most people aren’t cooking with and shows them off. I did a lot of lunch-time signings on the peninsular and Persian people I met there recommended Shalizaar in Belmont, for dependable Persian food. In the city people also like Maykadeh in North Beach. I’ve enjoyed the food there in the past. And the Rose International Market in Mountain View, which is a grocery store, has a cafe that people say sells amazing shish kebab. It’s on my list to try next trip.
Recipe: Turmeric Chicken with Sumac and Lime
Reprinted with permission from The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia, copyright (c) 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 bone-in chicken thighs
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
3/4 cup water
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 juicy limes, halved
Sumac, for garnish
In a small bowl, mix the turmeric with 1 tablespoon salt and 2 teaspoons pepper. Place the chicken on a rimmed baking sheet and sprinkle with the spice mixture, turning to coat both sides.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. Brown the chicken well on both sides, about 7 minutes per side. Pour in the water, then add the garlic, stirring it into the water. Bring the water to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and cover. Braise the chicken for 25 minutes, until the inside is opaque.
Transfer the chicken to a serving platter, turn up the heat to high, and reduce the cooking liquid for a few minutes, stirring occasionally until it’s slightly thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and pour the sauce over the chicken.
Dust the chicken with sumac and pepper, garnish with lime halves, and serve.
Use whole portobello mushrooms in place of the chicken, or use 1 pound firm tofu, well drained and cut into slabs 1 inch thick. You will need a little extra oil for searing than what is called for in the recipe.