4 Questions About Persian Food for Louisa Shafia

The fact that “Persian” is still code for “Iranian” when it comes to something as innocent as food—it shows how craggy the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East still is.

But Louisa Shafia’s book The New Persian Kitchen—released today by Ten Speed Press—feels absolutely modern, despite the P-word. The recipes are simple, the flavors distilled, for cooks who don't have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen. Shafia lives in Brooklyn, though she’s spending several weeks in San Francisco, celebrating the book launch with dinners at Zaré at Fly Trap (May 4) and Bar Tartine (May 6). She stopped by CHOW’s offices this week to talk about the book and America’s changing tastes, and to serve photographer Chris Rochelle and me some treats: a delicious semifrozen faloodeh (vermicelli sorbet) with sour cherry syrup, and chocolate bark with cardamom and coffee, paved with nuts (pictured above).

CHOW: How do you overcome Iranian political stereotypes for a general food audience?

Shafia: I don’t know yet. I’m trying to integrate both “Persian” and “Iranian” into everything I do now, so people understand that Persian food comes from Iran. I have to say that after the Green Revolution, people were widely exposed to a different side of Iranian culture—we all saw a lot of young progressive people seeking human rights. I think it showed the world that the ordinary people of Iran are very different from the oppressive government.

Have American tastes changed? Are we more receptive to the sour fruits, the honey, and pomegranate molasses at the heart of Persian food?

Weirdly, I think its already part of what we eat. The turkey and cranberry sauce combination is really something that originated in Iran, it really is that same idea: cutting the heaviness and fattiness of a rich meat with a tangy fruit taste. I think some of these things that we think are from Britain—mint jelly and marmalade—really did originate in the Middle East. I think they’re already part of us, just in a very narrow part of our cooking.

Is there one recipe from the book you’d want a Persian-food novice to try?

How about two! I have really, really simple turmeric chicken with sumac and lime. It’s supereasy, but you get all those nuances of exotic Persian flavors. It’s my easy take on a traditional dish. And then there’s fesenjan, the more formal pomegranate-walnut stew. Such a brilliant combination of flavors that’s so unexpected. It’s traditionally made with duck (the recipe is from a part of Iran where there are a lot of ducks), but I make it with chicken. It also works as a vegetarian dish.

Any city in America where you see a vibrant Persian food culture—any city besides LA, that is?

I spent a lot of time in LA to do research for the book—everybody knows that Westwood is Tehrangeles. It was nice to be in a place where Iranian culture is a way of life. But there are smaller pockets all over the place: Persian Jews on Long Island, but even in Austin, Texas, and an amazing little Persian community in Naples, Florida. Iranians are everywhere. You’d be surprised.

Photos by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

Follow John Birdsall on Twitter.