June 26, 2013
Blending Persian, Jewish cuisine
Chef Louisa Shafia has been crossing culinary borders and bridging gastronomic gaps all her life. Shafia’s father, a Muslim from Iran, and her mother, an Askenazi Jew, raised a family around a very full dinner table laden with traditional Persian dishes right alongside the Jewish ones. Last month, she staged a sold-out pop-up restaurant at Cortez in Echo Park, which, along with the release of her new cookbook, “The New Persian Kitchen,” demonstrated how Shafia has rediscovered her Persian and Jewish roots — to delicious effect.
“I grew up with a very diverse food background,” Shafia said. “My mom came from an Ashkenazi Jewish background; her repertoire was matzah brei and borscht — traditional Ashkenazi food.”
Her father brought to their home an array of Persian ingredients and flavors. “Not that he was cooking them himself,” Shafia said. “My mom would cook saffron rice, lamb kabob, yogurt with dill and mint and cucumber. ... My mom was a gourmet cook. Her idols were James Beard and Julia Child. At the same time, she was cooking Iranian and Jewish food.”
Shafia returned to her family’s roots to research “The New Persian Kitchen.” Born in Philadelphia and now residing in Brooklyn, N.Y., the 43-year-old Shafia said she came to Los Angeles for the better part of her research for the book, to be with her father’s Persian family.
“There’s a huge Shafia tribe out here,” she said in an interview, and from them she learned traditional preparation of various dishes, as well as the best places to source Persian ingredients, and cultural protocol for serving the food. She arrived in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve 2010 to begin her research.
“Ironically, the only thing that was open that night was Canter’s Deli. So I started out the trip with a big bowl of matzah ball soup.”
Conducting her research in Los Angeles was a critical part of developing the book, as Los Angeles is a nexus for both Persian and Jewish cuisine.
Shafia said she found inspiration in places like Elat Market on Pico Boulevard.
“You can get as many kosher Iranian ingredients as you want! I found my favorite Persian gaz candies there, and I could send them off to my Jewish family who keep kosher,” she said.
This fully cross-cultural experience is indicative of how she approaches her craft as a chef, and her understanding of the food she makes.
“When I started researching Persian food, it was important that I search out the Jewish contribution. It’s part of my heritage,” she said.
Iran continues to be home to one of the oldest populations of Jews outside of Israel. Estimates vary on the size of the community in Iran today. It is believed to be between 10,000 and 20,000 — vastly diminished since the 1979 revolution — yet the Jewish population there continues to be one of the largest in the Muslim Middle East.
“Even though Jews have struggled — like other minority groups since the revolution — there’s so much love and loyalty to the country,” Shafia said. “Their contributions to the cuisine are hard to parse out because Iranian Jews feel like other Iranians. Their food is indistinguishable.”
Almost indistinguishable, that is. With some interesting exceptions. A Persian matzah ball soup calls for chickpea flour and ground chicken to make the matzah balls. There’s sweet and tangy Persian charoset with pomegranate molasses and cardamom, and date-and-walnut-filled cookies for Purim: the Persian hamentashen.
These are the dishes Shafia remembers from her youth. Her family celebrated Jewish holidays but always with Iranian dishes on the dinner table.
“We always had my dad’s rice cooked with lentils and dill. Still, to this day, that’s what he makes for Passover, Thanksgiving … every holiday,” she said.
“My dad was raised Iranian and Muslim, but he wasn’t practicing,” she said, citing this as the reason he ended up marrying her mother, a practicing Jew. Shafia and her sister grew up as Reform Jews, and that cultural identity has manifested in different ways over the generations. “My sister has gone on to have a very full Jewish life. Her children are bar and bat mitzvah,” Shafia said.
Shafia said she can’t wait to build on the success of the pop-up event at Cortez. For just one night, she took over the restaurant’s kitchen, and with the help of Cortez’s skilled staff and thoughtful approach to sourcing ingredients, presented a unique Persian menu for 60 guests. Shafia is planning similar events for this fall. And with the release of “The New Persian Cookbook,” she’s also auditioned for the Jewish Book Network, an event in New York that helps Jewish authors connect with representatives from Jewish community centers and synagogues nationally for potential book events around the country.
Shafia said she wants her message to extend beyond just cooking: “I think that food can be a way to embrace differences and find commonality, because it’s something that brings everyone so much joy. Sometimes Jews that have left Iran have felt they’ve been faced with a choice they must leave behind everything they loved about Iran in order to be a good Jew,” she said. “There is a Jewish-Iranian identity, and a wonderful way to embrace it is to appreciate the food.”