Craving the Flavors of the Persian Gulf

Two New Books Explore Love, Family and the Jewish Cuisines of Iran and Iraq

Feastly Fixings: Persian meals are often accompanied by plates of herbs, nuts and vegetables.
Sara Remington
Feastly Fixings: Persian meals are often accompanied by plates of herbs, nuts and vegetables.

By Leah Koenig

Published April 10, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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And yet the book is threaded through with rich food imagery, like the intricate meals Lorca cooks for her unappreciative mother, or the platter of pignoli cookies and bowl of crushed almonds with honey and sugar awaiting Victoria and Joseph when they arrive home, without their child, after Victoria gives birth. “He wanted a cookie. Hell, he wanted the whole plate,” Soffer writes of Joseph’s longing.

“I wrote this book, in part, to honor my father’s culture,” Soffer said. Sasson Soffer, who grew sick early in his daughter’s writing process, was unable to be a resource for her. But he undoubtedly would have appreciated the book, whose writing is as painful as it is exquisite, and which exposes the raw power of love.


Louisa Shafia’s cookbook, “The New Persian Kitchen,” shifts eastward from Iraq, exploring the cuisine of Iran from a contemporary American perspective. In the past five years, an increasing number of Persian-themed cookbooks have been published. It seems that Iranian food, which chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi writes “has yet to be properly discovered in the West,” might be on the brink of reaching wider cultural awareness.

What sets “The New Persian Kitchen” apart is how seamlessly Shafia weaves her vibrantly flavored recipes — like barley stew with lamb and rhubarb, amaranth rice pudding with rose water, or whole roasted fish with oranges and saffron — with elegant essays about the overlapping religions and sprawling Silk Road cultures that shaped Iran’s cuisine.

Shafia’s multicultural approach is rooted in her own history. Her mother is American with Eastern European Jewish ancestry, and her father is an Iranian Muslim who immigrated to the United States in 1961. “My mom wanted my sister and me to be raised Jewish, but my dad absolutely did not,” she said. This familial dissonance made it challenging for Shafia to connect with her parents, or fully embrace either side of her identity. Except through food.

Growing up in the 1970s, Shafia writes that their family meals were punctuated by “an otherworldly Persian element in the form of red eggplant stew spiced with pomegranate molasses, fluffy saffron rice, and succulent lamb kebabs pulled from metal skewers.”

In her late 20s, while working as a professional cook in San Francisco, Shafia began to embrace the creative and personal potential of exploring her father’s culinary heritage. Already an advocate of healthy, produce-centered cooking (her first book is called “Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life”), Persian cuisine’s emphasis on fresh herbs, tangy yogurt, beans, fish and fragrant spices was a compelling fit. The connection would also uncover for her a rich and unexpected family life.


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