When cookbook author Louisa Shafia visited Persia she discovered authentic flavors, a deeper connection to family and a new perspective on her identity.

Louisa Shafia
February 19, 2021
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a plate of Morgh-e Torsh
The author learned to make chicken stews such as this morgh-e torsh when she visited Iran.
| Credit: Eric Wolfinger

If I didn't look so much like my dad's side of the family, I may have never visited Iran. My father grew up in Tehran but left decades ago, and has never returned. Growing up, my tenuous connection consisted mainly of hearing my father speak to relatives on the phone in the upward-arcing ­cadences of Farsi, and gathering with other Iranians each spring in the Philadelphia suburbs to celebrate the Persian New Year, Nowruz. 

But I ran headlong into my Persian heritage when I began cooking at a restaurant in San Francisco. When I was asked to create a new menu item, I wanted it to stand out, and a voice in my head told me to make fesenjan, a beloved Persian stew made from ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. From then on, I prepared dishes packed with ingredients like saffron, pomegranates, dried limes, rose petals and tamarind. I was overwhelmed with nostalgia by the flavors and aromas and felt a strong desire to bring this little-known cuisine to more people's attention. I needed to follow these flavors to their origin. 

I dreamed of visiting Iran but it felt like a dead-end dream. There were years of challenges with citizenship and paperwork—and resistance from my dad. Finally in 2014, there I was, getting off a plane in Tehran. It was mid-May, the time of year called ordibehesht, "month of Heaven," because the weather is so fine and everything is in bloom. 

That first day, I joined a gaggle of cousins on a trip to the Tajrish Bazaar to gather ingredients for that evening's feast. Vendors lined the passageways of the cavernous ­bazaar, each with their name marked above in white Arabic script against blue mosaic tiles. There were fresh white mulberries, round yellow dates still on the stem and bags of freshly shelled fava beans. I learned how to ask, "May I take a picture?" in Farsi, and the vendors bemusedly obliged. 

Later in my cousin Parvaneh's kitchen, I sat at a table with a bowl of grape leaves and a pot of ground lamb seasoned with onions, tart barberries, turmeric and a bouquet of herbs. I spooned the filling onto each grape leaf, wrapped it up and stacked the tiny, ­army-­green presents in a leaf-lined pot. Nearby, my cousin Setareh grated walnuts over a plate of cucumber yogurt with dried mint.

When we sat down to feast, the table was heavy with plates of food—rice with fava beans, dill and hunks of lamb on the bone; a platter of herbs with feta and radishes; lavash from the bakery downstairs; and pickled vegetables so sour they made me blink. Every­one filled their plates and found a perch on the couches and chairs around the room. 

After dinner, Parvaneh broke out photo albums from the '60s, with everyone looking young and chic, posed on the roof of the old family home in Tehran. There were pictures of my dad, brown and angular, in front of the white house with grapevines winding down the wall behind him. She had pictures of my sister and me as kids in Philadelphia that I had never seen: I was just discovering these members of my family, but they had known about me all along. 

Throughout the next month, I traveled the country alone, meeting up with hosts who I connected with through friends and professional colleagues. In the oil town of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, my friend's cousin, Mehrdad, took me to the bustling fish market to gather ingredients for a spicy tamarind shrimp stew in the early-morning hours before the day got too hot. In laid-back Shiraz, I learned from an imperious home cook about southern staples like curry powder, ginger and okra. She taught me to make roasted fish stuffed with tamarind-­seasoned onions and fenugreek leaves. In Gilan Province, the green, coastal swath that hugs the Caspian Sea, my local guide, Sharare, invited me to cook with her mom, Azam. She was a master of the garlicky, sour cuisine of the region, and together we made rice and three kinds of stew, including two chicken stews—one sour and packed with herbs and a sweet one with dried apricots and plums—along with a spinach stew brightened by verjus and the juice of sour oranges. Azam and her husband made me feel like a member of the family, teaching me as much about Persian hospitality as about the cuisine. 

Back in Tehran, on my last day, Parvaneh took me to the house where my dad grew up. In an old section of the city crowded with commerce, we turned down a quiet side street and there it was, with the same grape­vines growing by the door. I posed in front for a photo, the vines behind me flush with young green fruit. My dream of visiting: finally fulfilled. 

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Louisa Shafia is the author of the award-winning cookbook The New Persian Kitchen.

All photographs by Eric Wolfinger.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of EatingWell magazine.