TEL AVIV — The TV on the wall was showing a live stream from Vienna, with flags fluttering and politicians standing solemnly, as the agreement with Iran was announced. But while the nuclear deal may have been on everyone’s lips, the best deal on the menu at Shimshiri Restaurant, a staple for Persian catering in this city, was owner Moluk Hanasa’s gondi soup, the Persian version of matzah balls.
“It’s my specialty,” said the 65-year-old Hanasa, as she sat chopping cucumbers for salad.
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Hanasa gave more attention to the restaurant patrons and the cucumbers than the drama unfolding on TV, but she kept an eye on the set. “I have a sister and family in Persia [Iran], so it’s important to know what’s going on,” she said, which was why her son and co-owner, Avi, changed the channel from a Turkish soap opera.
Unlike the gloom and doom of most Israelis, Hanasa remains optimistic. “I really hope they will use nuclear [energy] for their daily needs, and not for war. What happens in war? Just hatred and racism are the results. I hope that there are people there that love peace and want peace as much as we do,” she said.
Moluk Hanasa, 65, the co-owner of Shamshiri restaurant on Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv, wants to be optimistic that Iran will only use their nuclear energy for non-military purposes. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Hanasa’s optimism was very much in the minority, however, on Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv’s traditionally Sephardi Florentine neighborhood on Tuesday. Just across the street from Shimshiri is Salimi, a more casual Persian eatery that caters to a hardworking lunch crowd. As plates of steaming meats and roasted tomatoes streamed out from a big grill in the kitchen, the mood turned gloomy when the discussion turned to Iran.
“Israel doesn’t need to listen to the US, they need to stand by what we need,” said Shamyen Avraham, 53, a clothes store owner who still has four uncles and an aunt in Iran. “Even though the US supports us, there are simply some things that we cannot stand for. Iran has a strong card in their hand to play, they have the biggest threat in existence,” he added, tucking into a lunch of kebabs and dill-infused Persian rice. The daily special was a red sauce with dried apricots and prunes cooked so long they melted off the pits.
Avraham said that while he isn’t a fan of Benjamin Netanyahu’s economic policies, he believes the prime minister tried his best in regards to Iran. “He had all of Europe and the US opposing him,” he said.
Barry Avidan, a choreographer from Havatzelet Hasharon who is not Persian but loves the food, echoed Avraham’s sentiment. “Bibi did the best he could; you can’t go against the whole world,” he said. “Maybe they have to attack in order for the world to understand. People don’t see this danger, they think it’s actually a good agreement.”
“It’s like the agreement with Hitler [the German-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939], everyone thought it was okay, but it led to the biggest tragedy in the world,” Avidan added. “I’m really concerned all of this is one big game that will give them more time to develop the bomb.”
Salami on Nahalat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv, one of two Persian restaurants across the street from each other. Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Rafi, a 55-year-old lawyer from Jerusalem who declined to give his last name, said he wants to know America’s “hidden” motives in pressing for the deal. “How is it that a country that is encouraging worldwide terror will continue to get money to create more world terror?” he asked. “There must be some hidden interests between America and Iran, mostly economic interests. Obama needs to think of Israel — we are the central victim here.”
American financial support of Israel can’t solve every problem, Rafi added. “With North Korea, they said, ‘Oh, they’ll never have the bomb.’ And now they do. They can do this agreement, but it doesn’t hermetically seal the idea that Iran won’t have nuclear weapons.”
Patrons at Salimi dig into generous portions of Persian rice and meat as the Iran nuclear agreement was being announced in Vienna. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Nadav Loren, 28, an investment banker from Rishon Lezion, came to eat at Salimi with his colleagues in honor of the announcement of the Iran deal. “I’m Persian and I still have family there, but they don’t feel any threat and they’re not affected by the deal announcement,” he said. “My uncle runs a Jewish school in Tehran. The Iranian government is more against Zionism than against the Jews.”
He said his family in Iran was worried, however, that the deal could endanger the existence of the State of Israel.
“This is a historic mistake,” said Loren, echoing Netanyahu’s criticism of the deal. “I didn’t vote for Bibi, but there’s no opposition and coalition in this story. This leaves our country open to a nuclear attack.” He added that perhaps Netanyahu should have concentrated more on closed-door meetings with politicians than making noise in the public arena.
“I want to tell Obama, I understand he has his intentions, and he wants to solve things diplomatically, but there are some things you can’t solve diplomatically,” he said. “The agreement says Iran can’t develop the bomb for ten years, ok. But I’m worried about the future of my children.”
Disinclined to end our leisurely lunch, we walked across the street to the Rose Market, dimly lighted and crowded with tables displaying open boxes of nuts sold by the pound. We were greeted by a seated, nearly lapless man, who regally instructed his employee behind the counter to serve up samples of the store’s own ice creams. We tasted falooda — a sort of rosewater granita with crunchy strands of rice vermicelli, and ice creams flavored with apples and pomegranate, before settling on one of the store’s classics: butter-yellow saffron ice cream studded with pistachios — frozen sunshine in a bowl.
It was also in Westwood that I picked up a new expression of affection. I was dining at Flame restaurant, with two new friends — Jewish sisters whose family fled Iran at the time of the revolution. At the far corner of the dining room, two men flanked the round, tiled oven known as a tanoor, using metal hooks to pull soft, blistered flatbreads from its fiery interior. We had just received a platter of kebabs — kebob barg, made of strips of beef tenderloin; koobideh, of spiced ground beef; and another composed of the tiny, yogurt-marinated joints of Cornish game hen. One sister tipped the platter to gather the meat juices, and explained that to declare adoration for someone, one can say, in Farsi, “You are the bread beneath my kebab.” After cleaning my plate with some of the still-warm flatbread, I got a visceral grasp of its meaning.
Rice in its many different forms is, with kebabs, the other showcase food at Persian restaurants: Before the main courses had arrived at Flame, we got a plateful of tah dig— seriously crusty slabs of fried rice. As I tried to chisel off a mouthful, half of my portion flew across the table —a common blooper, I was told at the Persian table. But once I managed to get a mouthful, its solid crunch contrasted nicely with a spoonful of the dark, grassy beef and herb stew known as gormeh sabzi. Alongside the meats came our polows, or pilafs — piled together on a platter in spumoni stripes: one rice was green with dill and lima beans, one white and yellow with saffron, and one pink with sour cherries. The most exciting rice of all, however, proved to be the tah chin — an extravagance that is baked with saffron and yogurt into a golden crusted cake and topped with dried barberries.
Flame’s menu is very similar to those at the other Westwood restaurants I visited; sometimes the greatest variation between menus seems to be how to transliterate the Farsi. This is not always a bad thing: one seizes on the little differences between restaurants: a particularly tasty eggplant dip (kashk e bademjan) and a clean organic-modern design at Baran; tasty bread at Shaherzad, or delicious fruit frappés at Canary, also known also for its late-night people watching, its wildly eclectic décor and its kebabs of animal unmentionables (brain, liver, testicle). But for me, it was at Flame that the bread and meat and rice were at their best.
The next day I left the Iranian enclave of Westwood and headed into the multicultural boulevards of the San Fernando Valley. My guide, a German-born, Valley-raised daughter of Iranian expatriates, guided me to the It’s All Good House of Kabab in a Reseda strip mall. Inside, there was a cheerful clutter of bric-a-brac: pictures of the mustachioed owner of the cafe alongside Iranian film and music stars, photo-murals of the famous mosques in his native city of Isfahan.
The House of Kabab’s menu has all the usual meaty entrees, but on weekends it also serves the Isfahani specialty biryani: braised lamb that has been pulled off the bone, patted into a patty and crisped in a hot pan. When it arrived at our table, the flatbread beneath it was impressively soaked with meaty juices and fat. The dish was a pleasure to eat in the brawny way of pâté or rillettes, and we turned to more herbs, a bowlful of torshi — pickled vegetables — and the minted yogurt drink doogh to lighten things up. There was a neighborly feel to the cafe: a woman at the table next to us tried, most insistently, to share some food with a pregnant woman who was still waiting for her order. My companion pointed out that such behavior was a great example of the Iranian habit of taroof: a sort of aggressive generosity that is usually inconvenient to oneself.
Persian cookbooks, particularly Najmieh Batmanglij’s absorbing “New Food of Life,” make it clear that one can find only a sliver of the Persian culinary repertory on restaurant menus. Persian home cooking offers tagine-like stews (khoresh) that pair meat with oranges or dried fruit or rhubarb; kukus of cauliflower, fava bean or pistachio; and too many rice dishes to count.
And so I wanted to visit some Persian markets to stock my kitchen for further explorations: my guide recommended the markets in the Valley for their expansiveness and pricing. Few enthusiastic home cooks will be unmoved by a good Persian market, like Q Market in Van Nuys: the elegant butcher’s station, the countless flatbreads, the produce section piled high with citrus, pomegranates and, in spring, fuzzy green almonds, which are sprinkled with salt and eaten as a snack. There were bargain bags of pistachios, sour cherries and spices, not to mention the bottles and jars of syrups and preserves that round out the Persian pantry. (Pomegranate molasses is probably the Persian ingredient best known to mainstream cooks — it gives a lively, fruity tang to marinades and stews.)
In the course of the afternoon, I picked up a plump bag of rose petals, a bag of hollow dried limes and a packet of well-priced Iranian saffron, with which I hope to delve deeper into the art of the khoresh. As the weekend came to an end, I stopped by another ice cream shop, Mashti Malone’s in Hollywood, known, among other things, for its chimera of a sign that blends Farsi script with pictures of a giant shamrock and an ice cream cone. Young women with kohl-lined eyes scooped up classic flavors like rosewater and saffron, while I settled on a granita-like flavor called herbal snow — a citrusy ice punctuated with tiny crunchy poppy seeds. As I dipped into it, a cluster of bikers gossiped in Armenian over their frozen treats; the studs on their Harleys gleamed in the sunlight. And so it goes in Los Angeles, where the bright sun and mini-malls shelter an ancient food culture and assimilate it all at once.
Prices are estimated for two people, not including taxes, tips or beverages. Also note that some Persian restaurants do not serve wine.
Attari Sandwich Shop, 1388 Westwood Boulevard; (310) 441-5488. Lunch $20 to $30.
Baran Restaurant, 1916 Westwood Boulevard; (310) 475-4500. Dinner $35 to $50.
Canary, 1942 Westwood Boulevard; (310) 470-1312; www.canaryrestaurant.com. Dinner $50.
Flame Persian Cuisine, 1442 Westwood Boulevard; (310) 470-3399, www.flamepersiancuisine.com. Dinner $65.
It’s All Good House of Kabab, 6800 Reseda Boulevard, Reseda; (818) 757-7702. Dinner $35.
Shaherzad, 1422 Westwood Boulevard; (310) 470-3242. Dinner $65.
Q Market and Produce, 17261 Vanowen Street, Van Nuys; (818) 345-4251.
Rose Market, 1387 Westwood Boulevard; (310) 477-5533.
Mashti Malone’s, 1525 North La Brea Avenue; (323) 874 -0144; www.mashtimalone.com.Continue reading the main story