Persian-AMerican eco-chef Louisa Shafia '92 cooks for a sustainable, more connected world.
It’s probably been a while since you had a good Persian meal. Or more likely, you’ve never tasted this aromatic, flavorful, and venerable cuisine. Chef and cookbook author Louisa Shafia ’92 wants to change that. By introducing Americans — including Iranian Americans, such as herself, disconnected from ancestral traditions—to a taste of Persian culture, she hopes to build a bridge between the two lands.
Child of an American mother and an Iranian father, Shafia grew up with conflicted messages about her heritage. The Iranian hostage crisis dominated the headlines when she was a grade-schooler, and she noticed her father was uncomfortable identifying with his culture. “My dad actually told people he was German. He really did not look German!” she laughs. “I know that Iranians love Americans, that they are very well-educated, and they want to have a free society. But many Americans have trouble separating the Iranian people from the Iranian government. So in certain ways I thought it was something to be ashamed of.”
But, oh, that food! Her mother embraced the challenge of cooking foods from her husband’s homeland. “My dad’s family would visit from Tehran, and my aunt would be in the kitchen all day. We’d have this incredible food—rice, kebabs, and rich stew. That’s really where it began for me.”
Shafia filed away sensory memories of citrus, herbs, and Persian spices, then headed to Minnesota for college. “I liked Mac’s liberal politics and small size, which reminded me of the Quaker school I attended in Philadelphia. I also liked the option to study abroad, which was emphasized more at Mac than at other colleges,” she says.
Once she got to St. Paul she was pleased to find Khyber Pass, an Afghani restaurant near campus that serves food similar to Iranian cooking. Shafia double-majored in Spanish and women’s studies and studied yoga with Beverly White, wife of former philosophy professor David White. Says Shafia, “She and I talked about our love of cooking, and she told me about her 1977 book Bean Cuisine: A Culinary Guide for the Ecogourmet. By then it was out of print.”
Shafia studied in Spain for a year, and after college, volunteered at public radio station WHYY in Philadelphia. That led to freelance news reporting, producing, and finally editing Fresh Air with Terry Gross. But this wasn’t the work she was meant to do, Shafia felt, so she moved to New York to pursue an acting career. Nope. That wasn’t it either.
“Then I asked myself what I felt passionate about. I’d always loved to cook, so in 2000 I took a summer gig cooking at a vegetarian yoga retreat in Northern Maine.” At the end of that summer, a friend gave her a favorite vegetarian cookbook: Beverly White’s Bean Cuisine.
After all that creative wandering, the kitchen grounded her. She attended the Natural Gourmet Institute of New York, then worked in legendary kitchens, including San Francisco’s vegan Millennium, raw food emporium Roxanne’s, and New York’s Aquavit and Pure Food and Wine. She settled in Brooklyn and began doing what she was born to do.
In 2004 she founded Lucid Food, a green, sustainable catering company (now a consulting business), and developed a reputation that led to blogging on Rachael Ray’s Every Day cooking website and writing for DIY magazines like ReadyMade. Her cooking videos now regularly appear on Ray’s and other culinary websites. She teaches the old-fashioned kind of classes, too.
In 2009 Ten Speed Press published Lucid Food, Shafia’s favorite recipes for a fresh, sustainable, and seasonal lifestyle. Though ecocookbooks are packed pretty tightly on the bookshelves these days, Shafia’s stands out. She has an activist’s passion for seasonal eating, and explains the health benefits of becoming more conscious of our food system. But this isn’t a hippie manifesto. Instead, it’s a hip, epicurious guide that easily incorporates global seasonings—including Iranian ones. Although the book includes a few Persian recipes, it’s her second book, due out in 2013 from Ten Speed, that will be a full collection of fresh, uncomplicated Persian recipes adapted for American cooks.
She’d hoped to visit Iran to research her new cookbook, but her father’s citizenship has made obtaining a visa difficult. So instead she’s heading to Los Angeles. “LA has the largest Iranian-American population in the country. People call it ‘Tehrangeles’ or ‘Irangeles.’ I’ll test recipes there. Writing this book will be a journey of self-discovery. I’ve spoken to a lot of Persian Americans who say they’d love to cook the way their grandmothers cooked, but it seemed so complicated, and they never wrote anything down. People want to reconnect with these flavors. I know I do.”
My Iranian father is infamous for knowing how to make one single dish: rice cooked with lentils, dill, and spices. Rice is ubiquitous in Persian cooking, and there are many elaborate variations that include dried fruit, fresh herbs, nuts, and beans. This version is green and aromatic. Dried limes have a distinctly sour, herbal taste specific to Persian food. Whole or powdered dried limes can be found in specialty stores, but if you can’t find them, you can substitute 2 teaspoons of lemon zest and season with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice right before serving.
Makes 6 cups
- 2 cups long-grain basmati rice
- Salt 1 teaspoon saffron threads or powder
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 leeks, green and white parts, finely diced
- 1 teaspoon dried lime powder, or 1 preserved whole lime
- 1 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 cup minced fresh cilantro
- 1/3 cup minced fresh dill
- 1 cup shelled, toasted pistachios
Put the rice in a large bowl and cover with cold water. Toss the rice with your hands a few times to remove the starch, and drain. Repeat this process five times. Set aside.
Pour 3-1/2 cups water into a small pot with a dash of salt and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, put the saffron in a small bowl with 2 tablespoons of water. Stir and set aside.
Heat a large pot over medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the leeks and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the rice, saffron water, and lime powder or whole preserved lime and cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes. Pour the boiling water over the rice, bring the rice to a boil, then decrease the heat and simmer, covered, for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice stand, covered, for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork. If the whole lime wasused, discard.
Transfer the rice to a large bowl and fold in the parsley, cilantro, dill, and most of the pistachios. Season with salt. To serve, pile the rice on a platter and scatter a few pistachios over the top.
Reprinted with permission of Ten Speed Press from Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, copyright 2009 by Louisa Shafia.