Persian food, served with love

Shireen Rahimi is the creator of Shiraz the Cookbook and host of the upcoming Shiraz Family Dinner, a traditional, multi-course Persian Soul Food meal on Nov. 7 at Fooq’s in Downtown Miami. Tickets to this event can be found here.

Shireen Rahimi, the cookbook authorSometimes, I cook summer squash stew with fava bean rice. As smells of turmeric and caramelized onion waft up from the bubbling pot and puffs of dill and saffron-infused steam escape from under the lid, I close my eyes and I’m eight years old again, sitting on my grand-aunt’s balcony in Shiraz, Iran.

In the memory, the smells sneak out of the house and swirl around my head. They tease me with their warm spices while I eat a bowl of traditional ice cream and sour cherry preserve. I wonder: when was the last time I craved dinner during dessert? The breeze is warm and dry, birds sing their love songs for dusk, orange blossoms blanket the city’s gardens, and all is at peace in Shiraz, the desert oasis of my fondest memories.

Iran, my family’s homeland, is a complicated place. When I’m there, everywhere I look I see chaotic, overlapping petals of crisis and joy, shadow and highlight which—after taking a few steps back—turn out to be a flower of breath-taking beauty.

I see this intricate beauty reflected in the part of Iranian life that rules over all others: food. Living in the U.S. as a child of immigrant parents, I feel torn between two countries. It wasn’t until I started cooking Persian food that I felt truly connected to my homeland even while away.

My relationship with my grandma and mom is grounded in the kitchen. It lives in the moments we sit side-by-side, meditatively picking pounds of fresh herbs. It lives in memories like the look on my mom’s face when I cooked her a meal for the first time — the look of someone who had poured love into her children’s meals every day of her life, and had finally gotten a taste of that love in return. In my family, like families worldwide, food is how we care for each other, what we plan our day around, and what we think of when we think of home.

It’s this attitude that I inherited from my mother and grandmother. It has threaded its golden string through generations, pulling us close with constant, gentle force. When we are all together, smelling spices in the bazaar back in Iran, or sitting and laughing, drinking tea, I feel this bond.

When I stand beside my grandma over a pot, stirring it well into the night, and she tells me stories of 50 years past, about when she was in Shiraz standing over the same food with her mother, I feel this bond. And this warm connected feeling makes me feel like there’s no other place in the world I’m meant to be.

Persian food eventually led me beyond my family’s kitchen. I cooked professionally for three years before I realized that what I really wanted was to share the food that my mom and grandma taught me to love with. After graduating from college, having nothing to do, I started writing recipes and taking photos in a makeshift “studio” behind my parents couch that I designed using the finest materials: bed sheets, clothespins, and an old piano stool.

It’s been three years since then, and those recipe drafts and photos have become a cookbook. This book only exists because I came across talented people on my haphazard path through life. While living in Berkeley, I started collaborating with my friend Freddie to improve some of the photos in the book. My friend Leah, a graphic designer, just so happened to be crashing on my couch for the summer that I was working on the book’s design.

When I moved to Miami, I ended up living with and hanging out with chefs and bakers, who, without hesitation, took on my cookbook dreams as their own. Valerie Chang, my cooking partner for the Shiraz Family Dinner, Nina Lincoff of the South Florida Business Journal, Sasha Ariel of 27 Restaurant, Tara Debono of Creative Edge Parties, and Naomi Harris of the highly anticipated Madruga Bakery, have provided me with ideas, connections and advice that have taken this project to the next level.

David Foulquier of Fooq’s has donated his space to benefit our Shiraz Family Dinner, a traditional, multi-course Persian meal we’re hosting to raise funds for the cookbook. Speaking with these talented people in our small apartment or in a bustling kitchen, coming up with ways to get the word out and plan events, our voices full of excitement, almost felt like the universe was there with us, plotting to make this book a reality.

The women in my family poured their hearts into food my entire life and I learned to do the same. When I flip over a pot on a plate and lift it to reveal the rice crust inside, the look on my friends’ faces is the same as my mom’s that day I cooked for her as a teen. It’s the same as mine when I first tried my grandma’s sour cherry rice.

This book began long ago, way before the start of my own life. It began with my great grandmother, seeding pomegranates under walnut trees in Shiraz, and continued through my mom, cooking turnips in the middle of the night to nurse me back to health, and persisted all the way to my friends here in Miami, standing by my side, stirring pots of summer squash stew, all working together to make this labor of love a reality.

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