Iranian cuisine has a New York moment

Although New York’s food scene has always been rich in ethnic offerings, Iranian cuisine has never really received proper treatment on this side of the world. The likes of Colbeh and Ravagh have certainly asserted their rights in the local gastronomic canon, but the offerings of these year-old restaurants have recently felt outdated and, perhaps, not as modern as Korean, Mexican, and eateries. Italians who have taken up residence in New York. Of course, kabob and khoresht are an integral part – some might even say the very heart – of Persian cuisine… but what else can an Iranian palate offer to the world?

Photography: Julia KhoroshilovMasquerade

We do, indeed, appear to be on the cusp of a new era, as exciting new Iranian destinations have opened in Manhattan and Brooklyn, each offering a menu that owners believe is more in tune with the current state of affairs. things in Tehran. , Mashhad and all over the country. The redesign appears to be happening at high speed, with at least four new restaurants hitting the premises in the span of a year. It all begs the question: does Iranian cuisine have a New York moment? And, if so, why now?

“People are ready [for Iranian food] now, ”says Pouya Esghai, co-owner of Masquerade, a new Persian tapas bar in south Williamsburg. “Although food has always been very important to us Iranians, the focus on children was to become lawyers and doctors. After the 1979 revolution, they all left the country and it took some time for Iran to adjust to the new system. It took some time for the Iranians to realize that maybe we can be a part of the food industry while having a fulfilling career. Other countries had already agreed with [the power of food]. “

On the other hand, Siavash Karampour, Esghai’s partner, believes that globalization and the perpetual openness of New Yorkers are key factors that are propelling the popularity of his hometown cuisine. “Young people now have more access to sources and are more open-minded,” he says. “They are ready to taste new and different cuisines and cocktails.”

“What people don’t know is that rice and kebabs are just a tiny fraction of our cooking.”

This diversity is most evident when you dine at Sofreh, a stylish but relaxed Persian restaurant in Prospect Heights by the same people behind the Sofreh Cafe, a more casual and newer version of the old destination, found in Bushwick.

At Sofreh, adventurous palates will revel in the flavors of herbal ash, a traditional stew made with noodles, lentils, dried yogurt, fried mint and more; Saffron rice; smoked eggplant served with a slowly roasted garlic tomato sauce, poached eggs and bread; and, of course, a sirloin kebab. Clearly a more modern version and, at least according to owner Nasim Alikhani, a realistic version of an average Iranian meal, Sofreh seeks to bridge the divide between the United States and Iran today.

“There was limited exposure,” says Alikhani. “What people don’t know is that rice and kebabs are just a tiny fraction of our cooking and we only eat them once every few months or when we go out as a family. . ” On a daily basis, she explains, the local culinary scene depends on differences in climate and ethnicity across the country.

Dessert at Sofreh
Photography: courtesy of SofrehSofreh

When asked about the difference between Sofreh and Colbeh, which opened almost four decades ago, Alikhani is firm in her response. “I don’t want to be compared to any of them because I have a problem with people doing the same thing over and over and not contributing any part of themselves in it,” she says. “They are so predictable. I don’t even have to read their menus because I know exactly what’s going to be there.”

Karampour echoes these sentiments. “Traditional Persian restaurants are outdated and do not meet the modern taste of young Iranians with their dishes, which are cliché,” he says. “The new generation felt the need to be better represented in terms of taste.”

Modernism takes the form of tapas at Karampour and Esghai’s. At Masquerade, small plates – which have never really been a part of a traditional Iranian meal, at least as presented to the outside world – take up the majority of the menu alongside creative cocktails made with saffron and sugar. olives, a culinary category that has remained largely untapped in other Persian destinations (a fact which is no doubt largely due to the fact that Iran is, technically, a dry country).

Julia Khoroshilov
Photography: Julia KhoroshilovMasquerade

Given the enthusiasm generated by the very recent opening of Masquerade and Alikhani’s decision to open another Persian restaurant in New York (Eyval, steeped in tradition but also offering wood-fired cuisine, should open by the start of the new year), the restaurateurs are clearly on to something.

“Iranian cuisine is delicious because it’s thousands of years old,” says Alikhani. “And once you have that – which you also have in Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cuisine, for example – you get a complexity that is beyond description because it’s the product of thousands of years. I’m not reinventing anything: I just have to represent what was done thousands of years ago and do it well. “

Speaking of history: Given the intricacies of the US-Iran relationship, conversations about politics flourish almost naturally when chatting with all of the restaurateurs, who all know their home country deeply.

Alikhani believes his restaurant could help broaden the definition of what Iran is to Americans. “I see food as an incredible starting dialogue for anything,” she says. “Over the past 40 years Iran has been fundamentally bastardized by stereotypes and boxed by people who don’t know it. Iran has never been described as a country of cultured, modern and highly sophisticated people. She of course hopes to change that with the food she offers.

Dishes at Sofreh
Photography: courtesy of SofrehSofreh

Interestingly enough, the duo behind Masquerade mentioned the oppression many Iranians face as the inspiration for their food project. “[Masquerade] is an imaginary Tehran, ”says Esghai. “If it was a free country and we could use our imaginations,[thisplacewouldbeautopianplacethatblendstheIrishangelinthe1970swiththeNewYorkof2020andanelementofTuesdayGras”[cetendroitseraitlàNoussommesunlieuutopiquequimélangel’Irandesannées1970avecleNewYorkde2020etunélémentduMardiGras”[thisplacewouldbethereWe’reautopianplacethatmixesIraninthe1970swith2020NewYorkandanelementofMardiGras”

Whatever their opinion of the current situation in the Middle East, all restaurateurs have found Brooklyn to be the perfect place for their efforts, all consciously stepping out of Manhattan.

“The south side of Williamsburg was more real and more attractive,” says Esghai. “It reminded us more of Tehran, it’s a bit scorching like the city.”

“I came to Brooklyn because people are much more receptive here, both palate and spirit,” says Alikhani. “I’ve lived in Manhattan since 1983 so I’ve seen things change and I wasn’t interested in my baby being born in an environment full of tourists and people coming and going. People come here for Sofreh. They’re not just walking around the West Village and choosing one of the millions of restaurants. ”

This sense of community as a springboard for creativity is exactly what Alikhani hopes to see more of in the future. “There is something to be said about young people who bring flavor to the fore and represent their own environments and climates and the way they eat,” she says.

Obviously, as New Yorkers have probably noticed while exploring the local flourishing Iranian food scene, tahdeeg and dolme have more to offer than standout flavors.

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