Tehrangeles, Pt. I

In the waning years of my pre-pubescent childhood in the quiet and sunny westlands of suburban Los Angeles, a strange thing happened. At 11 or 12, I was only vaguely aware of geopolitical events happening in far away places. But what I did know was that there was quite suddenly a lot more Middle Eastern people in my sphere than there had been the year before.

Why Iranians fleeing the Islamic Revolution wound up in the west San Fernando Valley I would never figure out. But arrive they did, evidenced by the abrupt abundance of columns and marble lions in front of 1950s ranch-style houses. Not your traditional poor huddled immigrants, they purchased liquor stores, dentistry offices and Italian restaurants, and by way of integration took western names. My friend, Gary, worked at the neighborhood liquor store — Greene’s Liquor — recently sold by old Mr. Greene to a pair of 30-something brothers, “Jock” and “Ben.” (“Your name’s not really Jock, is it??” I remember asking him once.)

It wasn’t until later that I realized the west San Fernando Valley was not unique in welcoming a new Persian community. They had also settled in other parts of the valley, in West Los Angeles, in Westwood and in Beverly Hills (where there is today a Persian mayor). And I learned that the whole city itself had come to be referred to as “Tehrangeles” because of the nearly million Iranian immigrants who had settled here.

With any massive inflow of a particular immigrant community comes growing pains. Along with the gaudier design touches associated with their homes and businesses, the pre-teen me found their cultural personality as a whole to be, well, assertive. The kids I met were brash, they spoke loudly, and they seemed suspicious of my motives. But then a couple years on, one of my older sisters entered a long-term relationship with a Persian man (a restaurant owner), and my stereotypes softened. Or rather, I should say they were tempered with new stereotypes: they might have still been brash, but they were also warm and hospitable. And while I might’ve found the profusion of brass and gold somewhat ostentatious, I was seduced by the exotic sound of music with strange modal scales, unusual time signatures and quarter notes, and the extraordinary flavors of saffron, rose water, pomegranate and cinnamon.

Olives at Woodland Hills Market

Because in addition to buying liquor stores and Italian restaurants, they also opened markets — places intimidating to the young white male, where Mercedes Benz charged the parking lots, dark-haired women bustled in and out, men in white smocks smoked out front and squiggly writing hung on signs above the door. It wasn’t until I moved to Santa Monica in my mid twenties and found that the Tehran Market was only a block away that I worked up the courage to enter one. Inside was a world of wonderful stuff — things I knew like mint and onions and game hens; but mostly things that were exotic and thrilling. There were piles of flatbreads smelling of black sesame; cases of yogurts and lebni cheese; grassy herbs and oil, audacious olives; bottles of pomegranate syrup and waters of peppermint and orange blossom. I’d jockey with small, pushy Iranian grandmothers to the cash register and pile these exotic things on the counter, grabbing a rose-and-honey-flavored funnel cake to snack on for the walk home.

And thus began my culinary romance with Persian cooking. My Iranian friend, Lara — who just moved to the area — recently asked me where the good Persian markets were. I thought it was pretty cool that the Iranian woman was asking the Irish American guy where the good Persian markets were. “You should do a post on Persian cuisine on your blog,” she said. “Funny you should say that…” I replied. You can find the addresses to my two favorite markets below, in case you happen to live in L.A.

I don’t know how authentically Persian the following recipes are, since I mostly made them up myself. But the flavors, ingredients and proportions are culturally correct. Enjoy.

*   *   *

Grilled game hens with cumin eggplant
serves 4

2 game hens
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tbsp. cumin
1 tbsp. turmeric
1 tsp. garlic powder
2 garlic cloves, grated (or finely minced)
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1/2 white onion, cut lengthwise

4 small Japanese eggplants
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. cumin

Cut game hens in half down the center, removing the back. Place in a large bowl with yogurt, oil, cumin, turmeric, garlic powder, garlic, salt and pepper. Toss to thoroughly mix and coat hens. Place the half onion in with the hens, turning once or twice to coat with sauce. Place in the fridge to marinate for an hour or two.

Meanwhile, cut four small Japanese eggplants in half, and sprinkle with salt. Leave to sit for an hour, until much of the water has sweated off. Squeeze eggplants slightly to get rid of more water. Then drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with cumin.

Heat barbecue to high. Place hens on grill skin side up and cook for 5 minutes. Turn over and cook for another 5 minutes. At the same time, also cook the eggplants and the half onion, turning once or twice, until well cooked and slightly charred at the edges.

Serve each guest half a hen and two slices of eggplant, with some parsley salad (recipe below). Slice the onion thinly and place on top of the hen halves. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with flaky sea salt.

*   *   *

Parsley salad
serves 4

This is sort of a riff on the classic Middle Eastern salad, tabbouleh. I cheat a bit and use Italian farro as the grain, which I think gives the salad a nice toothsomeness.

1 bunch curly parsley, chopped
1 Persian cucumber, diced
1 small tomato, diced
2 tbsp. chopped red onion (or sweet white onion)
1/2 cup cooked farro (or barley), roughly chopped
1 tbsp. chopped mint
juice of one Meyer lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
flaky sea salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Toss together parsley, cucumber, tomato, onion, farro and mint. Dress with lemon juice and olive oil, toss well, and correct seasoning with salt and pepper.

*   *   *

Persian markets:

Tehran Market
1417 Wilshire Blvd. at 14th St., Santa Monica

Woodland Hills Market
19964 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills
www.woodlandhills-market.com

Coming soon: Tehrangeles, Pt. II

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. medrat
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 00:35:20

    interesting account. I had wondered if the young kids might have felt invaded by Iraninans during that time. for more on Persian culture you can see

    http://www.bravotv.com/shahs-of-sunset/season-1/videos/facing-a-tough-critic

    Reply

  2. glennis
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 04:52:14

    We were introduced to Persian food during Chris’s visiting professor-ship in Oslo, Norway, in 1990 or thereabouts. Our flat-mates were Persian, and they cooked gormeh-sabzi for us, and I learned how to make it. This was before we moved to LA.

    We love Persian food, and I love shopping along lower Westwood. I love Persian ice cream – delicious!

    Reply

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