Feast on 'Sofreh' — a book that celebrates Persian cooking, past and future
Updated August 2, 2023 at 8:14 AM ET
The new cookbook Sofreh doesn't open with tempting menus for future dinner parties or ingredient lists, but with a poetic conversation between an unnamed narrator and a grapevine. When asked why it continues to grow despite bearing so much fruit, the vine answers: "why stop now, when there is such immense joy in my reaching for the sun."
"Roots are very important to me," says chef and author Nasim Alikhani. "I literally brought a little stem from my father's grape garden in Iran, which originally he brought to our home from his own village." She planted that vine in the back garden of her small Persian restaurant Sofreh. "That's my roots, but whether the leaves grow, that's up to the sky," she says.
In the five years since Sofreh opened its doors in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, Alikhani has earned a James Beard nomination, cooked at the White House and for the Metropolitan Museum's annual Met Gala. She says she'd always envisioned writing a cookbook but she also wanted her first book to be more than just a collection of recipes.
The Farsi word Sofreh refers to both the ornate table covering laid before a meal and to the many familial, religious and seasonal celebrations centered on food. Sofreh: A Contemporary Approach to Classic Persian Cuisine was published earlier this summer, and blends recipes with Alikhani's personal story of leaving Iran, migration and reinvention.
Alikhani was 59 when she opened the restaurant in 2018, and she says what may have been insurmountable disadvantages in a cutthroat industry – her immigrant identity, gender and age – have also become the roots of her success. "I think once you practice who you are, no matter where you are, you're home."
Like her restaurant's interiors, the book is a celebration of her cultural inheritance and is interspersed with poetry, culinary history and a chapter of full-page documentary photographs of Iran entitled "Sarzamine Man" or my homeland.
The recipes in Sofreh reflect the expansive range and imperial heritage of Persian cuisine, which has always been distinct from its neighboring Mediterranean, Arab and South Asian traditions. Fresh herbs, barberries and slivered pistachios are infused into rice dishes known as polos that form the accompaniment for slow-cooked meat stews like Fesenjan. Although Alikhani includes recipes for grilled meats like Kabab Koobideh – albeit adapted for Western kitchens – she also adds Mezcal cocktail versions of Iran's lemon-infused summer cordials known as Sharbat-e Sekenjabin and modern vegetarian entrees for lighter eating.
To celebrate the book's publication, Alikhani recently spent a week in Los Angeles hosting a series of pop-up Sofreh dinners and book signings in a city sometimes lovingly referred to as "Tehrangeles." As home to one of the largest Persian communities outside Iran, LA has no shortage of Persian restaurants but very few present the kind of sleekly plated modern interpretations Alikhani has perfected at Sofreh.
"All the Persian restaurants essentially are the same – your kababs and your stews – whereas if you go to Iran, there's a long, rich culinary history," says LA resident Payman Bahmani-Bailey who was preparing cocktails for the pop-up. "So not only do you not see that aspect of the tradition reflected, you also don't see much creativity. Everything is remnants of past glory. And if you didn't know any better, you'd think our people didn't accomplish anything in the last 5,000 years."
"I admire her, and she's an inspiration for how to break glass ceilings, and make a name for ourselves while keeping our traditions alive," says pastry chef Fariba Nafissi who attended one of Alikhani's Los Angeles book events after years of following her through social media. "I'm speaking from my own challenges – introducing Americans or any nationality to a pastry they've never tasted. Nasim was an inspiration with what she has done with Iranian food."
If we as immigrants become stuck in the past, we deprive ourselves of the opportunities our new space has provided. ... I don't want to become another Iranian dinosaur stuck in a glorious past. I make my glory now.
Alikhani says she is grateful for the way non-Iranians have embraced her cooking, but she says the support from her own Persian community has given her a profound sense of satisfaction and purpose: "You reach another level when your own people come and pat your back and say well done." She says despite her enduring ties to Iran, she avoids the term "authentic" because it can become a metaphor for becoming culturally and creatively static.
"If we as immigrants become stuck in the past, we deprive ourselves of the opportunities our new space has provided. If we don't know how to adapt, then we become extinct. That's the dinosaur situation. We're human. I don't want to become another Iranian dinosaur stuck in a glorious past. I make my glory now."
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