Self-deprecation is a rarity among royalty. But when the Saffron Kinga.k.a. Behroush Sharificomes to dinner at La Petite Grocery in New Orleans, he shows how it's done. Sharifi has been selling spices to chef Justin Devillier for years, but when he sees the menu Devillier has prepared, he's still thrilled to see so many of his imports.
"My heart sings!" Sharifi says. "I'm all over the menu. 'Kale leaf stuffed with dried Iranian fruit.' Dried Iranian fruita good description of me, I think."
Hardly. With his tall frame, booming baritone and bushy black beard that he loves to stroke, Sharifi resembles nothing so much as a spice trader from the Middle Ages. He speaks with a British accent polished from years at UK boarding schools. Chefs love listening to him, not only for the accent, but for the marvelous stories he tells about his exquisite spices.
When Sharifi started his business nine years ago, he sold only Iranian saffron, a precious variety costing around $2,500 a pound. Today, his inventory includes other rare ingredients, from dried Afghani apricots to Persian rose petals. His cousins buy them in Tehran and ship them by air to him in New York. "My problem is, I have the opposite of what everyone thinks they're looking for," Sharifi says. "They're looking for fresh and local. What I have is dried and global. My job is to encourage chefs to marry the two."
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There's one region where Sharifi's spices sell particularly well: the American South. In New Orleans, Devillier loves to use the fennel and coriander in crumbly cheese straws. In Nashville, at the Hermitage Hotel, Tyler Brown gives coconut cake a layer of saffron cream. At Atlanta's Abattoir, Joshua Hopkins uses the plump Aleppo pepper flakes to spike Carolina-style shrimp and rice. Combining Southern food with Persian spices might seem a modern-day mash-up. Yet "Southern food is more international than people recognize," Devillier says. "Over the past few centuries, the food has been influenced not only by American Indians, but by the French and Spanish in New Orleans, and West Indians and African Americans across the South. Especially along the Gulf Coast and the southern Atlantic Coast, you get a lot of those flavors."
Blurring borders comes naturally to the Saffron King. "I used to joke that I'm a Southern boy, but it's a bit of a stretch," Sharifi says. Born to Iranian parents, he spent the first half of his childhood in the UK. His father shuttled between Tehran and London and never bothered obtaining British citizenship; after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he needed to leave both countries. Scrambling, Sharifi's parents looked as far as Australia and New Zealand for work. The American South was facing a severe nursing shortage; Sharifi's mother, a nurse, took a job at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he was 12.
His first years in Little Rock were not great. "I never imagined it would be difficult to relocate from London to Little Rock," Sharifi recalls. "But the way I speak, I've had an easier time communicating in Vietnam and Laos. I literally could not order a glass of water."
After his family moved to New York in the late 1980s, Sharifi found work at a gourmet-foods store, where he was struck by how tired the saffron was. He considered importing the Iranian variety, but at the time, the U.S. embargo applied to all dried goods. The embargo was eased in 2000. The next year, when Sharifi's daughter, Saffron Rain, was born, he thought importing the spice might support his life as a stay-at-home father. To test the idea, he headed to his favorite town, New Orleans, where he'd been to Jazz Fest almost every year for more than 20 years.
Sharifi's success there motivated him to expand his line. When his first shipment of cardamom, coriander, cumin and rose petals arrived, he set out the 10-pound bags in his one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan (which he still shares with his wife and daughter, plus a dog and a cat). "I felt like the doge of Venice," he says.
Sharifi's pride in Iranian ingredients is poignant, given the personal and professional problems he's faced. During last year's election protests in Tehran, he stopped importing saffron for six months, too concerned for his family's safety to send them to the markets. He nearly lost his business. But he has held on.
"Spices once had a real grip on the collective imagination," he says. "Medieval Western Europeans thought spices came from Eden. Some believed they flowed up from the underworld through the River Nile, that fishermen would cast their nets and pull up cloves." With his exquisite importssaffron and coriander, raisins and rose petalsSharifi is restoring that respect.
5 Obsessed Spice Importers
Behroush Sharifi sells Iranian saffron and other brilliantly fresh spices to chefs. An online store (saffronking.com) is planned for the fall. 212-879-7480.
A favorite of author Paula Wolfert's, Mustapha Haddouch imports terrific Moroccan cumin and argan oil, among other ingredients. mustaphas.com.
Guyana native Nirmala Narine's global picks include rare Australian ingredients like Tasmanian pepper-berries. nirmalaskitchen.com.
The Spice House
Tom and Patty Erd sell Madagascar vanilla beans as well as custom blends at stores in the Midwest and on their website. thespicehouse.com.
Based in San Francisco, Jing Tio brings in organic spices and obscure ingredients like basil seeds for his many chef clients. le-sanctuaire.com.