This Iranian Supermarket Gives Me a Taste of Home
How the Persian grocery stores of Southern California are a bridge to family and heritage.
When I first immigrated to the U.S. from Iran at the age of 9, I was as enthralled by American grocery stores as I was by MTV. The grocery stores, with their perfect mix of ascetic cleanliness and colorful cheer, were like amusement parks full of wonder. They were places where I could feel happy. My new suburban life was a long way from Tehran and its overstuffed and dusty corner stores where we bought canned goods and toilet paper, or the farm where we picked up milk in large plastic bags to pasteurize at home.
In the early 1980s, Iran was in the midst of a brutal war with Iraq. The U.S. sanctions, which continue to economically devastate the country nearly 40 years later, combined with the tight grip of the Islamic Republic, isolated us from the West and its goods. We coveted Nesquik and Nutella, Coca-Cola and Corn Flakes because they were hard to come by.
When my mother and I arrived in Seattle, the last thing I wanted was the ajil (mixed nuts and dried fruit) or the lavashak (fruit leather) that my mom had packed in her suitcase. I didn't care for what I considered common and unsophisticated, for that which gave me away as "other" in the elementary school cafeteria, where I was already bullied mercilessly. No, I wanted to fill our grocery cart with Cocoa Puffs and Cap'n Crunch, all flavors of Yoplait, and soft and crunchy Chips Ahoy, endlessly hungry for what this country had to offer.
It didn't occur to me that there would be things I loved that I wouldn't be able to have again, because I thought America had everything.
As I grew older, I began to reconcile with the cultural wealth of my heritage. I was no longer the kid desperate to fit in. I wanted to better understand where I came from, who I was. I stopped straightening my curly hair, downloaded Googoosh and Viguen's music, and dedicated my time to Farsi, trying to get rid of the same American accent I had worked so hard to cultivate.
I could even feel my taste buds shift. My cereal aisle cravings gave way to chaghaleh badoom (raw green almonds). The foods I'd grown up with carried with them memories of home, of the tree I climbed in our backyard to pick goje sabz, the tart green stone fruit we dipped in salt; of family drives to the Caspian Sea when we'd stop on the side of the road to pick up date-filled cookies called koloocheh; of the sweet tea and shakheh nabat, a hard saffron candy my grandmother prepared for me in her Tehran apartment. Zoolbia and bamieh (fried honey desserts) were always part of our Nowruz celebrations.
And then there was the bread. Fresh-baked sangak reminded me of one of the last times I spent alone with my baba before he was killed. We were driving from Tehran to our home in Karaj when he pulled over next to a shack on the side of the road to pick up bread for the next day's breakfast. There, old ladies wrapped in black chadors sat on the floor next to a pit oven dug in the ground, rhythmically slapping pieces of dough onto its walls and retrieving baked bread. In the car, I tore off a piece for myself, and my baba extended his hand for me to give him a piece. The bread was too fresh and warm to resist.
It took 15 years from the time I immigrated to my first visit to a proper Iranian grocery store in Orange County, California, where my brother and his wife had settled. "You're never gonna believe all the things they have from our childhood," my brother said. "Things I never thought we'd find here."
I walked in unsure of which language to speak in this familiar yet foreign space. I followed my brother's lead and spoke Farsi to the deli counter employee as we ordered a block of salty, creamy feta and some kalbas (mortadella). Among the aisles I found gaz (rose and pistachio nougat), pashmak (saffron cotton candy), and ghare ghoroot (dehydrated yogurt), dumping them in his cart like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep. "Is this goje sabz?" I asked my brother from the produce aisle. "It is!" he said. "Did you see the limoo shirins over there?"
Trying to be cool, I casually walked over to examine the sweet yellow lemons of my childhood. I picked one up and brought it to my nose, its mild, unmistakable fragrance triggering a memory—I'd forgotten about limoo shirin. Forgotten that it existed. I nearly broke down.
I left Iran 31 years ago and haven't been back since. I have a drawer in my fridge full of the things my mom brings home in her suitcase when she visits Iran, precious and essential goods like the treats we loved as children and zereshk (barberries). She jokingly calls the drawer the Saffron Museum because of how much saffron I've hoarded and urges me to cook with what she's brought. But I only do so sparingly, afraid that one day she won't go back and I'll run out.
For now, we at least have the great Iranian grocery stores of Southern California, where a lot of Iranian immigrants have settled. Because of debilitating U.S. sanctions, Iranian goods aren't allowed to be sold here; products in Iranian grocery stores are made in the U.S. or imported from other Middle Eastern countries. My favorite store is Mission Ranch Market, the first place I ask my brother and mother to take me when I visit from New York City. Our first stop is always the bakery, where we order two sheets of fresh-baked sangak bread. They come wrapped in butcher paper and handed to us still warm to the touch. We each rip off a piece. We eat as we shop. It's the closest my mother, brother, and I have come to being in Iran together. It's our version of home.
My Shopping List
Saharkhiz is a great saffron brand. It's one ingredient I treat with the outmost respect. The spice is magical and incredibly important to me as an Iranian.
The Sadaf brand of limoo amani is great for stews and soups, or grated and sprinkled on fish or legumes.
You'll need kashk, a fermented dairy product, if you're going to make the accompanying Kashke Bademjan recipe, but I also like to add a dollop to almost every soup I make. You can find dehydrated kashk, but the liquid kind is easier to work with.
I always grab a sheet (or 10!) of freshly baked sangak bread at Mission Ranch Market. (You can also use barbari orlavash as a substitute.)
These are seasonal sour plums with a green skin, often dipped in salt and eaten as a snack. We had a tree in our backyard in Iran.