In Persian cooking, herbs are measured in epic phrases — by the quart, not the tablespoon.
Parsley, dill, cilantro, fenugreek and mint: Utilized in profusion, alone or together, they play the function of the vegetable quite than a garnish, including their woodsy perfume at each alternative. Such was destiny of the feathery greens that on a latest afternoon sat in entrance of Nasim Alikhani, the proprietor of Sofreh restaurant in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
Ms. Alikhani was cooking spicy fish in tamarind sauce from the south of Iran, which she discovered from her finest pal, Minoo Falsafi.
“I’m from Isfahan, which is a desert metropolis, historically there’s no fish,” she mentioned as she used each fingers to scoop the herbs right into a sizzling skillet.
“When Minoo first made this dish for me, I assumed, ‘Wow, that is so scrumptious,’” she mentioned. “It actually opened my eyes. So what I’m doing now’s her recipe.” The herbs sputtered and hissed.
“Besides I’m altering it.”
Ms. Alikhani was a regulation pupil on the time of the Iranian revolution. She moved to New York by herself at age 23, with out talking a lot English. Finally, she grew to become a nanny for an Iranian household.
“That job saved me,” she recounted, as she caramelized onions in a pan subsequent to the herbs. “I used to be in a foul method, very lonely and remoted.”
To assuage her homesickness, she began cooking commonly for the primary time in her life. She discovered Persian components at markets in Queens, and with apply she constructed her expertise.
“It was at all times quite simple issues, rice and lentils,” she mentioned. “However for the youngsters, it was one thing new. They liked it.”
After 9 years in New York, she was in a position to return to Iran to go to her household. Tasting Persian meals once more after such a protracted absence made her notice its wealth, complexity and variety. She noticed how the flavors construct on each other, how skilled cooks coaxed completely different nuances out of herbs, spices, and all method of meats and greens relying on the approach they used.
Every time she went again to go to, she traveled throughout the nation, cooking, consuming, writing down recipes and immersing herself within the historical past of the traditional delicacies.
She discovered, for instance, that the fish in tamarind sauce in all probability originated with the African inhabitants dwelling round Abadan, close to the water. Then the dish traveled to Isfahan and past as individuals relocated after the Iran-Iraq struggle, taking their components and traditions with them.
By then, she had married, and had two youngsters. Again in New York along with her household, she tried out all her new recipes on her mates and neighbors, even catering large Persian feasts for lots of of individuals. The concept to open a restaurant was at all times behind her thoughts, however she put it off yr after yr, ready for her youngsters to develop up.
She began the method in earnest after they have been in center faculty, but it surely wasn’t till they have been out of school that she lastly was in a position to open Sofreh in June. Simply after she opened, Ms. Alikhani turned 59.
She interrupted her story because the herbs and onions have been beginning to shrivel and blacken.
“You see, they’re actually burning,” she mentioned, pointing to the sticky brown coating on the underside of each pans. “I do that deliberately. That is how one can construct the flavors.” She added that this isn’t how the sauce is made in Iran, the place it’s cooked rather more slowly at a decrease warmth. However she prefers the complexity of the darkish caramelization.
This sort of up to date, gutsy contact is obvious throughout her menu, the place she’s not afraid to insurgent towards custom.
“I’m going to upset some individuals as a result of I’m going to do pork and I’m going to do scallops, which you’ll be able to’t get in Iran,” she mentioned.
In the course of the day earlier than the restaurant opens, she cooks alongside her two cooks, Ali Saboor and Soroosh Golbabae, simmering intricate sauces; getting ready contemporary yogurt; and preserving vegatables and fruits like garlic, lemons, cherries and grapes.
Her cooks take over solely as soon as prospects begin arriving, permitting Ms. Alikhani to drift from desk to desk in her small restaurant, as if she have been internet hosting an enormous banquet in her house.
“Initially, I needed to serve on a regular basis meals like my household would make, kuku, salads, rice,” she told me as she put some seared cod into the herb sauce to gently simmer, allowing the flavors to meld. (Kuku, an herb frittata-like dish, is a classic of Persian cuisine.)
“Then I realized, I cannot start with this,” she said. “I felt I needed to show my guests more special occasion food, how Persians throw parties. Because when we have a party, we throw a feast.”