I’m very pleased to present Louisa Shafia in the second installment of the Sabzi questionnaire. Louisa is the author of The New Persian Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2013) and Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life (Ten Speed Press, 2009). She represents a long awaited voice in Persian cuisine. While I adore Persian food, I’ve always wished that it would get the modernized treatment that many other cuisines have received. There seems to be a little movement happening lately (especially in New York) in cafes and restaurants that use Persian cuisine as the basis for creating dishes that are lighter and perhaps a bit less fussy. It seems strange to call Persian cuisine fussy, since it usually involves just a few, fresh ingredients. But there are a lot of layers of skills, steps, and an immense amount of time required for many of the traditional dishes. The New Persian Kitchen has both traditional dishes as well as Persian-inspired cuisine, such as the amazing Turmeric Chicken with Sumac and Lime, that I recently tried. The traditional dishes are explained in great detail, with clear and simple instructions. The book also has a great deal of historical information on Iran that translates into some exciting dishes that aren’t often available in English language Persian cookbooks, such as the dishes specific to Iranian Jewish cuisine. Louisa’s writing is as warm and inviting as her recipes. Her recent article in Edible Brooklyn on her first trip to Iran to visit her father’s side of the family really resonated with me, especially her points about the inextricable bounty of food and time. Louisa is also a generous and inviting friend in the “blogosphere.” I hope you enjoy this interview!
1. How did you get into cooking?
I grew up cooking, I just didn’t realize it was what I would do for a living until I tried out a couple of other careers first. My mother is a big entertainer, and when she had dinner parties my sister and I would help prepare the food. I was cooking with my mom by age seven, and I loved it. It was simple stuff, like baking cookies and picking herbs, but it got into my blood. From college on, I loved shopping for local food and cooking healthy meals for myself and for friends. After working in public broadcasting in Philadelphia, then moving to New York to pursue acting, I still hadn’t found my niche. I reached a point where I needed to figure out what I was going to do with my life. After a lot of soul searching, it dawned on me that cooking had always brought me joy, and it felt natural, like an instinct that could be honed. I went to cooking school and started working in restaurant kitchens, and found my groove. I’m grateful I get to do this for a living. It’s so satisfying to work with my hands, and to this day, what I love most about cooking is making people happy with food. That feeling will always be exciting to me.
My 8-quart compost container. Eggs. A jar of good anchovies packed in oil. Kale. My homemade hair conditioner.
3. What are your favorite films (related to food or otherwise)?
The Iranian film The Fish Fall in Love, a love letter to Persian food, about a restaurant run by women. Woman On Top. Soul Kitchen, a sweet German movie about a restaurant. Withnail And I, one of my favorite movies of all time, which I’m just now realizing has several scenes devoted to the search for, preparation, and consumption of food (but there are more scenes dedicated to alcohol.)
Verdura by Viana La Place. The Legendary Cuisine of Persia by Margaret Shaida. The Newlywed Cookbook by Sarah Copeland. I made the recipe for Lamb, Berberry, Pistachio & Rose Stew (in Farsi Gheymeh Nessar), from the cookbook Pomegranates & Roses by Ariana Bundy. I was curious about it because it’s the iconic dish from the town in Iran where my dad was born. It was excellent, and easy to follow.
The first place that comes to mind is Porsena. I happen to be holding my Persian street food pop-up dinners in their wine bar this fall, but aside form that aberration, its normal identity is as an intimate Italian restaurant with exquisite homemade pastas and a wine list hand picked by chef/owner Sara Jenkins. It’s dimly lit and has an old world feel, the staff is sweet, and the bread and pasta are so good that when we go my husband breaks his gluten-free diet. It’s where we go when we want to feel like we’re in Italy.
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Thank you, Louisa! (I too ADORE Margaret Shaida’s book.) What did you think of this interview? Do you have any favorite food writers you’d like to see featured in this space? Let me know in the comments.
(All photos credited to Louisa Shafia. Photo of Louisa credited to Sara Remington.)