Persian cuisine comes home in Naz Deravian's Bottom of the Pot
The day Naz Deravian arrived in North Vancouver from her native Tehran, she turned 10. Having fled Iran at the height of the revolution and hostage crisis two years earlier, in 1980, first to Rome, her father (an architect), mother (a celebrated poet), and brother found themselves in a small apartment on Lonsdale, with nothing more than the three suitcases and sewing machine they had brought with them.
Shortly thereafter, while exploring their new neighbourhood in the rain, they popped in to what appeared to be an Italian deli. The owner turned out to be Persian. He mentioned wanting to sell more Persian goods, in particular nan-e barbari, a popular Iranian bread. Without hesitating, Deravian’s mom offered to make it for him.
“That was a crazy time, because she had never baked bread before,” says Deravian, author of the newly released cookbook Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories. “What sustained us in those first few months was bread-baking. Bread is the symbol of the beginnings of civilization; it’s what humankind turned to to continue. It’s a symbol of life.”
With Deravian’s family being the first to bring Persian bread to Vancouver, that essential food proved to be far more than a source of nutritional and financial sustenance for them. It was also a bridge to their homeland and culture.
Deravian went on to move to Los Angeles, where she now lives, to pursue acting; she married and has two children. Her attachment to Canada’s West Coast, however, runs deep: “Vancouver is home,” she says in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight in advance of her North American book tour, which brings her here this weekend.
Just as that nan-e barbari proved to be a source of comfort to Deravian during her early days as a landed immigrant, Persian food was always what she turned to when she sought familiarity and comfort over the years. Sabzi khordan—a platter of fresh herbs and alliums like mint, parsley, cilantro, dill, Persian basil, radishes, and green onions for people to munch on with rice and stew to help make the “perfect bite”—takes her back to her roots. Scents of khoresh fesenjan (pomegranate-walnut stew) and morgh ba zafaran (saffron chicken) evoke nostalgia and memories. The bright colours and distinct flavours of ingredients such as pomegranate seeds, sour green plums, quince, and rose petals soothe her.
Then there is rice, the pillar and shining star of Persian cuisine.
“Going from Iran to Rome to Vancouver, no matter what the situation or how dire the circumstances, there was always a simple pot of rice on the stove,” Deravian says. “Cooking was always happening. We come from a food culture. Food is celebrated, just like the literature and the art and the music.”
Deravian’s book (and blog) takes its name from tahdig, a layer of crispy, golden rice at the bottom of the pot. (Tahmeans “bottom”, and dig translates as “pot”). Getting this prized, crunchy staple right is an art form; it requires butter, olive oil, saffron water, timing, patience, and a little bit of luck. It involves flipping the pot over and hoping for a swish sound as the tahdig releases, in all its golden crusty glory. No one, not even Deravian, nails it every time.
In elementary school, tahdig (which can also be made with potatoes or bread) and other Persian foods proved to be a way for Deravian to introduce friends to her culture as play dates bled into dinner.
“Food offered a door into who we were; it was kind and gentle, which wasn’t reflective of how our nationality was represented in the early ’80s,” she says. “My friends couldn’t point to Iran on a map. Food was a gateway. It was welcoming and it was delicious. Once we started talking about the food and the rice and the saffron, we could relate it back to the country of origin. It starts a conversation.
“The culture is reflected in the food,” she adds. “We all like to gather around a table. Food is the common denominator. It puts people at ease.”
Within about a week of arriving in Los Angeles, Deravian found herself hungry—not because she hadn’t eaten but because she hadn’t had a home-cooked Persian meal. She called her mom, who still lives in Vancouver, to get recipes and instructions, scribbling everything down in pencil.
“To this day, recipes coming from my mom do not involve any kind of measurement,” Deravian says with a laugh.
During several years as a food blogger, Deravian painstakingly re-created cherished family dishes with specifics. In Bottom of the Pot she shares almost 100 recipes, serving them alongside stories that travel from Tabriz to L.A. She was motivated to write a cookbook after sharing so many Persian foods with friends who were wowed but who said they’d be too intimidated to cook the dishes.
Recipes range from sour-cherry and feta crostini and ash-e shooli (lentil and beet soup) to khoresh ghormeh sabzi, a lamb stew with turmeric, parsley, cilantro, fenugreek, and black-eyed peas. There are recipes for baghlava cake, Persian halvah, and sharbat, a fruit or floral syrup mix diluted with water and served over ice. The dishes are layered with as much aroma and taste as history; Deravian’s personal tales are imbued with passion and vivid detail. Her book opens the door to Persian culture, hospitality, and cuisine in a way that’s inviting and exciting. Bottom of the Pot welcomes you into Deravian’s home and will make you want to gather with loved ones at your own kitchen table over platters strewn with herbs, feta, pistachios, dates, yogurt-beet dip, and barbari bread, to bite into new flavours, swap stories, and travel, through taste, to Iran.