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COVER STORY: Persian flavours on the North Shore
Pirashki, a sweet round Persian pastry, is just one of 70 different sweets lined in tidy rows at Jalal Darvishi’s bakery in North Vancouver.
Its custard filling, freshly made and piping hot, has a hint of rose water, a distinctive flavour made with rose petals commonly found in Iranian cuisine.
The popular doughy dessert originated in Russia, but when it arrived in Iran bakers were quick to switch the original meat and cabbage filling with something sweet.
“And now we’re changing it again to suit the Canadian market,” Darvishi tells The Outlook over warm pirashki and coffee at Golestan Bakery in the 1500-block of Lonsdale Avenue.
To appeal to health-conscious Canadians, he makes the pastry cholesterol free and eases up on the sugar.
Sitting in front of small cookie pyramids while dressed in a white chef’s jacket, Darvishi is clearly an experienced baker. He learned the trade at his parents’ bakery in Tehran, Iran at a time when there weren’t any pastry schools in the Middle Eastern country.
Fast forward 20 years: Darvishi has carried on his family’s culinary traditions while incorporating modern touches and European techniques.
He opened Golestan Bakery two years ago in central Lonsdale, surrounded by other Persian restaurants and shops.
With three other Persian bakeries nearby, Darvishi doesn’t mind the competition.
“I have to make the best food with the best quality ingredients and really listen to what my customers want,” he says, adding they demand a wide variety of pastries, including gluten-free and vegan cookies.
After scouting out locations for his bakery, Darvishi settled on Lonsdale because of its central location and large Iranian-Canadian population.
But his business cannot survive off Persian customers alone. He estimates around 60 per cent of his customers are non-Persians who enjoy his European-influenced baking or traditional Iranian desserts, especially baklava, layers of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with honey.
“We try to be very welcoming. There are people who come here for coffee every day to see us, when they could be having a drink at any coffee shop on Lonsdale.” says Darvishi, referring to a woman who just popped in to grab a cup.
The bakery’s business hours — he’s open to 10 p.m. every night — could also be a reason for his success.
The North Shore has seen a burst of new shops offering Persian food and ingredients pop up over the last few years, including grocery stores, kebab restaurants and a tea house.
But the busiest area is central Lonsdale, from 13th to 19th street, where more than a dozen Iranian shops sit, often replacing old businesses that couldn’t survive tough economic times.
To market North Van to tourists, Lonsdale Avenue was dubbed “Little Iran” in pamphlets for the 2010 Olympics. And the cluster of stores in one of the North Shore’s most bustling communities isn’t a coincidence. According to Statistic Canada’s 2006 census, 10 per cent of North Vancouverites are Iranian-Canadian and, other than English, Farsi is the most common mother tongue by far, beating runner-up languages including
Korean, German, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and Tagalog (Filipino).
Around 10,000 Iranian-Canadians call the North Shore home, including 15 per cent of West Van residents, making the Lower Mainland one of the most popular places for Persian immigrants to settle.
But these numbers, which according to reports have likely climbed in the five years since the last census results, could be low in the first place because some Iranian-Canadians may be hesitant about sharing personal information.
With a high Persian population and other well-established ethnic stores, central Lonsdale Avenue was a perfect fit for Ayoub Hosseini, owner of Ayoub’s Dried Fruits & Nuts on the 1300-block of Lonsdale Avenue, who opened his store three years ago.
Like Divarshi, Hoesseini knows he must constantly be at the top of his game to survive, offering quality products at reasonable prices.
“We wanted to provide something unique and have a store that people will walk by and say ‘Wow, we want to go inside,’” he tells The Outlook at the back of his shop while munching on pistachios that were roasted on-site the evening before.
Traditional Persian architecture with elegant columns and chandeliers surround dried nuts from 20-plus countries, including almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews and pecans, which sit in intricately designed metal pots at the front of the store.
The atmosphere, says Hoesseini, is one of the reasons customers first notice his shop.
He opened on Lonsdale Avenue because of the area’s large Iranian-Canadian population, but also wants to attract non-Persian people. Around 30 per cent of his customers are non-Persian, he estimates.
“It is a niche market,” says Hoesseini’s son and CEO of the company, Armir. “It’s never been done here before.”
With the help of a similar store in Iran and an attached factory, the family has been able to keep the price of their dried fruits and nuts down to compete with big chain stores.
“We roast the nuts right here, so they’re really fresh. Other nuts are often roasted at least two months before,” Amir says, adding that the exact recipes are a family secret.
Since Amir’s father immigrated to Canada eight years ago, he has opened two locations, including one on Denman Street, and will be opening a third in Kitsilano.
“We try to bring new products, like dried mulberries, that a lot of people haven’t tried. They’re filled with antioxidants,” says Amir, emphasizing they pick the most popular nuts and fruit sold at their store in Iran and fly them to B.C. overnight.
Still room for more
In a diverse community that has long been hailed as home to great sushi, stir fry, pad Thai and curry dishes, Persian food is a relative newcomer.
But more and more North Shore residents are trying traditional Persian food, often opting for beef and lamb kebabs served with steamed rice and a whole grilled tomato.
Mo Talebpourazad, owner of one of the North Shore’s first Persian restaurants, says Iranian-Canadians expect excellent food at good prices, so quality is a must for any successful restaurant.
Opened in 1994, Persepolis Restaurant and Lounge nestled on the corner of 13th Street and Lonsdale Avenue was one of the first places to try Persian cuisine in Vancouver.
Talebpourazad has done extensive renovations since he bought the restaurant 18 months ago, turning it into a fine-dining spot, perfect for a romantic lunch or a evening out with friends to watch live music and belly dancers.
The restaurant serves a Persian buffet and Western food including a daily steak and potato special.
“We have some people walk in here who haven’t tried Persian food, but they can try a bit here and there at the buffet. It’s a good way to introduce Canadians to our food,” Talebpourazad says during a lull between his lunch and dinner rush.
Unlike East Indian cuisine Persian food isn’t spicy, he says, putting to rest a common misconception. Instead, spices such as zafra and dried lime are commonly used, giving Persian food a distinctive flavour.
Kebab is one of the most popular foods on the menu, says Talebpourazad, because a lot of people can’t cook it well at home.
“It needs to be barbecued, and you need to know how to cut it or it won’t taste right or stay on the stick. The meat has to be cut against the grain and marinated properly,” he says, adding a trained kabob cook comes to the restaurant specifically to prepare the meal.
Although other Persian dining spots line the streets on central Lonsdale’s six blocks, Talebpourazad says his restaurant’s approach of an upscale environment keeps it competitive.
But there is still room for newcomers. Bahram Mehrabi, co-owner of Zeitoon Restaurant on the 1600-block of Lonsdale, opened up shop last summer.
Focusing mainly on kebabs — there are 15 different kinds — his restaurant has been able to compete with longer established businesses, he says in a private meeting room at the back of the restaurant.
Mehrabi and his business partner Reza Vojdani, both university engineering grads, decided to open the restaurant when they saw an opportunity for another Persian restaurant on the North Shore.
Like the other business owners, Mehrabi told The Outlook competition can be tough — there is another Persian restaurant a few doors down — but says his product is unique enough to fill a gap.
“We have great quality and mix Western and Persian culture together so we appeal to a lot of people,” he says.
And Mehrabi has been busy so far. As soon as the interview finishes, he has to quickly make his way downtown to stop by his newest restaurant on Denman and Pendrell Street.
Try it at home: Sabzi Polo
This popular Persian side dish tastes best when made with fresh herbs and goes well with chicken or fish.
-6 cups water
-4 cups uncooked long-grain white rice
-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
-1/2 cup water
-1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
-1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped
-1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
-2 cups fresh or frozen fava beans
-ground turmeric to taste
-ground cinnamon to taste
-1 teaspoon salt
-1 teaspoon pepper
1. Bring water to a boil in a large sauce pan. Rinse rice and stir into boiling water. Boil just until rice rises to the surface of the water. Drain rice and return it to the saucepan. Stir in the oil and water. Mix in the dill, parsley, cilantro, fava beans, turmeric, cinnamon, salt and pepper.
2. Cook the rice over medium heat for five minutes.
3. Reduce heat to the lowest setting. Cover and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes. It’s normal (and delicious) to end up with crispy rice, called tadig, on the bottom of the pot after cooking.
For more recipes visit mypersiankitchen.com.