Among the many holidays jammed on the springtime calendar is Nowruz, the Persian New Year, a celebration of the sun that dates back to the Zoroastrian era. This past weekend, Persians around the world observed the holiday with bonfires, ritual meals and family gatherings. I marked the occasion by paying a visit to North Vancouver, home to a flourishing Persian community. (To keep my trip appropriately festive, I did try to attend a Nowruz food-and-dance extravaganza at a shopping mall, but by the time I’d deciphered the event’s ad in a glossy Persian publication, I’d missed the fun: The dancers were eating the food when I got there.)
Iranians began immigrating to Canada immediately after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but the population’s spiked in recent years with the arrival of Iranians who initially settled elsewhere in the West: The city’s economic opportunities and the North Shore mountains, reminiscent of the mountains surrounding Tehran, are the primary draws. Between 2002 and 2007, Vancouver’s Persian population tripled, with Iranians accounting for half of North Vancouver’s new immigrants in the latter part of the 1990s. So many of the city’s 40,000 Iranis are clustered in the neighborhood that it’s locally known as Behjat Abad, a reference to one of Tehran’s most crowded districts.
To serve their countrymen, entrepreneurs have opened an array of businesses, many of which are of no interest to culinary tourists. But amongst the travel agencies and immigration law offices, there are kebab counters, bakeries and nut shops that should persuade even the most dedicated dim sum aficionado to think beyond Richmond when crossing the border.
Not that there’s anything wrong with lavishing attention on dumplings and buns. But what’s especially interesting about a Persian eating expedition is that it represents the closest brush many Americans will ever have with authentic Iranian food culture. It’s not illegal to visit Iran, but the State Department has long advised against it. Only about 1000 Americans each year journey to Iran. That’s a small fraction of the number of Americans who travel to other far-off countries: Vietnam, for example, annually welcomes 350,000 Americans. So if you’re fed up with friends going on about how restaurant meals here don’t match up with what they ate in Saigon or Shanghai or Mexico City, there’s plenty to recommend a Persian supper.
There are other accessible hubs of Persian gastronomy, including Los Angeles and London. But since North Vancouver’s by far the most convenient gateway, here are five edible experiences you shouldn’t miss there:
1. Buy a pound of bamieh, Laleh Bakery, 130 W. 15th St.
Perhaps the most familiar Persian sweet, the itty-bitty bamieh served at Laleh is a sticky triumph of honey and fried dough. But the bakery’s display cases are filled with dozens more kinds of cookies crafted from butter, rosewater, almonds and rice flour. The counter clerk speaks Farsi, so obtaining a box of cookies is a point-and-fill situation. But I liked every tender, flaky cookie I picked, including a terrific round of shortbread dusted with pistachios. Most of the cookies I tried were highly sweet and probably best enjoyed with a cup of freshly-brewed hot tea.
2. Hang around the roaster, Ayoub’s Dried Fruit & Nuts, 1330 Lonsdale Ave.
When Ayoub Hosseini immigrated from Tehran almost a decade ago, he hung onto a shop back home and the skills he’d used to make it a success. In 2009, he and his son, Amir, opened the first of two nut-and-dried fruit stores; They now sell close to a ton of product every week.
Ayoub’s is an impressively elegant operation: With its bespoke shelving and chandeliers, it could serve as a showroom for fancy purses or high-end shoes. But here the silver urns are filled with spicy cashews, extra sour almonds, salted peanuts, hazelnuts, watermelon seeds and sunflower seeds in jet black jackets.
In a back room, a roaster’s always whirring: When a batch of hot pistachios emerges from it, the sales clerk offers every shopper a sample before adding the freshly-made nuts to a scoopable bin. He’s also quick to share sweet dried figs and crispy fingers of devastatingly green dried okra. Fortunately, there’s no federal prohibition on transporting most roasted nuts and seeds into the United States.
3. Sip doogh, Hakhamenesh, 222 Pemberton Ave.
Hakhamenesh, which doubles as a dance hall, probably does most of its beverage business in booze. But the restaurant also serves homemade doogh by the pitcher: The yogurt-based drink is kin to a traditional lassi, the sort without mango pulp and lots of added sugar.
Cyrus the Great may have drunk doogh, a tart mix of yogurt, mint and cold water. The drink’s now typically made with seltzer water or club soda, and Hakhamenesh’s version is almost bubbly. But it’s a fine counterfoil to the restaurant’s homespun cuisine, including a soulful aash reshteh, a noodly chick pea-and-lentil soup generously seasoned with garlic and dried whey, and pert dolmades. Still, what I liked best was the fluffy white rice, an essential Persian staple prepared with obvious care.
4. Eat a kebab, Yummy Kebab, 942 16th St. W.
Vancouver food maven Fernando Medrano, who helped me design my itinerary, steered me to Lonsdale Kebab for my obligatory meat-based meal. But I was scared off by an empty dining room and an awning sign on which every protein but chicken had been crossed out. Rather than assuming the restaurant had wisely settled on a specialty, I decided the joint was driven to an all-chicken menu by poor sales and took my kebab cravings down the road.
The newish Yummy Kebab is a fast food restaurant, with customers given the Subway-style option to garnish their donairs with various vegetables and sauces. But I was there for the beef kebab, served aboard a panel of honeycombed sangak, the whole wheat sourdough flatbread considered Iran’s national bread. I wouldn’t yet declare my North Vancouver kebab search over, but the meat was well-seasoned and adequately juicy.
5. Walk to the very back of Afra, 1521 Pemberton Ave.
From the front door, Afra looks like a standard expat grocery, with too-narrow aisles and shelves lined with bottles, cans and jars bearing unfamiliar brand names. If you’re not in the market for a particular kind of pickle, though, the reason to visit is the back room sangak bakery.
Knobby sangak, long and trim as a Mesopotamian beard, are constantly being pulled from Afra’s pebble oven and hung along the wall to cool. Slipped into a plastic bag which proclaims the suitability of sangak for every meal and many medical conditions, the bread sells for $3. Tasting faintly of sesame and yeast, the stretchy bread is the ultimate North Vancouver souvenir.