I walk into Alembique, a West Berkeley apothecary housed in a charming green structure on the corner of Hearst Avenue and Seventh Street. Inside, the walls are lined with bottles and jars filled with herbs, flowers, tinctures and remedies. I weave through customers and concoctions to the sunny back patio, where tiny tables, mismatched chairs, yellow umbrellas and a spread of colorful snacks are waiting.
Not long after taking a seat beside the trickling fountain, I sense this is no ordinary tea party. I overhear guests discuss recent visits to the Middle East and the limitations brought by travel bans. I catch snippets of conversation about faloodeh, bastani and other edible delights that have never crossed my lips. A charming Iranian man with a faint British accent (Alembique owner Babak Nahid) sets down giant bottles of herb-infused “magic water” beside bowls of berries on top of each table. He spritzes a mist of Lebanese rose water over each guest and pulls up chairs for late-arrivers. As we wait for the cue that the party has started, a tall young man with dark eyes and a kind disposition invites us inside to view a short video.
The two-minute film that party host and chef Hanif Sadr put together features footage from his family’s farm in the Gilan province of Northern Iran, where women wrapped in chador shabs (chador meaning “veil” and shab meaning “night,” so “wrapper for bed clothes,” as Sadr explains) handpick bright purple borage blossoms that will be dried, shipped and transformed into tea. When the video ends, a slideshow begins and Sadr opens the floor for questions. He offers a wealth of knowledge on the climate, culture and cuisine of Northern Iran, a portion of the country that defies a number of stereotypes. It is lush and vibrant, a culinary center for seafood, citrus, rice farms and tea plants; a region where women are industry leaders as well as laborers. Sadr lights up as he discusses the history of his home and tells us of the culinary gifts that we are about to experience. He’s serving more than hand-picked tea to the 20 attendees in the room. Sadr is using hospitality as a gateway to cultural connection.
The founder of Komaaj, a series of pop-ups that feature the cuisine of Northern Iran, Sadr has been doing Caspian tea parties since the fall of 2015, when Nahid first invited him to cater on the Alembique patio. “We try to do one every month,” says Sadr, who makes markedly less on the tea parties than he does on his other pop-up events, which are posted on Feastly and take place four to six times each month at various venues in San Francisco. “[The tea parties] are a promotional, educational part of our work.”
While Sadr can open a Feastly event to upwards of 40 people, he caps tea parties at 15 to 20. “It’s a very intimate, small group of people,” says Sadr. “We have time to sit and show pictures. People get a lot more connected before they even try our food”
Because the region is south of the Caspian Sea and surrounded by the high-latitude Alborz mountain range, the climate in Northern Iran is unlike any other part of the country (though not unlike Northern California). “It’s not even close to what most people think when they think about the Middle East,” says Sadr. “People have this idea in their mind that the Middle East is a dry, desert place. In our tea parties we have a chance to show them [otherwise].”
To use the format of a tea party as a platform for education is the perfect marriage of content and form — tea and introductions being such a natural combination. When I visit Sadr at the Komaaj test kitchen in South Berkeley later in the week, the first thing he does is put on a kettle.
The tea options are myriad — black, herbal, floral, citrus. “Most of the tea that people drink in Iran comes from the north,” says Sadr. “It’s one of the [only] places in the whole Middle East where [you] can grow tea.”
Tea is one of the few ingredients that Sadr imports from back home. The infusions he offers at Komaaj are created from flowers and herbs that are foraged and grown in Northern Iran. “The herbals are mostly unknown to the people of world,” says Sadr. “Even in Iran.”
Sadr explains this at the start of his two-hour tea parties, which include an introductory education in Persian methods of growing, cultivating and blending tea, as well as an experiential journey through the flavors of the region. Guests try three to five teas, which range from a chai gol (flower tea) of wild hollyhock flowers, orange blossoms and quince (all native to the Gilan Province) to chai siah Gilan, an early-harvest black tea from a small farm in Gilan. There is also chai gol gavzaban, a tea made with dried Persian lime and the wild borage flowers we saw being picked in the video.
Teas are accompanied by sweet and savory small plates, such as meshgofi, a thick and creamy pudding made of saffron and rose water, nan berenji, delicate little rice flour and rose water cookies and kale kabob, smoky roasted eggplant seasoned with pomegranate juice, garlic and walnuts. Most tea services also feature the namesake komaaj, a subtly-sweet bright yellow pastry made of rice flour, yogurt and saffron.
“In Iran people like to have more of a black tea,” Sadr tells me as we pick out a tea in the test kitchen. Early spring harvests of Iranian tea are heavily oxidized for a deep flavor. Late harvest teas, by contrast, are oxidized far less, and are, consequently, cheaper. “When you go to the villagers’ houses, you will taste this tea,” says Sadr.
Sadr has been developing Komaaj’s line of teas for the past two years, ever since launching the pop-up. He sells them exclusively at Alembique, which is the current venue for Komaaj’s tea parties. Sadr describes the relationship between the two businesses as sisterly.
“The owner [Nahid] is Iranian and he’s one of the main reasons we started [Komaaj],” says Sadr, who hosted his first Northern Iranian dinner at Alembique over two and half years ago. At the time, Sadr was working as a chef at Golestan, a Persian preschool in Berkeley where Nahid’s nephews were students. But cooking wasn’t a gig that Sadr had ever planned or expected to work.
Iran to California, engineer to cook
Sadr was born in France and grew up in Tehran. He moved to northern Iran, the home of his grandparents, for the last two years of high school, then returned to Tehran for university. Sadr studied materials engineering, the field he worked in before coming to the States.
“In Iran right now, most of the parents want their children to go abroad and study in the Western world,” Sadr tells me. He says he was happy in Tehran, but his parents pushed him to leave. Initially, Sadr planned to get a master’s degree, work a few years, then go back, but plans have changed in ways he never would have predicted.
After arriving in the U.S., Sadr lived with an aunt in D.C., where he spent six months hunting for a best-fit grad program. He found it at San Jose State, applied to start in the fall of 2013 and worked as an outdoor educator at Golestan in the meantime.
Late in the summer, just weeks before classes would start, Sadr learned that his program had been cancelled. Days later, Golestan’s cook left without notice and Sadr was asked to step in. “I thought, ‘What the hell should I do?’ So I started cooking for a few days,” says Sadr.
The school asked Sadr to stay on until they could find a replacement and he agreed to stay course for a couple of months. “It was a very hard time for me,” Sadr recalls. “I didn’t have any thought about being a cook or a chef, you know? But that was the only job that I had.”
Looking back on it now, Sadr sees his early experience of catering to the palates of 40 preschoolers and their 12 Iranian instructors as setting the foundation for Komaaj. “I’m so happy I got over being an engineer,” he says with a laugh.
Sadr didn’t go to culinary school or take any courses (although he admits that cooking videos on YouTube were a big help). What he did do was go back to his roots, which meant getting in touch with his family’s former chef, a woman named Baaji, who served as a living recipe box full of Sadr’s family secrets. Over the course of several months, Baaji worked with Sadr on more than 20 key dishes.
Komaaj pops up
Two years after agreeing to fill in for a couple of days, Sadr left his post at the Golestan kitchen. Based on the recipes he’d learned from Baaji, he started Komaaj in June 2015. He and his partner and friend, Babak Mortazavi, have hosted more than 60 pop-ups, including dozens of tea parties.
Sadr’s menus stray away from the stereotypical meat kebabs and rice, and focus instead on vegetarian dishes, though his most popular dish so far has been fish stuffed with herbs, walnuts, and pomegranate. Other key ingredients include sour pomegranate and orange molasses, tangy barberries, roasted eggplant, yogurt, rice, hogweed, cucumber and loads of herbs, including mint, parsley, tarragon, dill and cilantro, which are often mashed and preserved in a paste called dalar.
At each of his pop-ups, Sadr spreads a brightly colored runner along the communal table. It is made of the same fabric as the chador shabs featured in the video, which also appears on Sadr’s apron and business card. “These textiles are very famous from Northern Iran,” he tells me, noting that the runner he uses at his pop-ups was made as a personal gift. “When we can make the bridge through food and handicrafts and all of these things, then we can have people more connected to Persian culture.”
Mind the gap
Although Persian cuisine is some of the world’s oldest and best (in 2015, the northern Iranian city of Rasht was recognized by UNESCO as one of the world’s most gastronomically creative), it still remains largely unknown among voracious Americans. Sadr’s chief explanation for this divide isn’t a matter of palates, but of politics.
“All the problems between Iran and the United States in the past 30 years, that’s one of the main reasons,” he says. “Our goal is to have the people [at the pop-up] feel connected to those people [in Northern Iran].” This is the rationale behind photos and footage — to bridge the connection between people and places.
“Right now people are looking for different restaurants or recipes or dishes, so that’s the best playing field for us — to have the people try our food and see our photos and touch our textiles; to get more connected to that culture.”
At Alembique, over the course of two hours, Sadr bounces back and forth from the kitchen to the patio and from table to table, as guests load up plates with mixed nuts, roasted eggplant, Persian canapés and dalar-decked cucumbers. When Sadr reaches my corner, two of my table-members insist that he get to work on opening a restaurant.
Both of the advocates happen to be Iranian, but I’d wager that many of Sadr’s diners share their enthusiasm. There’s a good amount of diversity represented under the umbrellas, and nearly all of those present make note of the food. A few propose making a culinary tour of Northern Iran, and nearly all mention wanting to attend a future Komaaj pop-up. Sadr would be only too happy to see them again.
“Our goal is to have people feel connected to the whole of Persian culture through food,” says Sadr. “If we can do that, our project will be a success.”
The next Komaaj pop-up at Alembique Apothecary takes place from 3-5 p.m. on June 25. More details and purchase tickets.