Where to Discover Persian Food and Culture in Atlanta

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. September 2018. 

“Get yourself a Persian friend. Just show interest in their culture, and the next thing you know, they will invite you over to their house,” says Samira Shakib Bregeth, an Iranian-American English teacher at Roswell High School and advisor for news and opinion website VOX. She and others I spoke with assured me that Persian people in Atlanta love to interact with people from other countries and welcome them to learn about Persian culture.

Bregeth has seen the Persian Festival in Atlanta grow from a few hundred to over 13,000 attendees, transitioning from Red Top mountain to Piedmont Park as its new venue. There are tents made to look like a bazaar with food, vendors, music, and dance, and it is always held on the first day of spring, which also marks Nowruz or Persian New Year. Festivities are held for 13 days at the Persian Cultural Center – Kanoon. These include a shopping festival that offers things Bregeth says are hard to make at home. “This is where you can buy things to put on your haftseen (ceremonial table) ),” she explains, “such as fruit, puddings, coins, candles, painted eggs — each symbolizing spring or renewal.”

Because their new year symbolizes the rebirth of nature, Persian families and friends spend a lot of time outdoors during this time. “You will see us at the Chattahoochee River enjoying picnics eating kotlets made with meat and potatoes; Persian sandwiches made with French bread, mint, and feta cheese; and lots of watermelon,” Bregeth says. They also make a bonfire and jump over it to get rid of sickness and to “burn away” the past year’s bad energy and welcome the new.

Leila Safay was homesick when she first moved to Atlanta in 2010. She, too, saw Kanoon as an opportunity to meet people from her community, and she enrolled her kids at the center for Farsi language and piano lessons. “We celebrate winter solstice, called Shab-e Yalda, by getting together with family and friends, eating watermelon, seeds and nuts, and predicting our fortunes from the poetry of Divan-e Hafez (a book of divination),” she explains. “Here people postpone the celebration to the weekend and host Yalda parties at their homes.”

Both Safay and Bregeth are happy to go out of their way for the Persian products found at the Super Global International market, a Persian grocery store that started in a strip mall and has expanded to three locations over the years. It carries imported products that are found in most Persian kitchens — saffron, cardamom, turmeric, loose-leaf teas, Persian rice, lavash bread, traditional cheese, pickled cucumbers, sweets, and more. Safay,  who left the country to be an independent woman and is now a successful realtor, says the spices and foods “just taste different, and make you nostalgic for growing up in Iran.”

When not cooking at home, both women like to go to Rumi’s Kitchen for a meal. “Everyone loves it, Persian or not!” says Bregeth. “It’s consistently delicious.” The establishment has grown into a hip restaurant that the Persian community is proud of, known for its quiet, intimate meals featuring favorites such as Zafron’s koobideh kabobs and ghormeh sabzi (an Iranian herb stew)

Leila’s 12-year-old daughter Jasmine, who was born in the U.S., gives me some tips on Persian etiquette: “We allow elders to talk first, eat first, and we show them utmost respect. We don’t address men and women by their first names, but call them ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle.’ Also, when you meet someone for the first time, you may shake hands and bow, but close friends air-kiss on both cheeks (mostly not to spoil one’s makeup),” she adds with humor. It is also customary to take sweets and flowers when invited to a home, and to call to thank your guests on the following day.

Making friends in the Persian community is easy. It starts with a passing conversation, a slight compliment, and ends in a dinner invite and long-lasting friendships.

Where to Experience Persian Culture in Atlanta

Grocery Stores:

Super Global International Food Market
11235 Alpharetta Hwy., Ste. 109, Roswell. 770-619-2966.
The go-to grocery store for Persian ingredients such as loose-leaf tea, flatbreads, and baklava, at reasonable prices.

Shahrzad 
6435-A Roswell Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-257-9045.
http://shahrzad.com
One of the oldest Persian grocery stores in Atlanta, founded in 1985. They moved from Doraville to Sandy Springs and sell herbs, spices, pastries, cold cuts, etc.

Restaurants:

Rumi’s Kitchen
Sandy Springs: 6112 Roswell Road, Atlanta. 404-477-2100.
Avalon: 7105 Avalon Blvd., Alpharetta. 678-534-8855.
www.rumiskitchen.com
Modern Persian restaurant popular with locals and out-of-towners. It has an open kitchen and an impressive wine list.

Zafron
236 Johnson Ferry Road N.E., Sandy Springs. 404-255-7402.
www.persianrestaurantsandysprings.com
Most popular restaurant among the Persian community, serving traditional cuisine in an elegant setting.

Sufi’s
1814 Peachtree St. N.W. Atlanta. 404-888-9699.
http://sufisatlanta.com
Good option for in-towners craving kabobs, Cornish hen, and aromatic rice.

Divan Restaurant and Hookah Lounge
3125 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. 404-467-4297.
https://www.divanatlanta.com
In 2017, Iranian chef Peyman Rostami returned the restaurant to its traditional roots, adding a modern twist. He formerly cooked for the King of Oman and has a culinary show on Persian TV Channel 7.

Culture and Festivals:

Persian Cultural Center of Atlanta – Kanoon
3146 Reps Miller Road N.W., Norcross. 404-303-3030.
https://www.atlantapcc.org
To learn Persian language, celebrate Persian holidays such as Mehregan, Yalda and Nowruz, as well as special Province, Poetry, and Music nights.

Atlanta Persian Festival
Piedmont Park, 1320 Monroe Dr. N.E., Atlanta.
http://atlantapersianfestival.com
Annual cultural event held in spring at Piedmont Park showcasing music, ethnic food, crafts, and kids’ activities. Free to public.

Nowruz Party
Various locations.
https://www.eventbrite.com/o/bavard-entertainment-inc-15703065356
Ballroom-style ticketed event that brings together Persians, Afgans, Kurds, Turks, and whoever celebrates Nowruz. Parties organized by the Persian Cultural Center of Atlanta feature folklore dances, live performances, food, drinks, and more.

Services:

Joseph & Friends (hair salon and spa)
Five locations. www.josephandfriends.com
Started by Iranian immigrant Joseph Golshani, this multicultural, full-service salon has been around since 1989.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta

Preparing for Diwali in the A

For Creative Loafing Atlanta, October 2016. 

For South Asians living in metro Atlanta, fall is a nostalgic time of the year. It is when Hindus from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and many Caribbean islands celebrate the festival of Diwali. This auspicious event not only holds a religious significance; it’s a cultural practice. Known as the festival of lights, Diwali marks the victory of good over evil.

Though I grew up Catholic in India, I celebrated Diwali just as I would Christmas and New Years. Preparations lasted for days, as we shopped for boxes of sweets, hand-painted earthen lamps, and vibrant clothes in chaotic bazaars decorated with lights and colorful garlands for the holidays. Friends and colleagues took turns visiting each other, bringing ornate baskets filled with nuts, fruit, and candy. At night, the neighbors would compete for who had the noisiest firecrackers on the block.

After moving to Atlanta almost two decades ago, Diwali took on new meaning for me. Now, it’s just another working day (no weeklong holidays like in India), so we push the celebrations out to the weekend. But we still know how to celebrate.

TREAT YOURSELF: Rawal with a box of mitahi at Gokul Sweets

TREAT YOURSELF: Rawal with a box of mitahi at Gokul Sweets. Picture by JOEFF DAVIS

On Diwali day, which falls this year on October 30th, Hindus from all over metro Atlanta flock to one of the Indian sweet shops, known as halwai in Hindi, to purchase colorful candies called mitahi, made from ghee, condensed milk, sugar, and milk solids. Flavored with pistachio, coconut, cottage cheese, or mangoes and fragranced with cardamom, cinnamon, rose water, and saffron, mithai is an acquired taste. “It’s too sweet,” my American friends tell me, though I think it’s more delicious than fudge. I ask the shopkeeper at Gokul Sweets (763 Dekalb Industrial Way, Decatur, 404-299-2062, www.gokulsweets.com) to make me a few assorted boxes filled with multicolored circles, squares, and diamonds decorated with silver and gold foil. “Yes, the foil is edible and no, you will not get heavy metal poisoning,” I explain to my guests later that evening.

Next comes shopping for a new outfit. Many boutiques in Atlanta offer designer items imported from India and Pakistan. My favorite places to shop are Bawree at Global Mall (5675 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Norcross, 678-728-0077, www.bawree.com) for traditional party dresses and Mumtaz Fashions (763-B Dekalb Industrial Way, Decatur, 404-294-1022, www.mumtazboutique.com) for unique styles. The stores also have tailors onsite, who can custom fit a new purchase within a few hours.

During Diwali season, it is customary to gift silver coins, gold jewelry, or religious statues made of precious metals symbolizing reverence to Goddess Lakshmi, who brings wealth and prosperity. Bhindi Jewelers (1070 Oak Tree Road, Decatur, 404-325-8755, www.bhindi.com) gets really busy this time of the year, as wives drag their husbands in, demanding 22 karats. South Asian women prefer to invest in gold, passing their jewels on to their daughters as assets.

No festival is complete without an elaborate meal. Generally, we eat only vegetarian food on Diwali, out of respect for the Hindu gods. My dinner menu includes crisp samosas stuffed with spicy potatoes and cumin seeds, slow roasted gobi aloo(cauliflowers and potatoes), homemade saag paneer (spinach and diced cottage cheese), steaming daal makhni (mixed lentil stew), fluffy pooris (fried puffed bread), and gulab jamun (fried dough balls soaked in sugar syrup) for dessert.

Cherians International Groceries (751 Dekalb Industrial Way, Decatur, 404-299-0842, www.cherians.com) is one of the largest South Asian grocery stores in metro Atlanta. The place sells everything you can find in India, including idli steamers for making traditional South Indian cakes and fresh squeezed sugarcane juice. I fill my cart with readymade snacks like Bombay mix (the Indian version of Chex Mix) with spiced peanuts, rice flakes, chickpea flour noodles, and curry leaves. My friends and I nibble on it as we sip mango martinis and Kingfisher beer through the evening.

Oftentimes, we head to BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (460 Rockbridge Road N.W., Lilburn, 678-906-2277, www.baps.org) after dinner to watch a magnificent fireworks display. Gwinnett County may seem an unlikely place to find one of the world’s largest Hindu temples outside India, but that doesn’t stop the crowds from gathering to see the glowing marble and limestone temple lit by thousands of oil lamps. At home, I save fireworks from Fourth of July and light them up in my own backyard.

South Asians in the US have found a way to compensate for being thousands of miles from their families. When I arrived, I learned of Diwali melas, organized parties held at hotels and other venues to celebrate the festival as a community. Similar to New Year’s Eve galas, these include buffet dinners, drinks, live entertainment, DJ music, and more. For those of us who don’t want to go through all the trouble of decorating, cooking and entertaining, the ticket price is more than worth the small dose of home we get, at least for one special evening.

CHOICES, CHOICES: Rawal shops for mitahi at Gokul SweetsCHOICES, CHOICES: Rawal shops for mitahi at Gokul Sweets. Picture by JOEFF DAVIS.

Here are a few melas to check out this year:

&TV Atlanta Diwali Mela by Cre8tivelab

Where: Gwinnett Place Mall, 2100 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth

When: Sat., Oct. 22, 3 p.m.

Tickets here.

Punjabi Society: Diwali Dhamaka

Where: Ashiana Banquet Hall, Global Mall, 5675 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Norcross.

When: Sat., Oct. 29, 2016, 7 p.m.

Tickets here.

Bombay Lounge Diwali Party

Where: Opera Nightclub, 1150 Crescent Ave. N.E.

When: Sat., Nov. 5, 10 p.m.

Tickets here.

For Creative Loafing Atlanta, October 2016. 

Burning Questions About the Pizza Pie in Naples

For One Travel. July 2016.

Last week, I set off to Naples, Italy with only one goal – to eat pizza! One of my Italian friends forewarned me, “Once you eat in Naples, you can die and go to heaven.” Each day I bit into the warm, fresh, crispy dough, crowned with creamy, melt-in-your-mouth cheese; sweet, juicy tomatoes; and earthy basil leaves, I felt I was getting closer to heaven!

As I obsessed over the world’s greatest food, I explored its fascinating history and traditions.

 

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Click here to read the full story on One Travel 

Oslo’s Trash Gourmet – Eat Cheap at Celebrity Chef Restaurants in One of The World’s Most Expensive Cities

For CheapOAir. May 2016.

Eating out in one of the world’s most expensive cities can be quite daunting at first. In Oslo, Norway, a pint of beer can set you back $8 and a basic lunch (sandwich + coke) about $25. Even a Big Mac combo meal is $12! A nice dinner for two at an upmarket restaurant can amount to over $200. So, how would you enjoy delicious Scandinavian cuisine without exhausting your bank account while on vacation in Norway?

The concept was labeled “Trash Gourmet,” meaning the food would be equally good as at their high-end restaurants, but served without formalities and at more affordable prices.

 

Read the full story on CheapOAir Miles Away blog

What I Ate in an Igloo: Lappish Cuisine and Other Amazing Things I Discovered About Finland

For CheapOAir. April 2016.

I had seen countless pictures of Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort, the iconic igloo hotel, but being there was surreal. Even in April, the town of Ivalo was white as far as the eye could see. In forests covered in snow, reindeer peeked out from behind the trees, and the faint sound of barking Husky dogs could be heard in the background. I had arrived in Lapland, roughly 150 miles north of the Arctic circle!

As I explored this snow-covered lifestyle, a looming question remained in the back of my mind: What would Santa eat?

Read the full story on CheapOAir Miles Away 

Hummus Wars, And Other Things I Learned On My First Trip To Israel

For CheapOAir. April 2016. 

Before I headed to Israel, I was forewarned by family and friends. “Is it safe to go there?” they investigated with caution, influenced, of course, by what they had heard in the media. Nevertheless, once I started traveling through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, those worries were easily put to rest as I immersed myself in the culture and the oh-so-delicious food. One thing I can definitely say that I observed is how very passionate the Israeli people are about food. This country, which is slightly larger than the state of New Jersey, has over 70 nationalities and consequently diverse food subcultures. Like its people, the food of Israel has roots everywhere in the world.

So “What is Hummus?”

Read the full story on CheapOAir Miles Away blog