By Persis Karim & Alexa Rae Barger
Hanif Sadr is one of the many Iranians who originally came to the United States for an advanced degree in engineering. However, his career was “accidentally” interrupted by food. While waiting to begin his master’s program, he got a short-term job cooking at Golestan Kids, a preschool in Berkeley. It was there that he fell in love with the idea of becoming a chef and serving the cuisine of his native north Iran in the Bay Area, which he now serves at the popular pop-up restaurant Komaaj. According to Sadr, Komaaj is the only Northern Iranian cuisine restaurant in the Bay Area and perhaps in the entire state of California.
“I’m so happy I got over being an engineer,” he adds, laughing.
Sadr was born in France and raised in Tehran, save for two influential years spent in northern Iran. His family comes from the Gilan province of Iran, which lies along the Caspian Sea. He studied materials engineering and came to the United States in 2012 to pursue a master’s degree. In an unexpected turn of events, the graduate program closed the summer before his first semester.
“I watched hours of YouTube cooking videos and repeatedly called home to Baaji Khanoom, our longtime family cook, who helped me with Iranian recipes,” Sadr recalls.
Seven years later, Sadr entices people to come to his pop-up restaurant and events multiple times a month with luscious, vegetable-centered dishes – including some that many Iranians from major cities have never tried before. “I’m interested in sharing the food of northern Iran with Americans but also with Iranians in the diaspora,” he says. “Much of the food cooked in Iranian homes, whether in the north or the south, are based on the foods grown or available in the region. Kabab and rice is only one of Iran’s many dishes.” Some of the dishes offered at Komaaj include Sadr’s signature kuku sabzi, a kind of frittata made with cilantro, parsley, dill, chives, eggs and barberries, and anaarbij meatballs, a dish served with walnut, herbs, and pomegranate molasses stew.
Sadr also offers Caspian Tea Parties, which are usually held at an herb shop in Berkeley. There, he serves up delectable tea blends and treats that include borage flower and his famous komaaj, a sugar-free pastry made with rice flour and saffron, served with orange syrup and pistachios. The name of this dessert is reflected both in the name of his restaurant and his company. Through the company, Sadr also sells a number of products, including marinated olive and herb pastes. He will soon expand with a line of teas.
Sadr finds that the Berkeley Hills are surprisingly similar to the lush landscape of Northern Iran; he says that it makes him feel right at home. “I loved Berkeley immediately because it reminded me of Gilan—the green hills, the proximity to the ocean, the ability to forage for herbs and flowers in the hills,” he says.
Sadr enjoys cooking, but he especially enjoys the way that it can change people’s perceptions of a place. With food, he wants to share more than the just the taste, but also the place, the people, and the rich history.
“All the problems between Iran and the United States in the past 40 years,” says Sadr, “that’s one of the main reasons I do what I do. Our goal is to have people feel connected to the whole of Persian culture through food. If we can do that, our work will be a success.”
In the years that he’s been doing his pop-up kitchen, Hanif observes, “people love the atmosphere we create. We tell them about the food, about the special recipes of Northern Iran, and, inevitably, I tell them a lot about Gilan and its unique landscape, culture, and cuisine. I have a chance to give them a different perception of Iran and to point to the richness of Iran’s more rural region and its traditions.”
We would like to thank Hanif Sadr and the Komaaj staff for the wonderful food we had at the March 30th closing reception for the “Forty Years & More” Conference at the Minnesota Street Project where we opened the exhibition “Once at Present.” Sadr catered all the subsequent artist talks for “Once at Present” and the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies was proud to feature the food of Komaaj at all our events associated with the conference. To learn more about the conference, go to: http://cids.sfsu.edu/40-years-and-more.
To learn more about Sadr’s restaurant and work, go to: http://www.komaaj.com.