By Persis Karim
For Aisan Hoss and Mehdi Parnia, kuku is more than just a favorite Persian dish. It is their livelihood and the way they’ve participated in and shared their Iranian diaspora experience. For “the King and Queen of Kuku,” the informal name I’ve dubbed this husband and wife team, (founders and owners of Bay Area Oyna Natural Foods), kuku has been how they’ve found their way in the San Francisco Bay Area as recent immigrants from Iran. Kuku was also the means by which Hoss has been able to fulfill her lifelong dream of performing and teaching dance without the fear of violating the law or of being arrested. Hoss is a dancer and choreographer from Tehran, Iran. She started studying and performing Iranian dances at the age of twelve. While studying Business Management in Tehran, she attended a study-abroad English language program in London where she first encountered contemporary dance. She became drawn to the form’s unlimited possibilities for individual self-expression and experimentation. After graduating, she moved to London to pursue a career in contemporary dance and completed a one-year diploma followed by a BA in Dance Theatre. This led her to study choreography and dance pedagogy, and to return to Iran where she spent a year teaching contemporary dance; but her growing passion for dance also led her from Iran to the Bay Area.
Hoss and Parnia arrived in the Bay Area six years ago after struggling to make a living in an Iranian economy crippled by high unemployment and the effect of sanctions. Parnia had trained as a construction engineer, and Hoss, as a dancer/choreographer. Both of them worked hard in Iran, but their eventual decision to come to the United States was encouraged by Hoss’s father who was concerned about the risks she was taking in teaching dance in her home. Teaching and performance of dance are not only discouraged, but also prohibited by Islamic law. Hoss decided to apply to and eventually got accepted into a choreography program at Mills College in Oakland, California. Since then she has established her company, Aisan Hoss and Dancers, and has been producing Iranian/contemporary dance pieces that explore diverse human themes through sharing stories and drawing on aesthetics from the Middle East and Iran. Hoss’s passion for dance and choreography has been a means for exploring her identity as an Iranian living outside of her native country. Several of the pieces she has choreographed explore how the physical distance from Iran provides a deeper sense of intimacy with it. “When I immigrated, the meaning of dance changed from ‘movement’ to so much more for me,” says Hoss. Her primary choreographic objective is to create joy within darkness. Her current project, “Nuance: An Immigration Story,” will be performed on Saturday, November 16 at Mills College in Oakland. (More information and ticket link here).
Behind the dance and the dancer is the story of an entrepreneurial immigrant spirit and their budding kuku business. When they first arrived in California and Hoss began school, Parnia couldn’t work as he had had not yet secured a work visa. To make ends meet, he worked with an Iranian-American acquaintance he’d met in Iran. That friend was selling organic natural foods from his family’s business at the Marin County Farmer’s Market. Parnia got the idea for making and selling kuku by seeing all the different foods sold there, particularly those that were made with healthy, organic ingredients and emphasized ethnic flavors. “That was the beginning of Oyna Natural Foods,” says Parnia. For the past two years, they’ve been making four types of kuku to sell at five different Bay Area Farmer’s Markets every week. And, last year, with the assistance of a food incubator program, they’ve managed to launch their product on a larger scale in pre-packaged single-serve kuku at large grocery chains like Whole Foods and Berkeley Bowl. But more than just serving up good kuku, Parnia, is interested in a food revolution. “We want to make kuku the next hummus,” he adds with a smile.
Although there are a variety of kuku recipes, the most widely known and cooked is the kuku sabzi (herb kuku). Kuku isn’t exactly a main dish, but for Hoss and Parnia it’s a reminder of that good food can be adapted to new cultural and geographic environments, especially health-conscious Californians. “Kuku can be eaten by itself or with yogurt or inside bread,” says Parnia. “It’s so healthy and so delicious and many of our customers tell us that they’ve never tasted anything like it.” The Oyna Natural Foods website defines kuku as “Kuku—a Persian-style frittata” and states: The difference between a Kuku and a frittata is that a Kuku contains a lot less egg. Kukus have over 70% herbs and vegetables, bound with organic eggs and garbanzo flour, baked with olive oil. They are gluten and wheat-free.” The Oyna Foods website shows four varieties of kuku (sabzi “greens”, veggie, potato, and spinach) that they prepare at a local nonprofit incubator kitchen called “La Cocina” that helps immigrants start food businesses throughout the Bay Area. The two spent months and months perfecting recipes in their home kitchen that Hoss’s mother gave her and had their friends sample them. “We’re making a really delicious and innovative food and introducing Iranian flavors to Americans.”
Hoss and Parnia agree that not everyone has been so open and eager. “At first we had a sign up that said, “try kuku- a delicious food from Iran.” Some people made negative comments to our face, but we still encouraged them to try it.” Parnia and Hoss say that they are not setting out to change their customers’ minds about Iran, but frequently when customers try kuku for the first time, they begin to ask questions about the food and culture of Iran. “Food always softens people,” says Parnia. “If even a little crack of openness towards our country happens with the flavor of this food, we’ll be happy,” Hoss added. And, if Hoss and her dancers can share a little bit of her culture and identity through her dance, that too makes both of them happy.