Sometimes memories of home come in unexpected places. For chef Hanif Sadr of Komaaj, it was in Tilden Park, where he discovered Persian hogweed among the Berkeley Hills.
The discovery couldn't have come at a better time for Sadr, who had recently moved from Iran to the Bay Area for a graduate program in engineering. During the summer before graduate school started, he took a job as an outdoor educator at Golestan, a Persian language preschool in Berkeley. But just before his graduate program was about to start, Sadr learned that it had been cancelled. Shortly thereafter, Golestan's chef quit, and Sadr was asked if he wanted to take over.
Sadr grew up in a food-oriented family in Iran, partly in Tehran and partly in his family's home region of Northern Iran. His family owned multiple farms, and as a kid, he'd juice crates of oranges every day so his family could enjoy fresh orange juice with their lunch. As a university student, he found himself preparing far more elaborate meals than his peers. But Sadr had never considered a career as a chef until the opportunity presented itself in Berkeley.
Finding Persian hogweed was a pivotal moment for Sadr, once he realized that Berkeley and Northern Iran weren't as different as one might think. After all, Sadr pointed out, Berkeley and Northern Iran lie at similar latitudes, and many Iranian ingredients like walnuts and pomegranates also grow in Northern California.
These similarities inspired Sadr to start Komaaj, which began as a series of pop-up dinners using local, seasonal produce to highlight the cuisine of Northern Iran — a cuisine that's rarely seen in restaurants in the West. Most Persian restaurants in the States focus on kebabs, rice, and a handful of stews. Sadr wanted to bring Northern Iranian cuisine to American palates for what would be the first time for many.
Sadr also seeks to preserve the traditional foodways of his home region, and he returns to Northern Iran two to three times a year to study the local cuisine. "I know local cooks, local farmers, local foragers, bakers, shepherds. I spend time with them, try to document what they do, because it's disappearing very fast," Sadr said.
"Younger generations don't want to continue the farming or animal keeping traditions at all, because they all want to go to live in a big city and be an engineer or a doctor," Sadr explained. "The crafts like baking and weaving and preserving ... are being forgotten."
This August, Sadr took a hiatus from pop-up dinners to open Komaaj's first brick-and-mortar location, which serves an all-day menu inside the recently opened Cafenated Coffee Company in North Berkeley. The coffee shop is bright and airy, and a spacious back patio and garden with plenty of tables awaits customers on sunny days. Alongside a menu of lattes, cappuccinos, and cold brew, you'll also find a menu of Northern Iranian dishes translated for the fast-casual cafe.
I started with a small plate of cucumber and herbs, made with sliced Persian cucumbers and a salty fermented paste of cilantro and mint known as dalar, a condiment traditionally spread on fresh fruit or vegetables. Here, Sadr said, he's turned it into a "salad bowl" concept and topped the crunchy, refreshing cucumbers with barberries (traditionally used in Iranian food, though not often as a garnish with dalar) and golden safflower petals for a colorful, artistic presentation.
Next was the kuku sabzi, listed on the menu as an herb frittata. Sadr's version consisted mostly of herbs, including a sharp, fragrant blend of parsley, cilantro, dill, and chives, lightly bound together by egg. The labneh on the side was a refreshing, creamy counterpart to the bright green frittata. The plate also came with a warm whole-wheat sesame-studded Iranian flatbread called sangak, which added nuttiness to the dish.
I also enjoyed the bean and dill stew, a comforting, warming dish of al dente white beans blended with a generous amount of fresh dill and garlic. A squeeze of lemon brightened up the dish, and sangak on the side was perfect for scooping up the beans.
For the entrée-sized options, Sadr turns traditional Northern Iranian dishes into what he calls a "rice bowl" format. The fish and herbed rice dish included a piece of pomegranate-glazed smoked trout, which had a texture similar to smoked salmon and a flavor that was salty, sweet, and tangy. It was accompanied by crumbly goat cheese, a runny-yolked poached egg, thinly sliced and lightly pickled cucumbers, radishes, and carrots, a smattering of fresh dill, and a handful of greens, all of which made for a choose-your-own-adventure eating experience — a bite of pickle here, a bite of goat cheese there. I also loved the green herbed rice, made with plain long-grain rice combined with smoked rice (typical of Northern Iran) for just a hint of smoky flavor.
I also enjoyed the walnut and eggplant stew, a dark, thick stew that blended roasted eggplant, walnuts, tomatoes, and onions for a smoky, satisfying dish that also happened to be vegan. On top were carrots roasted in pomegranate molasses, giving the dish an earthy sweetness. The turmeric rice on the side was fluffy and flavorful.
Be sure to try a piece of the namesake komaaj cake. Each region of Iran makes komaaj differently, Sadr said. He grew up eating his grandmother's Northern Iranian version, made with rice flour (gluten-free!) and sweetened only with honey. At Komaaj, he flavors it with a combination of saffron, preferred by his grandmother and many upper-class Iranians, and turmeric, preferred in the more rustic versions. On top was a delicate drizzle of honey and a scattering of dried rose petals. The cake had a bit of sweetness and the crumb was airy and light.
Sadr has a lot planned for Komaaj. Following Komaaj's soft opening at Cafenated, he resumed dinner pop-ups last week. At Cafenated, he plans to start a more formal sit-down dinner service in January. In April, he'll be part of a new restaurant-market in Oakland called Calabash, which will focus on cuisines that are under-represented in the Bay Area, including Afro-Caribbean, Malaysian, and Persian. Sadr also runs a nonprofit, Komaaj Project Inc., through which he's currently wrapping up an hour-long documentary on Northern Iranian cuisine and culture.
At Komaaj, Sadr is more than a chef — he's also a cultural ambassador. Unlike the pop-up dinners, where Sadr converses with every guest, visitors at Cafenated might not get the chance to talk to Sadr in person. But at Cafenated, he's exposing a broader audience to Northern Iranian food than ever before. Sadr doesn't like to talk about politics directly, but he hopes that food will be the start to building relationships across cultures. Maybe an herb frittata or a piece of komaaj cake will be the start of something bigger.
"Now is a very critical time — all the problems between the countries," Sadr said. "Through sharing these details around the table through food, you can connect people. ... Now, we really need to have a platform to open a conversation."