Wild About Saffron (And Tumeric)
Tue, 04/05/2011
Jewish Week Book Critic
Spice rack: Reynah Simnegar has developed a taste for sumac, cumin and cardamom.
Spice rack: Reynah Simnegar has developed a taste for sumac, cumin and cardamom.

W hen her new Persian relatives told her that she’d never be able to learn to make dolmeh, stuffed grape leaves, Reynah Simnegar grew determined to prepare this staple of Persian cuisine. She brought her husband’s grandmother into the kitchen and insisted that she not leave until she taught her. Although the older woman didn’t speak much English and Reyna didn’t understand Farsi, they worked together until Reyna mastered the “little bundles of joy.”

The wedding guest fingered the flowers tentatively. “I think they’re fake,” she said, her “Persians love their food and they love to make their food mysterious,” Simnegar says, and she goes a long way towards demystifying the foods that Persians have lovingly made for generations in her new book, “Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride: And Other Kosher Sephardic Recipes You Will Love” (Feldheim). While variations on recipes for Persian dishes have been published in magazines and books, this may be the first full-scale kosher Persian cookbook.

 

Shirazi Shabbat Stew
(serves 8)
½ cup red kidney beans
½ cup lentils
½ cup mung beans
or green split peas
2 turnips, peeled and quartered
½ small red cabbage, shredded
(about 2 cups)

½ cup American rice or barley
3 eggs, whole (optional)
1 pound stewed meat
6 cups water, or more as needed
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon turmeric


1. About 4 hours before Shabbat, place the kidney beans, lentils, mung
beans or green split peas, turnips, cabbage, rice, meat and eggs
(if using) into a 6-quart slow cooker.
2. Add 6 cups water, salt, pepper and turmeric.
3. Cook on high, covered, until right before Shabbat starts.
4. Before lighting Shabbat candles, check seasoning. Add more water
if the water has mostly cooked out and the stew looks dry. Turn heat
to low, and cook until Shabbat lunch (about 18 to 20 hours.)

 

Her palette of spices includes turmeric, saffron, cardamom, sumac, cumin and baharat, along with dehydrated lime, mint, rose water and pomegranate syrup. The full-color, full-page photographs accompanying each recipe provide visual inspiration for cooks beginning to experiment with this cuisine. In striking style, the finished dishes are arranged on beautiful platters and sometimes set on Persian carpets. Simnegar’s own anecdotes and experiences, along with explanations of Persian traditions, provide the chapter openings and introductions to the recipes.

This is not the story of an Ashkenazi woman learning to cook Sephardic style, shifting from Yiddish to Persian, from kugel to tadig, golden-crusted rice. Reyna Simnegar’s cultural leap was even wider. She grew up far from Poland and Persia, in Caracas, Venezuela, speaking Spanish, in a close-knit Catholic home. That this homecoming queen of her Catholic high school would now be an Orthodox Jew — married to a Persian husband, the mother of five sons and preparing Shabbat feasts every week for about 30 guests — sounds like the magical realism of a Latin American novelist. And her story becomes even more intriguing when you consider she is the descendant of hidden Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition.

In an interview, Simnegar recalls that she grew up particularly close to her mother’s family, which lived very close by, and that her father’s relatives always did things a bit differently. For one, they didn’t go to church for mass on Sundays, but rather had mass in their own home, conducted informally by an uncle who was a priest. She remembers that on a Saturday when she was 12, they visited her father’s family and she noticed some men in all black standing outside. Her father told her the men were Jews and that this was a Jewish neighborhood. When she later asked her Aunt Sarah, who lived with her grandparents, if she knew about their neighborhood, the aunt revealed that the family had been Jewish before the Inquisition and pointed out that their names — Sarah, Izak — were Jewish names. Their family name, Perez, had been changed from its more traditional Jewish spelling, Peres, to help them blend in.

A few years later, when she saw the film “Schindler’s List” and noticed people putting small stones atop a tombstone, she recognized that act as one of the mysterious things her father did when visiting the cemetery even though he didn’t know why. She then became determined to learn as much as she could about Judaism.

“I was completely obsessed,” she says. When she contacted a rabbi in Caracas and told him her story and that she wanted to convert, he said she was too young and tried to dissuade her. At college, she became friendly with some Jewish students who urged her to go to America. She convinced her parents to let her go to Los Angeles to study English for a few months, and she stayed. She explored different synagogues and learned about them, felt most drawn to Orthodoxy and began to study, explaining that she was “so thirsty for it.” She was then barely 18. The local Chabad rabbi was welcoming but tried to dissuade her too, but she found an Orthodox shul she liked near the UCLA campus.

At the time, she was studying interior design and working at a Taco Bell, where she met her husband-to-be, who was her customer. Sammy Simnegar was born in Shiraz, and moved to Los Angeles with his extended traditional Jewish family. He got to know Reyna during her conversion process, and he too began studying and became Orthodox. When he moved to New York City for graduate school, she moved there as well. But before she left Los Angeles, his mother began teaching her future daughter-in-law to cook the Persian dishes her son loved (and, as Reyna explains, to be sure he wouldn’t starve outside of their community).

“I love Persian food,” she says. “And now I love a Persian. So I had to learn to cook the food.” While some might say that’s it’s impossible for an outsider to have a real affinity for Persian tastes, she’s proven them wrong. She says that her Venezuelan background, where she was exposed to many cuisines and their distinctive flavors, helped her to adapt and compromise. Now, her in-laws enjoy her cooking, and, since she turned to several Persian cooks for their recipes, her repertoire has grown larger than their own.

In recent years, she began writing down her recipes, codifying instructions like “Add a bit of salt, but not too much.” She compiled ten recipes and with her interior designer’s eye created a beautiful booklet, which she would share with friends. As the mother of five sons (ages 2 ½ to 10), she was also thinking of her future daughters-in-law, who would have to learn this cuisine too. That booklet eventually grew into this book. She is donating all of the proceeds to charity.

Persians breathe rice, she says. Her recipes feature many varieties of rice — sticky white rice, steamed rice or rice with a crispy crust — with all sorts of toppings, whether savory like lima beans and dill, or sweet, with dried cranberries and saffron. “Do not overcook Persian rice or your reputation as a Persian cook will suffer,” she writes.

Also included are recipes for every course, with Joojeh, chicken, Kebab that gets a special “kick” from lime, and Chale Bibi, Shirazi Shabbat Stew, whose name literally means “aunt and grandmother,” suggesting that there’s a bit of everything in this stew — beans, lentils, cabbage, meat, turmeric — or that everyone will be getting together to partake of it. I’ve tried Ash’e Reshte, Persian Noodle Soup, with success, but haven’t yet made Gondy, Persian Matzah Balls, which are prepared with ground beef, chicken or turkey, with chickpea flower and cardamom.

Simnegar says that traditionally, Persian women stood in the kitchen all day, making everything from scratch, preparing dishes with intricate steps, all the while enjoying themselves and the company of other women. Realizing that many women don’t want to spend that much time, she uses some shortcuts in her recipes and buys items like pomegranate paste. Confidently, she says that one can prepare a Shabbat dinner Persian style in the same time it would take to make an Ashkenazi-style meal.

“I f I can do this with five kids pulling at my skirt, anyone can,” she says. She has also adopted the Persian spirit of hospitality, mixed with her Latin American nature, and frequently hosts many guests for feast-like meals.

Now, Simnegar is fully accepted by her in-laws and extended family. And it helps that she has given birth to five sons. She has also learned another of their Persian traditions, belly dancing. Recently, she hosted some mariachi musicians to celebrate her parents becoming U.S. citizens. When she lights candles on Friday nights, her grandmother’s candelabra, with its traces and tears of Spanish-Jewish history, stands next to her.