Mehregan: The Persian Festival of Autumn (Well, At Least in the OC)

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Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I never attended any annual Mehregan events. Everyone knew about the big one in Orange County, but there has never been much else for celebration-hungry Iranians to attend. Mehregan is upon us again, and it still doesn’t look like there’s much to celebrate outside of southern California.So what is Mehregan, anyway? Though most Iranians are familiar with Mehregan, unlike Norooz, it is not celebrated by all and is mainly regarded a Zoroastrian holiday. In recent years, though, more Iranians have begun to take an interest and the celebration is undergoing a revival among the community, regardless of faith.

According to Wikipedia, Mehregan is a more than 2,000-year old Zoroastrian festival celebrated in honor of Mitra, the divinity of covenant, or the Goddess of Light. Some sources say it was a day of victory when angels helped Fereydoun and Kaveh become victorious over Zahak. Yet others say Mehregan is the day when the concept of Adam and Eve was created, and finally, it could be the day when the sun was created.

Whatever its mysterious origins are, the holiday has come to represent friendship and love. Among Zoroastrians and many other Iranians, Mehregan is celebrated today by gathering with friends and giving thanks to the harvest, handing out food to the poor, preparing and eating traditional dishes like ajil and aash, and ending the festivities with bonfires and fireworks.

And if you happen to live in Orange County, Mehregan means a huge two-day celebration on October 13 and 14 featuring folk dance groups, the ever-flourishing petri dish of Persian pop singers, a naghali performance, and traditional music ensembles. More than 20,000 people attend each year, and it has me wishing Iranians outside of southern California would organize something on a similar scale for the other community enclaves. Until then, I think I’ll begin observing a little Mehregan celebration of my own each year. Friendship and love – certainly those are concepts worthy of celebration, no?

(Editor’s note: Please leave a comment if you know of other upcoming Mehregan celebrations, and we’ll add it here!)

[Photo: ariaaboom.com]

Beyond Persia’s “Celluloid” in San Francisco

Beyond Persia Celluloid

They’ve only been around for about a year, but Beyond Persia is already making waves in the Bay Area with their frequent arts and culture events. Their latest offering is Celluloid, a film and photography exhibit running at Gallery One in San Francisco through September 8. The event includes prominent Iranian-American artists Shadi Yousefian, Sara Rahbar, Dustin Ellis, and Ahmad Kiarostami, among others.

Beyond Persia’s mission is to “provide a venue for contemporary Iranian-American artists an opportunity to show-case, promote and sell their art to the public who are interested in collecting and acquiring art produced by Iranians living outside Iran.” To this end, the artists come from diverse backgrounds and all walks of life, collectively carving a new niche in Iranian-American art. To learn more about the artists, visit Beyond Persia’s events page.

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs

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Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran is one of those books that I had on my reading list for what seemed like ages, always meaning to read it but never quite getting around to it. That is, until I borrowed it from a friend who had asked me to let her know if it was any good before she gave it a go.

I’m glad I did, and while memoirs of Iran have been all the rage these past few years, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs is one of the few to provide an account of life in Iran from a foreigner’s perspective. De Bellaigue is, after all, a British writer for the Economist, living in Tehran and married to an Iranian woman. The result of this perspective is a refreshing angle on Iran’s history and its social ramifications that steers clear of the romanticism that so easily befalls some Iranians when writing about their homeland.

In the Rose Garden is not a true memoir as its title may suggest; it is rather a blend of personal experience and history, sometimes reading as a travel journal and at times as journalistic report. It draws heavily from the personal wartime narratives of Iranians de Bellaigue comes across throughout the country, emphasizing primarily the gruesome Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the subsequent changes in Iranian society, namely the loss of revolutionary zeal. In traveling the country, he listens to Iranians from all walks of life tell their story, be they war veterans, journalists, artists, clerics or bureaucrats. The general idea is to focus on a handful of experiences that reflect a bigger picture in the collective Iranian experience.

De Bellaigue’s writing carries with it a richness that stems from his opinion that history is indeed still alive for Iranians and it is precisely this history that has shaped Iran’s contemporary social paradoxes of old versus new, private versus public, and east versus west. Yet despite his sometimes opinionated commentary, he steers clear of overt political analysis and instead sticks to a narrative of Iran’s social complexities. While In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs may not be a memoir in the true sense of the word, it is certainly a revealing and realistic look into life in modern Iran.

Adventures in Online Iranian Food Shopping


(photo: Kalamala.com)

by Mariam Hosseini

Faloodeh, albaloo, zoolbiya, toot, gaz, zereshk (pictured) – are you drooling yet? You should be. Every Iranian has their favorite ingredient, that ubiquitous flavor that brings memories rushing back. Unless you’re actually in Iran, you may not be able to get your hands on zoghal akhteh or chaghaleh badoom anytime, but for the rest of us there is online shopping.

When I started looking around online to see what I could find in terms of Iranian grocery shopping, I was a little taken aback. For all the web savvy Iranians boast, there are only two veritable, complete sources for those shopping outside Iran: Sadaf and Kalamala (which is where the photo of zereshk above comes from). Sadaf itself is a food brand, so any shopping you do on their site is limited to their trademark. While Kalamala carries other brands too, the majority of their inventory is still Sadaf. Looks like someone has the market cornered.

Both have clear, easy to navigate layouts, making for easy shopping. Kalamala wins on the design front but neither site requires genius to add something to your cart. The downside to your shopping experience is that for both sites, you must create an account to shop. Although that isn’t too surprising, I was hoping not to add to my ever-increasing list of registration usernames and passwords.

Sadaf and Kalamala each have a specials section, meaning you can score your million-gallon tin of Iranian pickles for only $5.99 at Kalamala. Good luck getting it in the fridge. Sadaf’s sale section is larger, offering, among other things, a jar of kashk, a box of gaz, and a pound of tea, all for under $6 each.

I can’t say I recommend one site more than the other. Sadaf easily has a larger variety of foodstuffs (they even carry golpar!), but Kalamala doesn’t limit you to one brand. Both carry the essentials – torshi, sohaan, pomegranate molasses, dried limes, dried mint, sumac, and the like. The downside to Sadaf is that their sweets selection is not as varied as Kalamala’s. And both sources have a nonexistent bread selection. If you’re craving naan barbari or sangak, good luck. Neither carries fresh dairy products like feta or maast-o mooseer, and you can forget about fresh items like gojeh sabz, fresh pistachios, or those, ahem, special cuts of meat that hold a revered place in Iranian cuisine. Save those cravings for your trip to Iran (or Los Angeles).

The upside? Sadaf carries seeds so you can grow your own Iranian chives (tareh), watercress (shaahi), and sweet basil (reyhaan). They even carry Iranian-style skewers so you can finally make that kabaab koobideh the right way. Kalamala has a good tea selection – not just Sadaf brand, but Ahmad and Zarin too. If you have a taste for qottab, nazook, or goosh-e fil, they’re the place to shop. Kalamala and Sadaf both carry lots of ready-made khoreshs and spice blends, though they’re all Sadaf brand.

Just in case you’re looking for a more mainstream, well-recognized name at which to do your Iranian shopping, Kalustyan’s carries a number of Iranian products [Editor’s note: The site was down when we posted this article.]. There is no breakdown by country, but their search function makes it easy to find some Iranian items like chickpea cookies, toot, aloo, and gaz. The biggest downside aside from carrying only a few Iranian items is the price. Gourmet shopping comes with a gourmet cost.

Regardless of who you shop with, you’ll probably be exhausted after all that online decision-making. You’ll need something to refresh you. Something cold and sweet. And JOY OF ALL JOYS, Mashti Malone’s takes orders now. Rosewater saffron ice cream with pistachios? Enough said. For those craving something a little less traditional, they carry other flavors, like pomegranate sorbet and Turkish coffee ice cream. My only complaint is that they do not carry faloodeh.

So go forth and shop, cook, and eat. Revisit the tastes and smells that make Iranian cuisine so unique. Just make sure to practice restraint or the next thing you know you’ll be doubled over with a stomachache from too much cold (sard) or warm (garm) foods. And go easy on the lavashak. That stuff can be addictive.

Mariam Hosseini lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works in the nonprofit arena and pursues ethnic cooking in her spare time. She received her MA and BA in international relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern and Iranian affairs. Her website is (re)definition.