Taste of Tehran
A passion for pastries leads an Iranian immigrant to set up shop in Albany.
Monier Attar, her hands covered in plastic gloves, is wrist-deep in tabbouleh, mixing together the parsley, mint, spices, and grains of bulgur wheat. At 10 a.m., Persian music plays in the background, and Attar is at work in the kitchen of Zand’s, her Albany store and cafe, whose shelves are filled with imported teas, exotic spices, and foodstuffs from across the Middle East.
In a daily ritual, she prepares the Persian and Mediterranean dishes her diners will enjoy later. Multitasking, she chops pickles for chicken salad, answers the phone, sells feta and canned grape leaves to a customer, and heats up vegetarian lentil soup like the kind her mother made when the weather was cold. After filling the deli case with salads, Attar arranges flaky cubes of her Persian pistachio baklava on the counter. Glancing at the photos of exquisitely decorated cakes on her wall, she sighs, “It’s too bad I don’t have time to make these French pastries any more. I have a list of people who love them and want me to call them if I ever do.”
French pastry launched Attar’s life in food in her native Iran, where she owned one of the first French pastry shops in Tehran in the late 1970s. On several trips to Paris, she learned to make the elegant Napoleons, éclairs, and cream puffs that delighted customers in cosmopolitan Tehran.
Everything changed with the Iranian revolution in 1979. Mullahs came to her shop, repeatedly demanding she wear the veil and require all her female employees and customers to do the same. “Uniformed guards with guns closed the shop a few times,” says Attar, “I begged them not to and promised to cover up. But I never did. So they finally put a huge lock on the door and told me I could not operate my business anymore.”
In 1984, jobless and fed up with the government, Attar left Iran with her two young children for California, where a few family members lived, but it was too late to get a visa through any European country. In desperation, she bought three plane tickets to São Paulo, Brazil.
“I took my Iranian business license to the Brazilian embassy, and I told them I’m going to Brazil for business. In the plane, my kids had a hard time about leaving. But I’m so lucky that there is a happy ending to my story. My son is now an international banker in Shanghai. He is fluent in Mandarin. My daughter is the general manager of a 24 Hour Fitness and has two beautiful daughters.”
“But sitting on that plane,” Attar continues, “I wondered what the hell I was doing. I didn’t know anyone in São Paulo. The plane stopped in Germany, and the first thing I did was buy a beer and some bananas. Alcohol and foreign goods, including bananas, had been prohibited under the Islamic government.”
Arriving in Brazil at midnight and speaking no Portuguese, Attar encountered a series of setbacks: A taxi driver drove her around for an hour when her hotel was actually across the street; then half her money was stolen. And several days later, an intimidating official sternly interrogated her at the U.S. Embassy.
“I thought she would never give me a visa. The three hours I had to wait for the decision were the longest three hours in my life. But when I came back, and the woman said, ‘Here’s your visa and congratulations,’ I’ll never ever forget that moment. My kids and I jumped up and down.” After moving in with her aunt in Emeryville, Attar looked for work. Even though she had owned a fancy French bakery in Tehran, she had to start all over. Her first job was scooping cookie dough at Cookie Magoo’s in Berkeley where she survived a holdup during her first month. “I didn’t know that in American culture, you’re supposed to give the robber all the money—I thought I would get fired for that.” But instead of firing her, her boss was so pleased with her work that he promoted her to manager. Eventually, she worked for Mrs. Fields Cookies and Harry the Baker on Solano Avenue.
“Later, when my father came for a visit, he asked, ‘Why are you working for other people when you should be working for yourself?’ My dad always had the guts to take risks—and good business sense, too. That was my inheritance from him. He helped me find a store, and I opened a small Middle East market down the street from here in 1988.”
Attar says she enjoyed running her own store, but missed the food she grew up eating in Iran. “In the U.S., people eat hamburgers, pizza, Mexican food, or in upscale restaurants. I love Italian and all kinds of food, but when you grow up with something, it’s hard for you to change. So when I expanded my business in 2001, the first thing I did was add Persian food.”
Attar planned to serve Persian specialties like kookoo sabzi, a jade green, herbed omelet, and kotlet, a ground meat patty made with potatoes and onions, but wanted to enlarge her menu to include Mediterranean foods. “Spanakopita and tabbouleh I knew how to make, but I needed recipes for hummus and baba ghanoush.”
The woman she approached for recipes wanted to charge her thousands of dollars, so she studied several cookbooks and experimented until she came up with the versions she serves today.
Another customer enters and orders a falafel sandwich to go. Attar heats up oil ina well-used saucepan and sprinkles sesame fseeds into the grainy mixture and tells me how she searched for the best falafel in the Bay Area. The best she found was made by an 85-year old woman who ran a tiny shop in San Francisco. However, the woman refused to divulge her recipe and would only sell Attar a prepackaged mix. Even though it was expensive, Attar agreed to buy the mix, but she asked what it contained in case people might be allergic to something. The canny old woman listed the ingredients but omitted a crucial one. Attar took home two 25-pound bags of mix and fried falafels for weeks, but somehow they always came out like rocks, until the clever cook and pastry chef figured out the missing secret ingredient—one Attar also refuses to disclose—needed to produce fluffy golden orbs. The falafel at Zand’s are so popular that Attar estimates she has served about a million falafel balls.
She drops scoops of her falafel mix into the hot oil bath that erupts with lively bubbles. “I don’t call myself a chef,” says Attar, “because I didn’t go to any school, but I create a lot of recipes by myself. I even changed traditional Persian recipes to use less oil so they are healthier and easier to digest.”
After serving the customer her sandwich, Attar restocks the boxes of flower-shaped chickpea-flour cookies that she carries year-round. They are especially popular as springtime approaches.
Every year in March, Zand’s attracts a steady stream of Persian community members from as far away as Sacramento who come to stock up on the special ingredients for the Persian Festival of Nowruz. An elegant table is set with seven elements that start with ‘s’ in Farsi, like crushed sumac and sprouted wheat. This ancient holiday celebrates the moment when the sun crosses the celestial equator on the first day of spring.
“After I close my shop,” Attar says, pouring me a glass of tea, “I will teach Persian and Mediterranean cooking classes. People have been asking me to do that for the past 25 years. I don’t want my customers to be disappointed and miss us. This way they can make these foods themselves.”
Zand’s, 1401 Solano Ave., Albany, 510-528-7027, www.zandpastry.com