Majado for Breakfast
A Food Tale From Oakland by Way of Ecuador and Iran
Jeannette Jafarzadeh offers me a delicate porcelain teacup painted with bamboo trees. “Wait,” she says before pouring the tea, “I have to show you why this is special.” As she holds it up to the light, the face of a lovely geisha suddenly appears on the formerly white cup’s bottom. “When my father was an Ecuadorian diplomat, this was a parting gift from another diplomat.”
Jafarzadeh arranges some baklava from Middle East Market, the Berkeley store she owns with her husband and the place I first met her. We sit in her comfortable Oakland living room, and she pours out her life story along with lemon-scented green tea.
This lovely woman with the melodious voice grew up in Ecuador, the only daughter of an army colonel who, after retiring, became a diplomat. She had three brothers and was an adventure-loving tomboy, eagerly accompanying her father to train on the parachute tower with his soldiers.
“When my father became a diplomat, my parents traveled out of the country so much that they put me in a strict Catholic boarding school,” she tells me. “The food was horrible. They added this chemical to our soup: azufre. I think that’s sulfur, something old time boarding schools put in soups to make us puffy so that the parents would think we were well fed. The spoons could stand up in that soup! I’m sure it’s against the law now.”
Jafarzadeh’s expression softens as she explains the dish she missed: majado, a typical breakfast from Zaruma, the town where she was born, made with green platanos or yucca. After cooking, the platanos are smashed with a mortar and pestle, then sautéed with onions, eggs and garlic.
A few weeks after graduating high school, she headed off to Florida for college, where she encountered students from all over the world. She studied fashion design and met Mehrdad Jafarzadeh and his cousin, two handsome Persian men who started pursuing her. But she put them off because there were so many things she wanted to do first, especially travel. In 1981, at 21 years old, she accompanied her father on a diplomatic mission to Germany, then decided to go on alone to Iran to visit the family of her new Persian friends.
Asked if she had trepidation about visiting Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, she replies, “When you don’t live in war, you don’t know what it is like. I was young. I had my suitcases packed. I had adrenaline. ‘I’ll just go for two to three weeks,’ I thought. I have these Iranian men who are interested in me. I’ll go and find out what it’s like. My father is a diplomat, so what could happen?”
She entered the country at a turning point in the Iran-Iraq war, just before foreign airlines took out their last load of passengers. To her and her family’s shock, she was stuck. For two years, as she tried to find a way out of Iran, she witnessed the horrors of war and bonded with the women in her future husband’s family.
“I was staying in a house in Ghom with all these women. I learned to wear the chador and tried to blend into the culture. But before I came to Iran, I used to teach aerobics, so we put scarves and chadors in the windows and we did aerobics.”
“During my two years there, I learned by watching them cook. Because I was a foreigner, they wouldn’t let me help with the cooking. But some of the foods were a little weird for me. They would buy lamb fetus and cook it. They also made a stew of cows’ tongues. Those were delicacies.”
“I didn’t want to offend them, so I tried some things, but really at that time, I was totally vegetarian. So I ate mostly salads. One dish I really liked was something they make for weddings: rice with orange peel, carrots
“One day, the bombing got really close to Ghom, so they sent me to a farm further away, because they were worried about me. At the farm, I saw watermelons, but the ground was totally dry, clay dirt. They got the water from this salt lake so the watermelons tasted salty. I used to have them in a blend. Oh, I just remembered the smell. At 6 or 7 p.m. when it’s very hot in the desert, they made a juice blend with watermelon and cucumber and they added rosewater. I love rosewater. So every night, I would smell rosewater from all the people making these cooling juice blends. But, in the desert, they actually drink hot tea to keep cool during the heat.”
“In Iran, I also discovered pomegranates, because growing up in my country, we didn’t have any. At this farm, a man was sitting next to a huge pile of pomegranates. I remember biting into fresh pomegranate. It was so good, but I didn’t want to spit out the seeds so I ended up with a terrible stomachache.”
“During the war, they made this marvelous bread — it was round, with bubbles, like pita, but dry like a cracker so it could last for months. And they had the best feta cheese and butter. So I lived on butter, feta and this bread. But later, I realized that I was eating all this butter and cheese, and during the war, they needed coupons to buy them. That was kind of sad, and I really cut down after that. They were so sweet and respectful to me, especially, the older people.”
Her father and Persian friends engineered her escape when she was 23, and she clung to an airplane jump seat on her way to Frankfurt, in her chador, heart pounding.
On her return to Ecuador, she set up Dazzle, a center where for six years she empowered women through classes in aerobics, dance and modeling. After pursuing her for 11 years, her longtime friend, Mehrdad Jafarzadeh, showed up one day and again proposed. She finally accepted and moved to California, where Mehrdad Jafarzadeh owned two Bay Area restaurants serving California cuisine. In 2010, she convinced her husband to connect with his Persian roots, and they opened Middle East Market.
The first year, Jeannette Jafarzadeh got
up at 4 a.m. to bake all the fresh breads herself. Then she transferred these duties to bakers, who happened to be from Central America. Since at home, she cooks mostly Persian foods for her husband “lots of lamb and rice with saffron and pistachios,” during the training period, she took advantage of the opportunity to make the workers her favorite majado.
“I’ve been here 20 years and I love it, but there is something I need to do. In two years, when my daughter is off to college, I’m going back home to Ecuador and open a bed and breakfast at a ranch I own. It will be very Spanish with a water fountain and beautiful wood floors. I’ve even thought about the dishes. They won’t be like these fancy teacups; they will be clay pottery, like they use in the villages, and I’ll make my guests majado for breakfast.”