Persian cuisine is culture for Naz Deravian. It’s as important as literature or art or music.
Born in Tehran, raised in North Vancouver, the Los Angeles-based actress and food blogger has written a new book, Bottom of the Pot – Persian Recipes and Stories, that makes the connections between food and everything else.
The book’s title refers to tahdig, a crispy, golden layer of rice that’s created on the bottom of a pot in Persian home-cooked meals and one of the cherished tastes of her childhood.
Up until the age of eight Deravian led a conventional happy-go-lucky existence in Iran.
“It was as regular a childhood as it would be perhaps anywhere else in the world,” she says. “There were summer vacations with grandparents and gathering around our kitchen table at home until it wasn’t. Until it all got pulled apart.
“We were there for the revolution although I was very young these are the kinds of memories you don’t forget. I call these flashes of memories that are set deep.”
Deravian attended Lonsdale Elementary, Carson Graham Secondary and studied theatre at UBC moving to L.A. after she graduated. Married with two young children she has many acting credits since moving south and also writes a Persian food blog, Bottom of the Pot.
She spoke to the North Shore News about growing up in North Vancouver and the eternal search for the perfect bite.
North Shore News: Your family had a strong connection with Italy.
Naz Deravian: My parents actually met in Italy. They were both university students in Rome when they met and they got married there and they had my brother there but eventually went back to Iran and had me. Rome was like a second home for us.
North Shore News: How did your family end up in Vancouver?
Naz Deravian: We were in Rome after the revolution and unfortunately my parents had given up their Italian residency at that point. There wasn’t a way to renew it and so began a hunt for a new home, immigration, and we were fortunate to be accepted by Canada.
There were other Iranian expat families – maybe three other families with us in Rome – and the one ahead of us went to Vancouver. That’s just the way things go – you follow each other. There’s comfort in that. They went to Vancouver and we chose Vancouver also because the weather was more temperate than Toronto or Montreal.
North Shore News: What are your first memories in your new home?
Naz Deravian: Vancouver at the time was a much smaller city, I would say. It’s certainly grown into this wonderful cosmopolitan city but I think we were just the first of a handful of Iranian families to land in Vancouver. My first memories are of Stanley Park. My dad would always take me to Stanley Park. We were always in awe of the majesty of this forest in the middle of a city. It was hard at first to adjust coming from Rome and Iran before that. It seemed a little distant at first but when we moved to North Van and settled into an apartment and school that’s when I started feeling more at home.
North Shore News: You were one of the first Iranian families in Vancouver and you had a chance to see it develop. How does the Iranian community compare with the one in L.A.?
Naz Deravian: L.A. is so much larger and it's a sprawling city. You have to go into those communities to be surrounded by the Iranians whereas I find in Vancouver you just have to cross the bridge and whether you are in West Van or North Van and of course Lonsdale you are going to run into Iranians wherever you go. It always takes me by surprise actually how much Persian I hear in Vancouver. I feel like I’m surrounded by more Iranians when we visit Vancouver than living here in L.A. Although there are neighbourhoods where there are more Iranians in L.A. but you have to drive out to find them.
North Shore News: Are there any neighbourhoods in L.A. which are like the Lonsdale area?
Naz Deravian: Yes, there’s Westwood which is also known as 'Tehran-geles.' We have the restaurants and grocery stores and then also there are neighbourhoods within the Valley, Encino and Sherman Oaks, but the one that most resembles Lonsdale is Westwood Boulevard.
North Shore News: Do you still have family on the North Shore?
Naz Deravian: Some. We eventually moved, when I went to UBC we moved to Kitsilano. I did that commute for one year and then it just got to be too much. I still have a lot of friends and family that live on the North Shore.
North Shore News: During the summer there was a photo on Twitter of you shopping on Lonsdale.
Naz Deravian: Yes, that was for an interview with Margaret Gallagher for CBC Radio. We walked up and down Lonsdale and (it) was lovely to relive those early years and just to see how much things have changed. London Drugs has been there forever. The apartment building that we moved to is now renovated but it’s the one right there on 21st. There’s a park there and my school used to be right next to it. When we first moved there, there was one Persian grocery store on Lonsdale and that was it. And one restaurant.
North Shore News: You mention in your book when you first moved here you couldn’t find herbs. Persian food is herb-heavy and they weren’t available in stores.
Naz Deravian: This is 1982. (It’s changed quite a bit) or when you shopped you could go to an Asian market and we could find stuff there. Now when you walk down the street it’s all different.
North Shore News: When you first moved here was Western food a culture shock?
Naz Deravian: Not really. We were coming from Rome. I hadn’t had McDonald’s before. My first taste of Vancouver was actually McDonald’s. That was the very first thing we ate and it was quite delicious. We loved banana splits at Dairy Queen. That was a big hit. All you can eat buffets I believe that was Sizzler, right? That was a culture shock. That was something new, that you could just pile everything on your plate as many times as you like. As far as the food goes we adapted pretty quickly to going back and forth. I can’t say there was much of a cuisine in Vancouver that represented Canadian cuisine but we enjoyed Chinese food and food from different immigrant communities in Vancouver.
North Shore News: Looking through Bottom of the Pot one gets the impression that Persian cuisine must be one of the most colourful in the world. There are bold colours everywhere.
Naz Deravian: That’s what we wanted. Our photographer Eric Wolfinger did an amazing job capturing the vibrancy of this food.
North Shore News: Everything begins with rice – it’s the crown jewel of Persian cuisine.
Naz Deravian: Rice is very important. It’s a big part of our sofra, which is our table cloth, table gathering. I think Iranians have elevated rice making to an art form and there is a very specific method to making traditional Persian rice. You want those single grains of rice to shine on their own, no clumpiness. You want the grains to shine like jewels when you scatter them on the platter and of course the tahdig is the prize bottom of the pot. We take our rice very seriously.
North Shore News: It sounds like tahdig can be quite tricky to make.
Naz Deravian: It can be, there are many variables. That’s part of the magic too, you don’t know if its going to turn out quite the way you wanted it too and that’s true for Persian cooks as well. I hope I didn’t make it too intimidating because that was the whole point of this book was to take the intimidation factor out of it. There is magic that is the only way I can describe it. There’s magic involved because there are so many variables and once you start making it you stick with what’s working for you. If you turned out a nice tahdig in this pot that becomes your rice pot.
North Shore News: When your mother gives out recipes she never uses measurements.
Naz Deravian: Never. This is not a cuisine that comes with measuring cups and timers and table spoons. It’s intuitive but recipes were also shared orally by pinches, sight and smell – you listen to the onions sizzle and you develop your own taste (as to what is) good or not. There are certain things we use a lot of. It’s that fresh bright note of either lemon juice or pomegranate molasses or Persian dried limes or tamarind – those are the ingredients that, as we say, brings the food to life.
North Shore News: Persian cuisine has a tangy tartness that makes it unique.
Naz Deravian: It’s not the kind of tartness that makes you wince but all the ingredients that I mentioned brighten up the dish and make it sing. That’s part of the edginess of the cuisine. It’s not a one-note thing but a combination of that tart ingredient and the spice combination. Our food is typically not spicy unless it’s from the south of Iran but we use a lot of different spice combinations. They’re all very fragrant. Perfume also plays a big part in our cuisine. It’s not just how the dish tastes or what it looks like but also how it smells and its fragrance. The herbs play a big part in that as well.
North Shore News: Dishes all appear together. There is no distinction between courses.
Naz Deravian: That’s in part due to creating the perfect bite at the table. You want a balanced bite so you might take a little bit of rice and a little bit of stew and some of the yogurt on the side and some fresh herbs to balance everything out.