Editor's note: Immigrant chefs—and the cuisines they bring with them—are a vital part of New York's culinary landscape. We're stepping into their kitchens to see what they cook, how they do it, and hear what stories they have to share. Today we're with Saeed Pourkay of Taste of Persia NYC, cooking celebratory dishes for Nowruz, the Persian New Year.
Moments after arriving in Saeed Pourkay's East Harlem home kitchen, we're gathered around his sink, watching as he deftly carves a long slit down the belly of a glistening striped bass. He reaches in, pulls out the delicate, cream-colored egg sack, and thrusts it toward us.
Those fish eggs—destined for a surprise, unconventional role in the traditional Nowruz (Persian New Year) meal we're about to witness—exemplify Pourkay's cooking, which blends family recipes, rooted in his childhood in Iran, with his own innovative touches.
"Because I'm an artist, I tweak a little bit in my food. Here and there I use my own spices, and that's why it makes it a little bit different," Pourkay says. "[Cooking] is a creative process because from nothing you create something."
A graphic designer-turned-chef, Pourkay revolutionized New York City's woefully meager Persian food scene last year when he opened Taste of Persia NYC, a tiny take-out operation tucked improbably into the front of a nondescript pizza joint in the Flatiron. Since then, Pourkay has won praise for refusing to skimp on the multitude of esoteric (and often expensive) ingredients that make Persian cooking so complex, painstaking, and delicious.
Pourkay's recipes come from his own family traditions. He learned how to cook from his mother and sisters, while helping out in the kitchen of his childhood home in Tehran. The recipes are exceptionally time-consuming, intricate, and ingredient-intensive, but Pourkay refuses to abandon them.
"Persian food requires a lot of preparation, and [the ingredients are] expensive," he explains. "If I cut corners then it's not going to be the same taste."
Take Pourkay's favorite Nowruz dish, mahi—fresh white fish (typically from the Caspian Sea) that's lightly seasoned and fried. To make it, Pourkay guts, scales, and fillets his striped bass. Then he coats it with a dusting of flour, salt, black pepper, and saffron and gently pan fries it—the way his mother once prepared this dish half a century ago in Iran. The fish has a light, crisp exterior, and the meat inside is juicy and mild, with an astringent hint of saffron but not a trace of fishiness or grease.
The fish is eaten with a basmati rice dish (called sabzi polo) that's slowly cooked with a bounty of fresh herbs and pungent strands of newly-in-season green garlic. These two dishes, served together as sabzi polo mahi, are the Nowruz equivalent of Thanksgiving turkey with mashed potatoes.
A third dish, kuku sabzi, combines even more fresh herbs and a complex blend of seasonings with the rich, briny contents of the egg sac from that striped bass, ground walnuts, and just enough egg to hold it all together. After a thorough, closed-lid sauté, the result is something akin to a well-seasoned frittata.
It's a meal that celebrates the renewed fertility of the natural world (symbolized by the eggs, fish, and fresh herbs) after a long winter. And that's perfectly in keeping with the spirit of Nowruz, which marks the arrival of spring with festivities steeped in ancient Zoroastrian sun and nature worship. Whether you're in Tehran or Great Neck, the two-week Nowruz season is a time to clean house, buy new clothes, visit friends and family, and--of course--eat plenty of good food.
About the authors: Anne Noyes Saini edits economics books and covers food culture and immigration in NYC. She has contributed to Narratively, The New York Times, and WNYC-FM, and is features editor of Real Cheap Eats. Follow her on Twitter @CitySpoonful.
Mark Rinaldi writes about global cuisine and culture over at his blog, Cooked Earth, where he is cooking and documenting a meal from every country on Earth, alphabetically. He likes hot chilies, cold beer, and death metal.