From the Oilfields to the Kitchen
Mechanical Engineer’s Detour Leads to New Life in Food
Hanif Sadr, Golestan’s after-school cooking teacher, grew up in Tehran and spent summers on his grandparents’ farm in Northern Iran, where he developed a lifelong love of exploring nature. After earning a college degree in materials science in Iran, he went to work in his country’s large oil and gas fields. At first, Sadr was content, but then he began to learn about sustainability and renewable energy, soon arriving at the epiphany that his chosen career was a contributor to impending global disaster.
Sadr’s decision to change his life’s course brought him to the United States in 2012 for a San Jose State University graduate program on the mechanics and materials of renewable energy. While waiting for the program to begin, he took a short-term job as outdoor activities teacher at Golestan’s summer camp, and was preparing to embark on his studies when he learned his program had been cancelled. Simultaneously, Golestan’s chef left without notice, a coincidence that would change the course of Sadr’s life when Yalda Modabber asked him to fill in for the departing chef. Sadr knew nothing about cooking, but with no other options on the horizon, he agreed and stayed for a year and a half. The work fueled his imagination
Since he was not a trained cook, Sadr repeatedly phoned his longtime family cook, Baaji Khanoom, for help with the Iranian dishes. She talked him through many traditional recipes, and he remembers that the first one—adas polo (lentil rice)—was a hit with the kids. He watched hours of YouTube videos for help with non-Iranian dishes, and he began reading Michael Pollan. The reading taught him how directly cooking interfaces with sustaining the environment, and he realized he was already on a new road toward pursuing his dream.
Sadr left the chef job at Golestan as he sought ways to make a bigger impact. A spectrum of his current activities can be found at his website, komaaj.com, where he takes visitors on a virtual journey into Northern Iranian gastronomic traditions. There’s an ever-replenishing schedule of his weekly (sometimes twice-weekly) Persian pop-up dinners run through Feastly, plus a catering menu, and two (so far) packaged food products—marinated olives and a fermented herb paste—available at Zand’s in Albany, Middle East Market in Berkeley, and the Sunday Kensington Farmers’ Market. He occasionally holds Caspian Tea Parties at Alembique Apothecary in Berkeley, and he’s making a documentary. Called “Baaji Cooks, a Story of Northern Iranian Cuisine,” the film features the woman who was so integral at the start of his culinary journey. (The film will be released soon, so check komaaj.com for showings.)
Sadr teaches at Sprouts cooking club in Oakland and Bauman College in Berkeley, and he continues leading after-school cooking classes at Golestan because he treasures the kids’ dreamy energy, curiosity, and wonder.
Photographer Saeideh Akbari captured the image above during shooting for Sadr’s documentary in 2015. Standing from left are Yashar Gholizadeh (assistant director), Mohammad Talani (director), Hanif Sadr (producer), and Bella Warda (host). Baaji, Sadr’s family cook, is seated.
“We gathered for a three-day cooking workshop and cooked 20 dishes in a format of five meals,” says Sadr. “Bella and Baaji discussed Northern Iranian food, cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors in front of the camera. I was busy learning techniques and writing down numbers and notes about each dish to master the recipes.”
HANIF SADR’s Kuku Sabzi
(Persian Herb Frittata)
This is Hanif Sadr’s adaptation of a kuku sabzi recipe by Roza Montazemi. Sometimes called the Julia Child of Iran, Montazemi not only codified the measurements and techniques of traditional Persian recipes, she also included recipes from French and other cuisines in her book, Art of Cooking, first published in 1964. An expanded edition of the book is now in its 50th printing.
Sadr, whose grandmother was close friends with Montazemi says, “Hers was the first Persian cookbook written in the modern era, and continues to be one of Iran’s best-selling books of any genre; often selling 20,000 copies a year.” Montazemi self-published the book and her family has continued that tradition since her death in 2009. Sadr imagines that 60 years ago, no one thought a cookbook, especially by a woman, would ever be so popular.
In Persian, sabzi means herbs and kuku means frittata. Other popular kuku versions feature potato or eggplant. Herbs, both fresh and cooked, are important to Persian cuisine and are eaten at every meal. Sadr suspects that no cuisine anywhere in the world uses herbs to the same extent as they are used in Persian cooking. An example is this recipe, which instead of just tablespoons or bunches, calls for two pounds of herbs. They can be a roughly even mix of the four herbs listed, with more emphasis on the first three, but feel free to add or substitute other leafy greens such as baby spinach, and you might use green onions or leeks instead of the chives.
This dish is usually associated with Nowruz, the Persian New Year, but it’s enjoyed throughout spring and summer, and is a favorite for picnics. In Iran, where lunch is the largest meal, kuku sabzi typically would be served as a vegetarian option among a variety of dishes like stew, rice, savory yogurt, flat bread, and salad. It makes a nice light dinner with just salad or bread.
2 pounds herbs, a mixture of flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, dill, and chives
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
3–4 tablespoons vegetable oil
Finely chop all the herbs.
Preheat the oven to 375°.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs together with baking soda, turmeric, salt, and pepper. Mix in chopped herbs until completely combined. (Mixture should look thick and green.)
Add the vegetable oil to a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. A clear Pyrex dish is best, since you can watch as the bottom of the kuku is turning brown.
Place the pan in the oven for about a minute to heat the oil (which will help kuku form a crispy crust), then remove the pan from the oven and pour in the egg/herb mixture. Bake for 30–35 minutes until the mixture has risen and the top is a dark green. You can test for doneness by inserting a knife, which should come out clean. Take the dish out of oven and let it cool for 5 minutes. Run a knife around the edges to loosen the kuku. Cut into squares and serve.