One of Shekoh Moossavi’s favorite memories is eating mulberry jam on toast around a picnic blanket with friends and family. She’s the owner of Shekoh Confections in Palo Alto and has been making everything from beef tartare to high-end marshmallows for more than 20 years. Ever since she left Ahvaz, Iran, where she grew up, she finds tapping into childhood memories from Iran has given her business an edge in the crowded Bay Area dining scene.
“It’s the flavors I grew up with,” Moossavi says. “Part of my personality, or I should say Persianality, is I don’t talk about my emotions so freely. I found a tool to transfer those emotions to people I care about, and food is an effective tool to do that.”
Moossavi is part of a small but vibrant community of Iranian expats living in the Bay Area. According to a 2015 report from the PARS Equality Center in San Jose, there are anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 Iranians in the Bay Area alone. But In 2022, Paris Etemadi Scott, Legal Director for PARS Equality Center, says there are “definitely more,” as she cites more than 40,000 between Santa Clara and San Mateo County alone. Iran has had no formal political relationship with the United States since 1980; the complicated relationship between Tehran and Washington means that finding culinary expressions of Iranian culture in the United States, even during significant holidays like Nowruz — the Iranian New Year that begins on the spring equinox — isn’t always easy.
That’s not to say it’s impossible, though. In Los Angeles, Iranian cuisine is thriving. And in the Bay Area, three Iranian American entrepreneurs are making food that reminds them of home to bring a bit of Iran to San Francisco and its surrounding cities. As the New Year begins — on Sunday, March 20 — these entrepreneurs say being Iranian American was not only a strength for their businesses, but an element that helped them find success.
“I was so tired of typical American desserts”
In summer 2020, Hosna Tavakoli decided to leave her architecture career to focus on cakes. She was just shy of a decade in the field but had always been interested in baking. Living in San Mateo during the pandemic, she found herself with a lot of free time. She turned that interest into a business: Zibatreats, “ziba” meaning “beautiful” in Farsi. “I was so tired of typical American desserts,” Tavakoli says. “I feel it is unnecessary to make them so sweet.”
She and her husband, Ben Nader, are both from Iran. For Tavakoli, the pastries and desserts of her home country are less sweet than the sugar-pumped treats in the United States. She likes her cakes to be less rich, opting for whipped cream rather than buttercream. After putting a website together in fall 2020, Tavakoli found the modest advertisements she ran were taking off. In just four months, Tavakoli was getting two orders a day. In January 2021 she hired her first employee and rented space at San Francisco commercial kitchen Eclectic Cookery to fulfill the orders. “These cakes I am making taste more like Iranian cakes, and Iranian cakes taste more like European cakes,” Tavakoli says.
Customers gravitate toward her tiramisu, banana, and walnut cake. The banana provides a bit of texture and sweetness, but the vegan butter (in lieu of egg) and an oat milk-based sweet cream are what keep the customers coming, she says. She didn’t know where to start when it came to vegan and keto baking, but found an intersection with the flavors of her home country. She opts for monk fruit sugar rather than stevia, and the almond flour she prefers over wheat flour is common in Iranian desserts.
Her identity gave her the insight to get started — she’s pretty sure she’s the only Iranian custom cake maker in San Francisco. “I want more and more people to try these cakes,” Tavakoli says.
“Every guest is coming to our house”
What began as cooking kebabs for friends and family became a successful business for Saeed Talai, his wife Nazila, and their three sons, who run the Inner Sunset restaurant Lavash. Talai has lived in the United States since he was 17 years old but was born and grew up in Tehran. “I always loved cooking for myself and my roommates in college,” Talai says. “I used to cook so bad, but I learned from my mistakes.”
After moving to California in 1977, Talai kept seeking out the food and warm hospitality that reminded him of Tehran. He couldn’t find any places serving his favorite dishes, ghormeh sabzi and soltani, so he practiced his own cooking. Barbecue was of particular interest to him, and it proved useful when Talai opened a Mexican restaurant. L’Avenida, which opened in the same Irving Street location as Lavash today, was successful, but he ultimately closed the restaurant when he realized he wanted to tap his own roots to diversify his menu. All the while, he and his wife ran five flower stores throughout Northern California over the course of 27 years. Iris Flower shop, their first, started in 1979, and focused on importing big bundles from Hawai’i and Holland.
When Talai opened Lavash in 2007, it was the Mediterranean and Iranian restaurant he had always wanted to dine at himself, with his favorite foods on the menu and family-style service. Saffron, garlic, and olive oil feature heavily in the dishes at the flower-heavy restaurant, an homage to the owners’ time as florists. Flowers aren’t for sale, but they’re also not not for sale. “We sell them and we don’t,” Talai says. “If someone desperately needs a bouquet, we sell that to them.”
Light and bright beef and chicken are big selling points on the Lavash menu, but in Talai’s mind, it’s the hospitality that is critical to the restaurant’s success. His sons are quick to greet customers, even chatting up strangers on the sidewalk who appear curious about the menu, and the service is always gracious and humble. “Every guest is coming to our house, like the way we treat a cousin,” Talai says.
After 50 years in the United States, Talai says the Bay Area is where he belongs. For the New Year, he wishes he could entertain all Persian people celebrating the first day of spring. In the space he does have, however, he’ll sell a fried white fish with an herb quiche called kuku. Talai offers it every year on a limited basis to help his people celebrate in the Bay. “This is my soil,” Talai says. “I’m a self-made chef.”
“I put myself ... into that piece of chocolate”
Shekoh Moossavi, the Peninsula chef and confectioner behind Shekoh Confections, has been reflecting a lot lately. Her new sweets shop opens on March 21, the day after Nowruz. “Sometimes the scent of a spice will bring out a memory,” Moossavi says. “They always stay with you.” In Iran, her father was the home cook, and her mother cooked here and there; one favorite dish was mushroom soup. At her first restaurant, Gervais Restaurant in Saratoga, she cooked that same soup and found it was a smash hit. When it came time to rotate the seasonal menu, customers were outraged. “I wouldn’t dare to take it off the menu,” Moossavi says.
She studied biology in college before working on glaucoma research, but ultimately found hospitals were too intense for her. She went to culinary school after her sister encouraged her to take a year to try it out. Her sister wanted Moossavi to cook for her, to remind both of them of home. She loved it right away. “I didn’t know I could love a job so much,” Moossavi says. “I just wanted to cook for my family, but I never looked back.”
After her time in Saratoga, she dove further into pastry and chocolate. Shokolaat, a chocolate bistro in Palo Alto, is where she first brought her Iranian lens to sweets. Like Talai, she decided the inclusion of saffron was essential to the menu, but pistachio and cardamom found their way into chocolates, too. “I have to have my Persian saffron,” Moossavi says. “Nothing else will suffice.”
Already customers love the Persian Rose, a chocolate that mixes her French training with Iranian sensibilities. The treat features rose petal marmalade with rosewater ganache, but with a velvety, rose-petal-like texture to the chocolate rather than a European style shell. “Persian food is not only scientific, but delicious,” Moossavi says. Similar to Tavakoli, Moossavi finds her sweets to be best when they are also a bit savory.
This Nowruz, Moossavi will serve her confections to Mayor London Breed at San Francisco City Hall. She says she’s happy to be using her food, her favorite tool, for such an occasion. “I don’t just create,” she says. “I put myself, and all those dear memories, into that piece of chocolate.”
Update: March 21st, 2022, 10:13 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that the U.S. Census categories Iranian Americans as “White.” Additional information about the ongoing conversation around Iranian Americans’ representation can be found by contacting the PARS Equality Center.