The owner of Big Dill Kitchen is simply not making enough money to be a business owner, but that’s fine with her. Helia Sadeghi is getting a lot of attention for her role in the booming pandemic pop-up game and for her remarkable story as a young Iranian immigrant attending college at UC Berkeley. Her story, and how food relates to her life, sometimes leads people to assume she’s pursuing business ownership, but instead she is more interested in interrogating ancestral food ways and practices than opening a restaurant.
“I didn’t consider myself a business owner until these interviews came out,” Sadeghi says. “I don’t even see myself as an educator giving lectures to people. I am just constantly asking questions and I want to encourage people to ask more questions about the food that is on their plates. My hope is other people can explore this, too.”
She’s working on a website that, once up and running in September, will focus on recipes and “rants” about misrepresentations of food as well as importance of connecting with people and land through food. She’s fascinated by regional iterations of similar foods — such as the nuance between samosas, which hail from South Asia (and all those different fillings and flavors), and sambooseh in Iran, for example. She says most of the time people just want a dining experience, but it’s important to her that people also understand the significance of simple ingredients such as rice and yogurt.
Sadeghi says she feels the Bay Area needs more experimentation and description when it comes to food. One small activity is writing small blurbs to accompany dishes, such as how Sadeghi breaks down dishes on her Instagram account; meanwhile, a friend of hers hosted a pop-up recently, Tanoor, and highlighted the fruits composing Yemeni candied almonds and raisins. “They wrote just a little bit about the specific Yemeni raisin and how it’s different from others in America,” Sadeghi says. “This gets people to ask questions and connect with food beyond something that fills you up and is yummy.”
When it comes to recommendations on learning more about your favorite food, Sadeghi says she’s no food expert (though some may disagree). But, to begin, diners can ask what kinds of traditional resources were available in the cuisine’s original region such as corn for Central America, for example, or lamb in Iran. The agricultural history behind each ingredient can illuminate sensitivities and details behind each dish.
Of course, her exploration of food’s unsung histories started with Iranian food. She loves Komaaj for its hyperlocal cuisine and fermentation methods, but she shouts out James Beard-winning Understory Worker Collective in Oakland, too. “They give space to people who want to introduce their cuisine,” Sadeghi says. “It’s not just a business owner with one menu, but a place that brings together many cultures and cuisines.” She got started learning about food politics and cultures through school, and her specific experience internationally, but books like Cuisine and Empire by Rachel Laudan, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by Kat Anderson, and Cooking the Native Way by The Chia Cafe Collective help her see food a bit more critically as well.
She’s not the only baker leaning into their identity for baking and cooking inspiration. Hosna Tavakoli in San Francisco designs custom cakes and Sheekoh Moosavi in Palo Alto molds bon bons, both inspired by their homes in Iran. Ultimately, highlighting underrated and underserved cuisines, like those of SSWANA, is what Sadeghi wants to do. “It won’t just happen in pop-ups,” Sadeghi says. “But posting about it, and talking about foods that haven’t been noticed or highlighted, is part of it. My hope is to break some of the myths that exist, that it’s more than just rice and kebab and what’s been politicized.”
Stay tapped in to Big Dill Kitchen’s Instagram for upcoming pop-ups, to request a custom cake or event, and to get involved with Sadeghi’s food exploration.
August 30, 8:52 a.m. This story has been updated to clarify Sadeghi’s intention in one of her quotes.