I could smell Tehran wafting through Frogtown, the industrial district and burgeoning artistic universe on the cusp of the Los Angeles River. Tucked behind a gate, through what appeared to be a magical greenhouse without its glass roof, was Elysian LA, a warehouse that operates as a restaurant, venue space, and home to Julia Meltzer’s Clockshop, an arts and culture non-profit. I was there for an Iranian Jewish dinner as part of Kan Ya Ma Kan, meaning “Once upon a time,” a yearly festival that highlights Jewish Sephardic and Mizrahi diaspora culture, food, and music.
The event is the brainchild of Meltzer and her husband, David Thorne, head chef at Elysian, which serves “semi-Mediterranean” cuisine a few days a week. Meltzer said the festival is an effort to preserve the Jewish societies of diverse diasporic populations. Spain and Sephardic Jewish culture was the focus a couple weeks ago, and last weekend I attended, “Mahaleh in Los Angeles/Iran” for a Persian-Jewish dinner.
The event began with a Havdalah ceremony led by Susan Goldberg, a revitalizing rabbi for the East Side of Los Angeles, and Persian Jewish food curated by Tannaz Sassooni, a food writer and first generation Iranian-American who was raised in L.A. Hamid Saeidi, a traditional Iranian santur musician, was also slated to perform, followed by tea and conversation with Saba Soomekh, an academic who spoke about the history of Persian Jewish Women in Los Angeles.
Inside the building the lighting was low. The tables, set for sixty, were sprawling and elegant—Brooklyn chic—with succulents, pomegranates, and whole ginger roots to boot. A cash bar served a drink created by Elysian bartender Mark Hendrix, which consisted of bourbon, lemon, honey, tumeric, mint, and apricot. I drank one as the effervescent Sassooni spoke about the food before the meal was served. She talked about coming of age in a Persian-Jewish household, and her growing collection of over 100 recipes passed between families and inside enclave communities, especially those from her mother, Violet, who joined us for the evening, even sneaking into the kitchen to supervise Thorne and his team of chefs. When Sassooni talked about Claudia Rodin’s book The Book of Jewish Food, she mentioned how only ten Persian recipes are embedded within the book of nearly 800.
The dinner was dignified. We sat in rows of family style tables, passing dishes that echoed a journey from Iran to American, beginning with an appetizer called Gondi Nokhodchi (chickpea meatballs), combined with lavash and fresh picked herbs and radishes. The meal was derived from the Jewish families from the town of Kashan, between Tehran and Shiraz, from where Sassooni’s family hails. This dinner, though overseen by Sassooni, was not cooked by her alone, presumably marking the first time a non-descendant of Kashan made this food.
“Does it taste like Iran?” I asked Saeidi, the musician, whose duo by the same name later played traditional Iranian music while we drank tea and digested the perfect meal. “Yeah,” he said, with a huge grin, as if he had wandered home with the meal. “It was a lot of memories of Iran.” Saeidi is from Tehran, but his parents are from Kashan, a surprise to the Sassooni’s who didn’t know until he told them.
The second course featured Gondi Kashi, a Kashan-style rice dish with herbs, beets, and fava beans accompanied by pickled vegetables and followed by an absurdly delicious dessert. While the first courses were straight from Iran, supervised by Sassooni and her mother, the third provided an American bridge—Thorne’s take on traditional Persian flavors. He served pistachio shortbread with dried apricots soaked in cardamom vanilla syrup and doused in crème fraîche, “a rogue take on Persian brunch foods,” as Sassooni put it. With this final touch, and the tea that followed, the fusion of culinary worlds was complete.
Next weekend is the final Clockshop event titled “Moroccan by Law/ Morocco” featuring Havdalah led by Rabbi Ruth Sohn, a Moroccan Jewish dinner by Kitty Morse and the Elysian team, followed by music by Henry Azra and a Sunday tea and conversation with Jessica Marglin. Tickets for the dinner are $65.
Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.