Angelenos drive right by them all the time: nondescript ethnic markets that make one wonder what they’re selling, who’s shopping in there, and — after passing by them for years — how they’ve managed to stay in business for so long. We ponder these questions for a stoplight, then continue on our way to Whole Foods.
I’d been driving past Tehran Market, a 21-year-old institution in Santa Monica, almost daily for a decade before I finally stepped inside. If it hadn’t been for my friend Tomi Yaghmai, who is married to an Iranian and lived in Iran for years, I might still be. Now I pity the passing cars filled with those unaware of the amazing array of Middle Eastern specialties and great produce that fill the small market. A whole community of food lovers that gathers here — Iranians, Russians, Turks and third-generation Santa Monicans — looking for foods from their homelands or foods they’ve recently learned to love.
The facade of Tehran Market isn’t exactly inviting. The windows facing busy Wilshire Boulevard are papered over with taped-up posters and signs. Peer past them, and you see a jumble of cleaning supplies: paper towels, Tide and Ajax. Inside, the linoleum floors reflect the fluorescent lighting, and cardboard boxes clutter the shop’s short aisles. But no one’s here for the decor. They’ve come for the jars of pickled, fried or pureed eggplant; the bags of dried chickpeas, lentils and black-eyed peas; or maybe the selection of grape leaves.
I arrived seeking the fixings for panir sabzi, a dish Tomi served at a dinner one night. Sabzi, which means vegetables in Farsi, generally consists of a heap of fresh herbs — tarragon, basil, mint — and vegetables, like radishes and onions, which are served with feta and walnuts. You wrap up a bit of everything in a small square of lavash and eat it as the salad component of a Persian meal. I found myself craving the dish. Tomi insisted the only place to buy the ingredients was Tehran Market.
As shopping there became habit, I noticed Morteza Pourvasei, who runs the family business with his brother, Mory, chatting with customers from behind a counter filled with a variety of halvas, nuts and olives floating in large, plastic storage bins, all identified by handwritten tape labels. But it was only recently that I had a real conversation with him. The little shop was busy, but Pourvasei, a dapper 72-year-old with a full head of gray hair, seemed pleased to take a break to chat with me, while Francisco Panameno, an employee since soon after the shop opened, manned the counter.
Like many Iranians living in their war-ravished homeland in the 1980s, Pourvasei, who was working at an oil company, wanted to leave but found an American visa elusive. (As he tells me this, he grabs some fresh, raw pistachios from a bin on the counter and peels one for me. Delicious.) He sent his eldest son to Los Angeles as a student in 1985, then his eldest daughter, a year later. A year and a half after that, his wife and other two children arrived. Finally, Pourvasei joined them — and the family business — in 1989, a year after his brother had opened the store.
Pourvasei excuses himself to retrieve an envelope from a drawer near an outdated cash register. He opens it and nods slowly and proudly as he shows me snapshots taken at festive occasions and family gatherings of his chic wife, his handsome college-educated children and grandchildren. His hospitality is genuine. “It’s our culture to be friendly,” he says.
On a recent shopping trip, I bumped into my friend, Tomi. I was surprised, but she wasn’t. “I see everyone here,” she said. I told her I was here for mint, feta and walnuts. She suggested I get some mortadella to go with the sabzi. “Mortadella?” I asked, surprised. “Yes,” she replied, going on about how delicious it is wrapped with cucumbers and tomatoes and feta in lavash. “It’s the perfect light meal. Ask for the one without extra garlic.” When I pointed out that it was a bit surprising that a Persian market would serve mortadella, she laughed. Over the centuries, Iran welcomed influences of many countries, Italy included. Why mortadella — and not prosciutto or salami — gained popularity is anyone’s guess. I suspect it has something to do with the pistachios that stud the meat. (Tehran Market sells a beef-and-pork version as well as one made with just veal for non-pork eaters.)
Over time, I’d added fresh and dried herbs, vegetables, rice, tea and olive oils to my Tehran Market shopping list, but it wasn’t until I walked the aisles with Tomi that I learned what lures in-the-know Middle Easterners here. “This rice is crazy good,” she said, lifting a box of prepared Rice-a-Roni-looking stuff from a shelf. If you make the herbed rice — or many other classic Persian dishes — from scratch, she explains, you’ll spend a lot of time chopping. She led me to a freezer case and revealed a Persian cook’s secret weapon: packages of chopped herbs — some fried, some not — ready to be mixed into the rice dishes and stews that are hallmarks of Persian cuisine.
Expensive saffron, I learned, is kept in a drawer behind the counter and a taste of Iranian pistachios is available for the asking. Customs are high for nuts shipped directly from Iran to America, so they usually pass through Canada. Sometimes they get stuck in customs and Pourvasei’s supply dries up temporarily. Luckily, he had a handful left when I was there and offered me one. It had a rounder, fuller flavor than the Californian — it was tasty — but I don’t know that I would pay almost twice the price for the import.
Long before Persian cucumbers were available at Trader Joe’s, they were at Tehran Market. “People brought seeds over,” Pourvasei says of his countrymen. You can get Persian basil here, which is a little more bitter than the Italian variety, and, in the summer, Persian melon. What customers had been missing at the market was a meat counter. Pourvasei, the attentive shop-owner, will be installing one soon.
Phone: (310) 393-6719
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m.-7 p.m.Shopping List:
- Panir sabzifixings: mint, tarragon, basil, French feta, walnut halves, lavash
- Sadaf brand’s Basmati Herb Rice Mix
- Spicy olives from the bin under the counter
- Fresh dates
- Pistachios, Iranian or Californian
- Persian pastries, which arrive from local bakeries two or three times a week
- Najmieh Batmanglij’s "Persian Cooking for a Healthy Kitchen" or any of her other cookbooks.
Tomi learned to cook Persian specialties by listening in on her mother-in-law’s instructions to the family cook when she was living in Iran. Now she shops at Tehran Market weekly, buying flat breads; her favorite Best Tea (a blend of Ceylon and Earl Grey); the freshest Persian cucumbers; tart, dried barberries to sprinkle on top of rice dishes; pistachios and (as an occasional treat) her husband’s favorite raisin cookies. I note that Tehran Market sells these identical-looking cookies from four different local bakeries. I ask Pourvasei why. “Customers have their favorites. [The cookies] are similar, yes, but different.”
This might explain why there are so many variations on other baked sweets, pickles, olives, beans, grains, pomegranate molasses, jams, rices, flat breads and olive oils. “Customers ask for special brands,” Pourvasei says, and he delivers. “A lady came in for the first time and when she saw the different cheeses we have, she told me she feels at home. I want them to feel at home when they are here.”
When asked about his competition, Pourvasei doesn’t mention other Persian grocers in nearby Westwood, he talks about Vons, the supermarket down the street. “We have good prices here. We’re friendly and try to get to know our customers. If something costs $12.05, we’ll just ask for $12.” The prices, on everything from produce to French feta, are, indeed, competitive. And that may be part of why the store has been around for so long and why it’s always busy.
That’s not really what brings me in. I may have started out coming for sabzi fixings, but now I come for so much more — many new foods and community.