Larra and I met through work. We became fast friends, bonding over our shared interest of hip hop and cats. Mostly cats, but also a lot of hip hop.
This girl is one of the biggest hustlers I know – not only does she work full time, she also recently landed a new job in marketing while getting her MBA at the same damn time. She also has a bumping social life and can cook like a fiend. How???
The other weekend, Larra graciously invited me over to her home in Williamsburg to cook me her mother’s Zereshk Polo. This dish is magical. Native to Iran, basmati rice and chicken are simmered together with saffron and studded with raisins and dried barberries (think of them as really small, really tart cranberries).
The key to this dish, she taught me, was to infuse saffron in hot water, creating a mind-blowingly beautiful deep-golden-orange hued “tea”. She used this tea to season different components of the dish separately, which gave the rice a delicious floral aroma and deep yellow tint. After she was done cooking, she melted butter (!!!) into the tea and drizzled it on top of the rice. Unbelievable.
Over copious amounts of red wine and plates full of Zereshk Polo, she told me about her family’s journey to LA from Iran by way of Armenia, and why this dish means so much to her. More after the break!
VC: So Larra – can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Give me your spiel.
LH: I’m Larra, I work in marketing, I’m a Gemeni and I think online dating has ruined us.
VC: (laughs) Agreed.
So are your parents from Iran, or Armenia? What’s their history, and how did they get to LA?
LH: It’s interesting because what happened was, after the genocide, everybody, or most people, left Armenia. So some people went to Lebanon, some people went to Russia, and some people went to Iran. So my ancestors went to Iran, and that’s where my parents were born. One was born in Abadan, one was born in Tehran. My mom was nineteen when she moved, and my dad was a little bit older – he travelled Europe and went to Canada, and then ended up in LA. My mom went to school in Florida, and then waitressed her way through the United States.
VC: Did she move here by herself?
LH: Yea, her mom had passed and her dad was getting remarried in Iran so she was like… “I gotta go”. So she came to Florida and went to school here.
VC: That’s awesome. Could you imagine having to do that? I think about our parents and grandparent’s generations, and I always wonder if I would have the same tenacity to go through the things that they had to go through. We have it so easy compared to them… as children of immigrants I feel like we kind of take that for granted most of the time.
LH: Yea, but you know – they were leaving a revolution. You can say that we’re in a type of…not a great political environment, but at least we’re not [being forced to escape].
LH: So they left Iran – and I think for my mom especially she just felt like she had to leave Iran [to start a new life]. I can’t even imagine losing my mother…at that age, you need her…But nevertheless, she came here and waitressed her way across the US from Florida to California, where there is a huge Armenian community.
VC: Can you talk a little bit about the Armenian community in LA?
LH: I think the reason why there are so many Armenians in California, is because a small group of Armenians came and settled. And then more people came because their cousins were there. And it kept growing cause their families had friends there. It’s a comfort thing, when you’re so far from home, you’re going to want to go where there’s a community [you feel comfortable in].
VC: I’ve talked to other people [with immigrant backgrounds] about this, and back then [and even now],when you moved to a new country you depend so much on an established network to get your foot in the door. It’s so hard coming to a new country where you don’t know the customs or the language. I know in Chinese and orthodox jewish circles, people helped each other out by loaning each other money and helping them get set up in the new communities, cause that’s what you do for your people.
LH: I think the Armenian community in LA is so important, especially if you were an immigrant just moving to this country. But it’s interesting, because I feel like it was great for [my parent’s] generation, but for our generation it almost hinders us in a way, because it creates this community of people who are so comfortable with this little Armenia that’s been created in LA that it makes them, not scared, but not as open to exploring or leaving.
When I moved to San Francisco from LA, I had to explain to people what an Armenian person was. Do you know what actually put us on the map actually was the –
VC: Kardashians? (laughs)
LH: The Kardashians did that for us, it’s real.
VC: What was it like growing up? Were you guys a really big part of the Armenian community there?
LH: We surprisingly actually weren’t very involved with the Armenian community growing up. I don’t know if it was because my parents moved here when they were a little younger, but we weren’t really that involved in it. I went to a private Armenian school from Kindergarten to Fifth Grade.
VC: Wow, so you went to school with only Armenian kids? What was that like?
LH: It was nice. You’ll have a 6th period class that’s “Armenian Class”, that would teach you about language and culture which I think is so important. I think a big fear with older Armenian generations is that the culture will disappear, and I think especially going through a genocide you become inherently afraid. But it was really isolating…
But, I also think it was really scary for my parents when they moved here, because in the Iran that they grew up in was really segregated. Persian people and Armenian people didn’t mix. Different religions didn’t mix. So I think they’re coming from this culture where different groups didn’t intermingle. So they were just trying to do the best for us based on what they knew.
VC: So food-wise, what kind of food did you eat at home growing up? I know that this dish is close to your heart, why does it mean so much to you?
LH: I love Armenian food, Persian-Armenian food…
VC: For those of us (like me) not in the know, can you describe Armenian food in a nutshell as well?
LH: This dish is very quintessentially Armenian. It has some sort of fruit in it. It’s rice-based…almost everything is rice-based. Most things are a stew over rice, but this is an incorporated rice dish. There’s usually a meat element in it. It’s labor intensive, in the sense that it takes time, and I think a lot of Armenian food is like that because it was a culture where the women stayed home and cooked all day. So when you have all day to cook, you have time to let it sit and get delicious.
This is something that my mom would make often. It reminds me of her. She is the most incredible cook. She always cooked Armenian food, but she also cooked everything. In recent years, she makes sushi and paella…everything you could absolutely want. We usually send each other recipes, it’s a big part of our connection to each other especially because we live across the country from one another. So if I see something yummy, I’ll usually send it to her [and vice versa].
Even this morning, I called her and had her run through the steps with me. It was …fun. She had no actual measurements for any of the ingredients…just descriptions like “the size of your palm”. But still, making this dish feels good…it reminds me of home.
Larra’s Mom’s Zereshk Polo
Iranian Saffron Barberry Rice with Chicken, sent to me by Larra 🙂
4 skinless, bone-in chicken thighs
1 yellow onion, diced
1.5 cup basmati rice
3/4 cups dried barberries
3/4 cup raisins
1 tbs butter
– Steep saffron with 1/3 cup boiling water, cover and set aside
– In a large pot, sautee one yellow onion
– Season skinless, bone in chicken thighs with salt pepper and paprika
– Place into sauteed onions with two bay leaves and a few tea spoons of saffron tea
– Once the chicken has been braised add water to cover chicken, cover pot and let cook on low for about 40 min
– Chop shallot and sautee, add barberries and raisins, 3/4 cups of each, pinch of salt, and a few tea spoons of saffron tea, cook for 5 min on medium heat
– Once chicken is done, separate chicken and *chicken water*, discard bay leaves
– In same pot add 1.5 cups rinsed basmati rice, add 2.5/3 cups chicken water and few pinches of salt
– Let simmer on low covered until rice is half done, about 10 min
– Stir rice gently and remove 2/3 of rice into a separate bowl then add a layer of berries, a few chicken thighs and a few table spoons of saffron tea, add more rice then a layer of berries, chicken, and saffron tea, then add remainder or rice, drizzle some saffron tea and add 1/2 teaspoons oil (depending on how oily the chicken thighs were)
– Cover and let cook until rice is done, 15/20 minutes
– Take remainder of saffron tea and melt two tablespoons butter
– Once rice is done put into a dish and drizzle butter saffron mixture on top and serve
* all measurements are estimates because my mama doesnt believe in measuring cups