What American wouldn't scoff at the stereotype that as a nation we eat nothing but hamburgers? But peruse the menus of the handful of Persian restaurants around town and you might think the average Iranian diet revolves around kebabs, hummus, and baba ghanoush. Azim and Goly Nassiri-Masouleh aren't saying there's anything wrong with those foods, but most Iranians don't eat them every day—if they eat them at all. "When I was in Iran I didn't know hummus or baba ghanoush," says Goly, who runs a day care center out of her home and speaks in a lilting singsong that must keep her young charges spellbound. At night she works the front of the (very small) house at Rogers Park's Masouleh, where her husband, Azim, works the kitchen, laboring over regional dishes such as mirza ghasemi, roasted eggplant stewed with tomato and garlic.
Masouleh specializes in home-style Persian food—stews, soups, and small sides, many based more on vegetables than meat. Azim learned to cook this way from a roommate in Paris while he was studying sociology at the Sorbonne in the late 70s. "I learn a little bit from him, and little by little I became famous," he says. "My friends come and say, 'You making very good food.'"
His studies were interrupted in the early 80s by the Iran-Iraq war—he needed documents from home to continue, and if he'd returned for them he would have been drafted into service. Goly had been living in France since 1976, when she landed a job at the Iranian embassy, but she was fired after the Islamic revolution, along with everyone else who'd come on board under the shah's regime. She stayed in Paris, earned a computer science degree, and became friends and then roommates with Azim. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1986 and found work as a busboy at the now defunct Ash Manor restaurant at Diversey and Ashland. Two years later Goly got a green card and landed a programming job in San Jose. Azim followed her west and found work cooking in an Iranian restaurant. They married in 1990 and in '94 returned to Chicago, where she started the day care and he got a job as a room-service waiter at the downtown Marriott.
"Since we married," says Goly, "all the time when we have a party in our home all my friends ask me, 'Please, Goly, you don't need to cook. Let Azim do it.'" The couple had been toying with the idea of opening a restaurant for 20 years, but a proposed partnership with relatives failed before it got off the ground. Then, last September, the couple saw that the far-north-side space once occupied by the Peruvian restaurant Cafe Salamera was available. Azim quit his job and they signed the lease. Masouleh opened February 1.
The Nassiri-Masoulehs named the place after the tiny village high above the Caspian Sea where Azim's parents were from (it also gave them their surname). The menu includes a triumvirate of three classic Iranian khoureshte, or stews: vegetable beef with green herbs (ghormeh sabzi), eggplant, beef, and yellow split peas (gheimeh bademjan), and chicken in a thick walnut-pomegranate sauce (fesenjan). It also features dishes native to Gilan, the northern province where both the village of Masouleh and Azim's hometown of Rasht are located.
The region's cuisine is noted for its heavy use of garlic, eggs, vegetables, and green herbs that infuse dishes with fresh, grassy flavors. Torshe tareh, for example, is minced sour spinach textured by a small amount of cracked rice and flavored with garlic, cilantro, parsley, and a minty dried herb called khol wash, from a dwindling stock Azim's sister brought over from Iran. Other specialties include zaytoon parvardeh, a side dish of olives marinated in a mixture of garlic, chopped walnuts, pomegranate syrup, and a touch of golpar, a spice that comes from the giant hogweed and is sometimes called Persian marjoram. Then there's the mirza ghasemi, the region's most famous food, which is similar to the northern Indian baigan bharta but for the addition of scrambled egg. (Watch a video of Azim making mirza ghasemi at our blog The Food Chain.)
Every weekend Azim prepares a more labor-intensive northern dish as a special. One week it might be morghe torsh, made by frying garlic, cilantro, dill, parsley, mint, and khol wash, adding chicken and yellow split peas, then stewing the mixture in a bit of water and lemon juice and finishing it off with scrambled egg. The difficulty with this time-consuming preparation is that it can only be made in small batches and held for so long before the heat breaks down the peas. If that happens, "it's delicious still, but it doesn't look good," Azim says.
Baghala ghatogh is a bean dish prepared with dill, garlic, turmeric, and still more eggs. Azim normally uses domestic white beans, which must be soaked for 24 hours and peeled individually before cooking. That's bad enough for the waitstaff assigned to the task, but when his sister brought him a supply of pache baghala—the smaller, light brown beans, native to Rasht, that are traditionally used in the dish—he almost had a mutiny on his hands.
"It's a lot of work," admits Azim, who must walk the line between what he wants to cook and what he needs to cook to keep the restaurant solvent. "I make the kebab, it's not very much work. It's very easy," he says. Initially he offered only chicken and ground beef kebabs, but he relented to customer demand and added a chenjeh kebab (marinated beef) after the first week.
But Azim drew the line at hummus and baba ghanoush. Instead he's gradually working toward offering other rare northern dishes as specials. Gilan is also known for its sturgeon and caviar from the Caspian, and he's promised friends he'll attempt an American interpretation of polo kebab, skewered fish accompanied by walnuts, fava beans, rice, and a side of salt-preserved caviar. Azim holds no hope of finding the authentic ingredients, so he's evaluating possible substitutions, including anchovies for the caviar and Lake Superior whitefish for the sturgeon. "I'm gonna do it one of these weekends," he says. "I'm not gonna do it always."v
For more on food and drink, see our blog The Food Chain at chicagoreader.com.