Persian flavours – Sanaz Zardosht’s Hackney home
Within minutes of stepping out of the cold and into Sanaz Zardosht’s Dalston home, we were offered comfy slippers and steaming glasses of fragrant Persian tea, sweetened with honey. A platter of fruit, bought specially for our visit, sat on the table, and candles flickered in the windows of the cosy kitchen, which overlooks the canal.
Hosting comes naturally to Sanaz, who was born in Iran, grew up in Dubai, and has been living in the UK for the past 14 years. She and her sister Soli run Zardosht, a catering business with outposts in London and New York, where the pair (now separated by the Atlantic Ocean), and their close-knit team, serve up their delicious ‘Persianesque’ cuisine to happy diners.
Cafe OTO, the London branch, is a stone’s throw from Sanaz’ canalside flat, which she’s lived in for three years and she shares with her housemate, Ken, and Soli’s cat, called Catty. Luckily for us, we were able sample a few delicious dishes while we chatted to Sanaz about home, food and family.
Your flat is in such a great spot. How did you find it?
My sister Soli used to live here before she moved to New York. I was living in a beautiful flat in London Fields at the time, but I really wanted a garden, so I decided to move in here instead. And, I also wanted to take care of Catty, who stayed behind when Soli went away. The location is amazing, it’s right by the canal and close to lots of great markets, as well as to work.
We bet Catty was pleased. So, how did you and Soli come to run your own catering business?
Soli started Zardosht around six or seven years ago, with a stall at Broadway Market. Then, a space came up at Cafe OTO, so we started doing a residency there, as well as external catering. In the beginning, I used to come up from where I was living in Bristol to help her out, but now Soli is in New York working on a cookbook and running supper clubs, I oversee the London side of the business. I always wanted to be involved in food, even from a young age, so it’s worked out really well.
It must be great working with your sister. Do you guys get on well?
We get on really well and we’re good at making decisions together. A lot of love and care goes into our work and we have a fantastic team at Zardosht. Soli super organised and is brilliant at keeping the business running smoothly – it’s great working with her. I love it best when we’re both cooking in the kitchen together.
What kind of food do you serve at Zardosht?
We call it ‘Persianesque’ food. Soli initially wanted make Persian food with a modern twist, as we always like experimenting, but we’ve now decided to go back to our roots with a more traditional seasonal menu. We realised we wanted people to know a bit more about Persian cooking, so they can learn about the food and the culture, instead of confusing it with generic Middle Eastern food. But, even though the dishes are traditional, there’s always a creative twist to them.
Do you have a favourite dish that you cook?
It’s really hard to choose a favourite, but at the moment, I’m enjoying making tahdig, which is a baked rice dish that’s perfect for winter. You will always find it on the dinner table if you go to a home in Iran; we have it with stews because it’s so crusty. Using the right pan is key to this dish, and also how long you cook it for. It can take up to two hours.
That sounds delicious. Where did your love of cooking come from?
Both my parents are very good cooks. My mother likes to make quite traditional dishes, whereas my father is more experimental, so I think Soli and I got that from him. I learnt to cook mainly from watching my parents, rather than being shown how. And, I’ve picked up a lot from Soli, too. She studied fashion and has a great eye for colour and presentation.
No wonder the food looks so good. Do you find that cooking Persian food helps you to feel connected to your family and your roots?
Yes, I often think about my dad when I cook. Sometimes, when I’m making a very traditional dish, I get a bit nervous, and then I almost hear his voice in the back of my head telling not to worry and to trust my instincts. Every now and again, I call my mum and dad for advice. They’ll talk me through the recipe and then say, “Don’t worry! You know what you’re doing.”
A good person to have on speed dial. Did your parents do a lot of entertaining at home when you were young?
Yes, they used to have regular dinner gatherings with the same group of friends, who would take it in turns to host. My mum and dad would prepare lots of food, and there would be a spread of dishes on the table for everyone to share. It was always so relaxed, there was never any stress involved – it came so naturally to them. In Persian culture, sharing the food you’ve made is almost like sharing a part of yourself with people. After dinner, my mum would sing and my dad would play the drum, and everyone would dance.
That sounds wonderful. Do you visit Iran much?
I haven’t been back for five years, but I would love to do a foodie trip there at some point, as we have lots of friends and family in Shiraz and Tehran. We used to go as children for two to three months every summer, so I have a lot of good memories from both places.
What comes back to you when you think of those places?
The scent of flowers. Whenever I buy flowers for the house at the market, it reminds me of Iran. There are so many flower shops, you can smell the them from down the street. And the generosity too: people are so hospitable and welcoming.
Well, Dalstoners are very lucky have a little taste of Iran on their doorstep. Do you tend host much at home when you’re not working?
I love to host actually, much more than I enjoy cooking for myself. If I have people over then it means that I’ll make nice food rather than having egg and avocado on toast for dinner. I like having relaxed and simple gatherings like my parents did when I was growing up. I have quite a few musician friends, so I’m trying to organise a supper club where I can combine food and music like they used to.
And what do you do for yourself when you’re not busy cooking for other people?
I sing in a choir and I love yoga, which I do every day. It keeps me sane. I also do an hour of mediation, which helps with the stress of working in a kitchen. It can be a pretty intense environment.
With a job like yours, your home must feel like a real sanctuary. What do you like best about where you live?
I love my house plants, and my garden. Greenery is such a nice antidote to the bustle of London. I like to sit on top of the wall and look out at the canal. Nothing beats a glass of wine by the water.
After quizzing Sanaz for some recipe ideas (if you’re lucky, we’ll share her stuffed lemon sole and Persian rice dish with you), we went on our way, clutching bunches of the sweetest grapes, which she pressed into our hands as we were leaving. If her beautiful dishes have you salivating, we suggest making your way to East London for a truly unique Persianesque feast. You’ll find Zardosht at Cafe OTO from Monday to Saturday, and Broadway Market every Saturday. Head to zardosht.co.uk for details.