Overcoming xenophobia with food, or how to be subversive without really tryingEat This!, Latest Issue Thursday, February 16th, 2017
The opportunity here in the U.S. is so unique because we are so diverse, with so many different cultures living together. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, all with their own connections to the spiritual aspects of food and with lessons that we can learn from each other.
— Marcus Samuelsson, Restauranteur
Xenophobia is the irrational fear and subsequent stigmatization of foreigners. People who look different, speak a different language or worship differently can appear threatening to people who are accustomed to a single ethnic group or set of beliefs. But xenophobia can be overcome when addressed head on and food is one method of bridging cultures. This is why I, as a direct response to the recent travel ban from Muslim-majority nations, intentionally sought out Iranian cuisine. And I’m glad I did.
San Diegans have been enjoying the flavors and warm hospitality of Iran since Soltan Banoo opened its doors in 2003. I visited the cozy cottage-cum-restaurant one recent afternoon and took a seat in the corner of the sunny window-enclosed patio. The rustic, casual intimate space made me feel comfortable and at ease, as if I was in a friend’s home. Kayla, affable and well-versed, greeted me warmly, presented the extensive menu and retreated. After several moments of difficult deliberation – pomegranate soup or strawberry tabouli salad, grilled spicy chicken kabob or braised lamb shanks – I selected the Sambosas combination ($8.95) and the daily special, Fesenjoon ($9.25).
Sambosas are bread pockets, think thin pastry dough, not pita, filled with a savory blend of spinach, potatoes and green peas seasoned with mild curry and a variety of spices, baked to a delicate crunch. Two sauces are provided for dipping: one yogurt-based with cucumber and mint, the other a wonderful fig curry. Delectable. The combination includes a small salad of mixed greens, sliced tomato, feta cheese crumbles and ripe olives tossed in an amazing slightly-sweet soy ginger dressing. So light and flavor-packed.
Fesenjoon is an astounding tangy-sweet stew of crushed walnuts and pomegranate puree. You can cut the meaty bites of succulent rotisserie chicken with a spoon. The steamy melange is served with unadulterated perfectly cooked basmati and saffron rice. Simply unforgettable.
Soltan Banoo offers an extensive list of coffees and teas. I chose a herbal mint tea ($2.50), a piping hot cup of peppermint and spearmint leaves flavored with a dollop of honey and a squeeze of lemon juice. Kayla told me kids from the nearby elementary school visit every year to learn about tea and Iranian culture. They also have a limited but eclectic selection of wines from around the world. You may bring your own bottle for a $10 corkage fee.
Kayla would not let me leave without first trying a bite of Persian Baghlava. The pastry, topped with agave nectar, honey and crushed pistachios, is made from almond flour and rose water with a kiss of cardamon. Absolutely divine!
Soltan Banoo is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner service. They are also available for private parties, or they can cater your next soirée.
Demagogues can only succeed if citizens buy into their fear peddling. We must resist our fears if we are to thrive as a nation of immigrants. One thing I know for certain is when you confront your fears, they disappear and become strengths. Who knew a subversive act could be so delicious? Eat this, hungry readers. You’ll be glad you did.
4645 Park Blvd.
Open daily – hours vary
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