For One Persian Restaurant in SF, Nowruz Is a Time to Feed Students in Need

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A takeout container with Persian kabob digi (aka "Persian meatloaf"), turmeric, and fresh herbs.
The centerpiece of Komaaj's special Nowruz meal for Oakland students is the Persian-style meatloaf known as kabob digi. (Komaaj)

This weekend, at least 200 low-income Oakland students and their families will sit down to enjoy a Nowruz, or Persian New Year, meal: turmeric-tinged rice, a salad with pomegranate-molasses dressing, and the Persian-style “meatloaf” preparation known as kebab digi—all provided for free courtesy of Komaaj, a popular Northern Iranian restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. 

The idea behind the meal giveaway is for the local Persian community to give back to those in need, especially during a time of economic hardship exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. But Sara Ahmadian, founder of The Laundry art gallery and events space in the Mission that is spearheading the initiative, says it’s also meant to be a form of cultural exchange: For many of the children and their families, it will be their first experience with Persian food. 

Persian New Year

The Laundry—where, not coincidentally, Komaaj has taken up residence since this past summer—solicited donations from the Bay Area’s Persian community to pay for the meals. To distribute them, it’s partnering with Trybe, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works closely with families of students in low-income school districts, helping to make sure they’ve had food to eat while in-person schooling has been on pause. All told, Ahmadian expects to distribute more than 500 Nowruz meals over the course of the traditional 13-day holiday period, which marks the start of spring.

Ahmadian and Komaaj chef and co-owner Hanif Sadr, both of Persian descent, say this notion of taking care of people in need is deeply ingrained in the traditions of Nowruz itself. Sadr recalls that when he was growing up in Iran, some wealthy families might buy clothing or shoes for needy children in the days leading up to the festival—or, in an even more direct parallel, they’d pay a restaurant to feed low-income people in the neighborhood. 

“My grandma would send my young uncle to buy 10-pound bags of rice—10 or 20 of them,” Sadr says. “And then he’d deliver them to people my grandma knew needed help.”

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The prospect of serving a traditional Persian meal to a bunch of non-Persian children unfamiliar with the cuisine poses its own set of challenges. Prior to starting Komaaj as a pop-up in 2015, Sadr’s first experience as a cook was at a Persian language immersion school in Berkeley, so, as he puts it, “I know all the challenges of feeding picky kids.” When Ahmadian approached him about putting together a Nowruz meal for schoolchildren, he knew it would be a disaster if he served anything overly complicated. The children simply might wind up not eating it. 

Since different kinds of kabobs are traditionally eaten during Nowruz, Sadr decided to go with a kid-friendly classic for the main course: kabob digi, or “pan kabob,” which he describes as a kind of Persian meatloaf—seasoned ground beef mixed with onions and garlic, molded into patties, and then either roasted or pan-fried and served over rice. The meal will also come with dessert, provided by Quince Pastry Studio, as well as a pamphlet that explains some of the basic traditions around Nowruz.

A plate of saffron-glazed smoked surgeon and herbed rice on a white plate
The main course in Komaaj's Nowruz prix fixe is a saffron-glazed smoked sturgeon. (Komaaj)

Meanwhile, Bay Area diners looking for a more “advanced” Persian New Year food experience can order a takeout meal from Komaaj in the next two weeks. Sadr’s special Nowruz prix fixe ($40) includes saffron-glazed smoked sturgeon, kuku sabzi (an herb frittata), roasted eggplant and whey, and a salad made with the traditional components of the Haft-Seen table that’s displayed during Nowruz. All of the dishes are also available a la carte, but ordering the prix fixe has the added benefit of subsidizing an additional donated meal. The Nowruz meals are available Friday through Sunday, March 19–21 and 26–28.

Ahmadian says one of the main reasons she invited Komaaj to take up residency in The Laundry to begin with was because she wanted to give Persian food and culture more visibility. The Nowruz giveaway also provides Persian people in the Bay Area—many of whom donated upwards of $1,000 to support the Nowruz event—a chance to give back to the community.

“We have a small community—but a pretty powerful community,” Ahmadian says.

Komaaj is located at The Laundry at 3359 26th Street in San Francisco. Details on the meal giveaway here.