Business partners and lifemates Aisan Hoss and Mehdi Parnia had no intention of going into the food business when they first left Iran. As a dancer and a civil engineer respectively, Aisan and Mehdi immigrated to the United States with the hopes of finding a welcoming place to call home. But with a shared love for the food of their homeland, they wound up embarking on a mission to bring Persian cuisine to the Bay Area, starting with kuku.
Finding Home in Dance and in Food
Aisan’s art begins with a love of dance. While living with Mehdi in their home country of Iran, Aisan opened up a dance studio, even though it was officially illegal to dance in Iran. Through word-of-mouth, the underground studio grew so exponentially that it caught the attention of the government, so she decided to apply for a dance program abroad.
Taste This: Kuku, The Persian Frittata
In 2013, Mehdi and Aisan moved to the United States, so that she could freely pursue her passion for dance. When she arrived in Oakland with a scholarship to Mills College, Aisan was overwhelmed with the sense of community she felt from her fellow students. Aisan and Mehdi began to feel at home in a different country.
“I wondered, ‘Why are people so nice here?’” she recalls. “Any problems I had, people would tell me how they were going to help fix them.” Medhi adds, “It’s about feeling accepted. People here are interested in listening to my story and where I came from.”
When Aisan’s dance program came to an end, the couple had to decide whether or not they would continue to stay in the United States. Mehdi and Aisan decided they needed a long-term plan in order to make that decision. That’s when the idea of starting Oyna Natural Foods to share Persian cuisine came to life.
A kuku is best described as a savory Persian-style frittata, but unlike a frittata, the kuku contains a lot less egg. Persian food is heavily based on herbs, and the kuku is no exception, made up of over 70 percent herbs and vegetables. Oyna’s kuku are dairy- and gluten-free, with no sugar added. In a country where unhealthy, processed food is so readily available, Mehdi and Aisan saw a need for fresh, healthy, ready-to-eat food.
In April of 2016, the couple enrolled in La Cocina’s food business incubator program. Although Aisan was the mastermind behind their signature kuku, the recipe wasn’t cemented until after they were accepted into the program. In fact, Aisan was unsure whether or not she would be able to recreate the traditional Persian frittata.
“We knew we were going to have a Persian food business, but we didn’t know what we were going to make. One day, Mehdi comes home and says ‘I found it. We are going to make kuku,’” Aisan says. “Who is going to make these kuku? I have made it once, and it ended up like stone!”
After Aisan’s countless test batches, and with Mehdi’s meticulous recipe record-keeping, they were able to hone their signature kuku recipes. “The thing about me is that I have to be a master at things,” she says. “I feel like there are a lot of great chefs in the Bay Area, and I don’t want to call myself a chef yet because I want to give them the respect they deserve. They have been doing this for years. Just like dancing, you can’t do three months of training and call yourself a professional dancer.”
Fast forward to Oyna’s first market day in Walnut Creek in January 2017, and the crowd of people trying to get a taste of kuku would beg to differ. “Although Persians absolutely love our kuku when we bring them to catering events, we didn’t know if Americans would like them,” says Aisan. Despite it being a rainy day, Oyna completely sold out within the first two hours.
Last fall, Oyna started bringing kuku to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. The most popular item on the menu is the Sabzi kuku—the signature kuku of Iran—made with chives, parsley, cilantro, dill, walnut, and barberry. All kuku can be paired with Oyna’s garlic-yogurt and mint-parsley sauces.
Food as a Bridge Beyond Politics
Behind every food is a culture and a country of origin, but Aisan firmly believes that people should be able enjoy food without having to bring one’s preconceptions or politics to the table.
Some customers have been hesitant to try kuku when they see the word Persian, which is why Oyna is on a mission to deliver products made with all fresh ingredients and to raise awareness about Persian culture through your tastebuds.
“When people try to ask us about politics we just say, ‘Let’s talk about food,’” says Aisan. “First we draw them in with the taste of the food, then without knowing it, they become a fan of the cuisine. Then they want to know how we eat in Iran, and they slowly get closer to the culture. And that’s really valuable to us.”
Visit Oyna Natural Foods at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays (8 am to 2 pm) and stop by the CUESA Classroom today (3/17/18) at 12:00 for a Market to Table Demo with Aisan Hoss. In celebration of Persian New Year, Oyna will be serving saffron herb rice to pair with the Sabzi kuku at their booth this Saturday.