Flavors Worth Finding: Iranian Delights, Onigiri Abundance and More

Tokyo Fish Market's shrimp tempura onigiri and a can of UCC Coffee with milk.  (Ruth Gebreyesus)

Dining in the Bay Area can mean lots of optimized salad bars and grain bowls inhaled between meetings. Here, KQED staffers share recent meals that demanded we slow down and enjoy them thoroughly.

Get a taste of these flavors at Onigilly, Komaaj and at your local grocery store

Tokyo Fish Market's Onigiri

By lunch, the selection of onigiri at Tokyo Fish Market in Berkeley is sparse, so I’ve made it a point to go in the morning. The first time I did, I was delighted by the sheer diversity of onigiri I had never seen before, including takana (a chopped and pickled mustard green), ume (salted, pickled plum) and okaka (a delicate smoked tuna). Last Friday, I deliberated these choices and ended up with shrimp tempura, my favorite, and takana. What sets Tokyo Fish Market’s onigiri apart from others is how well the rice is seasoned in a light rice vinegar with a faint saltiness. The shrimp tempura in particular is such a delight of textures and flavors—a satisfyingly crunchy seaweed wrap with pearly sushi rice and a protein treat in its center.

By my math, one onigiri is a perfect snack, and two will hold you down for lunch. While at the market, I also grabbed a can of UCC coffee with milk from their well stocked refrigerated section. I’m an advocate of coffee as a social beverage more than a utilitarian one, but coffee in a can has an elegant appeal—especially when the can is so beautifully designed. UCC’s coffee was pleasantly milky while still delivering the rich taste I expected. I’ll certainly repeat some version of this market run in the near future.—Ruth Gebreyesus, food reporter and visual arts columnist

 

Kuku Sabzi at Komaaj

On a dreary Saturday morning, I found myself driving across town in pursuit of a dish that would make up for the physical distance between me and my family. Sometimes, you seek out food in order to feel a little closer to home. I found just that at Komaaj, a pop-up restaurant in North Berkeley’s Caffeinated Coffee, a new cafe that opened this spring, offering single-origin coffee beans from women farmers around the globe.

Kuku Sabzi, an herb frittata, served with sumac labneh, pickled carrots and toasted flatbread.
The Kuku Sabzi at Komaaj, served with sumac labneh, pickled carrots and toasted flatbread. (Kyana Moghadam)

Komaaj, the vision of chef Hanif Sadr, joined the cafe shortly after (the two businesses share the space). It offers regional dishes from Northern Iran, including maast labou (a Greek yogurt with roasted beets, basil, mint and sumac), as well as a saffron pastry made with rice flour and yogurt, and served with honey and rose petals. Komaaj also offers one of my favorites, baaghali ghatogh, a white bean stew with dill, radishes and a handful of herbs served with thick sangak bread.

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I'd followed Komaaj’s journey from afar on Instagram, admiring its commitment to highlighting dishes that are often overshadowed by Iran's famous tahdig and kebabs. Herbs are life in Iranian cuisine, and at Komaaj they shine through in every dish. I ordered the herbiest, greenest option on the menu, kuku sabzi, a frittata that's one of my all-time favorites. It’s a staple of Iranian cooking, especially in the springtime. Chef Sadr presents it with sumac labneh, pickled vegetables and toasted flatbread. It's a beautiful dish, and for the few minutes that it lasted, it took me exactly where I needed to be. — Kyana Moghadam, podcast engagement producer

Oren’s Hummus

A big group of colleagues and I were looking for a place to lunch without a reservation on a recent afternoon in downtown San Francisco, and Oren’s Hummus ended up being a tasty and accommodating choice for our nine-person party. The cute café, with its geometric, tiled floors and collection of mossy house plants, is perfect for family-style dining. We ordered the sampler of dips, an assortment of fluffy pureed eggplant (three different varieties!), spiced Moroccan carrots, juicy marinated beets and a thick, strained yogurt. We passed them around the table and compared notes on each dip, which was part of the fun.

True to its name, Oren’s Hummus has so many varieties of the famous chickpea-based dip. For my main, I got the hummus sabich, a big bowl of hummus that came with a combination of fried eggplant, potato, hard-boiled egg, cucumber, tomato, chopped pickles, amba sauce (a tart glaze made out of unripe mango) and fresh herbs. All cubed into tiny pieces, the fresh and cooked ingredients added lively texture to the creamy hummus and fluffy pita bread. The showstopper, though, was the beef and lamb kebab, which was tender and juicy, reminiscent of medium-rare meatballs that are a little crispy on the outside. I’ll definitely order that for my entrée when I go back to Oren’s.—Nastia Voynovskaya, music editor