My name is Camellia Jahanshahi and I'm an Iranian-American multidisciplinary artist, cook, and community worker! I've moved around my whole life but have been living in Montreal for about 4 years and feel very at home in such a culturally diverse and rich city.
Tell us about your first culinary memory I'm blessed to have grown up in a family where everyone loves to cook and loves to eat! I also moved around so much that I had a diverse array of options available to me from a young age when it came to food. So it's hard to think about what came first! My parents come from two very different cultures but they came together with a love for food and hosting parties, so I have lots of memories from when I was little watching them both work together to prepare delicious and beautiful feasts for their friends and the art of their collaboration in the process is something that stands out as a core memory for me that has really shaped how I view the act of preparing food for hosting people. I guess when it comes to food I was involved in making, my earliest memories range from holiday cookies with my mom, blueberry crumble with my maternal grandma, and making kebabs with my uncle Afshar.
How did you get into the culinary world? The only professional training I ever had was taking a chocolate-making class, mostly for fun, at the Institute of Culinary Education when I was a senior in high school- which, was a lot of fun and definitely something that got me thinking long term. But then I got involved in a professional way through baking! I had a small baking business when I was in undergrad making edibles actually- very low key haha. Then when I graduated from university and moved back home to NYC I worked at a coffee shop and bakery called Pushcart for a few years. I loved working with them, it was hard work since I did both bakery and coffee shop shifts, but it was a great experience and I loved my co-workers! I also ended up working for another baker occasionally helping her out and just got really into that 4 am-5 pm lifestyle. If you know you know! Then when I moved back to Montreal to go back to school I needed a side hustle so I started my catering business mostly through word of mouth and the fact that all my friends knew I was a good cook. Most importantly for Montreal though, I'm a cook that is good at adapting things to people's dietary needs- I don't know if you know this but there are a lot of gluten-free vegans in this city.
What is your signature dish? Sweet saffron honey cornbread served with chicken and sausage gumbo is probably one of the best. But I'm also known for my Persian lime pulled pork, my loaded mac and cheese, and my sour cherry rice!
What is your favorite type of cuisine? I think it really depends on my mood and the season. Right now, in the middle of winter, I'm all about fancy ramen and dumplings so I would say more Japanese food. I am also a fan of anything that is wrapped in a carb- which thankfully is something you can find in every type of cuisine.
How would you describe your cooking style? I lean into a kind of fusion between Iranian and Southern Comfort food. Sometimes my menus are more mix and match and sometimes the dishes themselves are a fusion of both. I really like to explore the history of the ingredients I use to explore similarities and also highlight where our differences can add nuance and interest to a meal.
How did your upbringing influence your cooking style? Well, firstly I have no patience for people who can't appreciate a good meal and I think that has to do with my upbringing and the fact that everyone in my family loves food. I put a lot of love and intention into my cooking because that's how I was shown love most regularly from my family as a kid. My mom put SO MUCH EFFORT into my school lunches when I was growing up, it's honestly wild for me to think about all the work she put into it. But then definitely also the fact that I have an Iranian dad and an American mom from Tennessee just really colored every aspect of my life, but especially the food because everything was a fusion or a mash-up of those two cultures. My cooking style is really a natural extension of my upbringing- almost all of my favorite memories with any one of my relatives involve some kind of food. Whether it's a shrimp boil that we ate with our fingers on piles of newspaper laid out on the dining room table in the summer with my maternal grandparents or learning how to cook Persian rice and a beautiful khoresh from my dad, I'm blessed and grateful for it all!
How do you describe your cooking philosophy? "this probably needs more butter"
What was your biggest kitchen fail? It literally took me like 7 years to actually be able to get my Persian rice right. It was a running joke for a while, but I did finally get there eventually!
Who are your culinary inspirations? I really love Samin Nosrat, she was the first Iranian American chef that I learned about and that really touched my heart. Of course, I also have to mention Najmieh Batmanglij who is the author of several Persian cookbooks, my brother and I got Food of Life for Christmas one year back in high school and it's still the book I reference the most often in my cooking. Then, of course, I have to mention my parents! My mom worked really hard to learn Iranian cuisine to make sure my brother and I had some connection to our culture since we never lived around very many other Iranians or middle easterners in general. Of course, she also cooked traditional southern and American food which was also great, but the only I get the more appreciation and inspiration I take from her willingness to branch out and help my brother and I connect to the different parts of ourselves. Then my dad was actually a personal chef for a family in Minnesota when he first immigrated to the States and he just always has a knack for creating really truly beautiful dishes from all different culinary styles and is constantly trying new things, new ingredients, and I find that truly inspirational.
What is your favorite cooking technique? I love a good dry rub!
What vegetable doesn't get enough love? oh gosh. I mean I'm a big fan of okra which I think not everyone loves because some people are put off by the texture. I also LOVE beets, even if I'm just adding them for their color I can't get enough.
What are your "can't live without them" spices? I mean, I come from two cultures that use a lot of spices and herbs so....the list is really long. I actually recently have been branching out into making my own spice blends and one that I use pretty much all the time now I've called the "Roohi" blend. "Roohi" is Farsi for spirit or ghost, and the blend is in honor of my ancestral connections on both sides of my family. It's got a lot of your traditional southern or cajun spices but with a Persian twist where I've added dried Persian lime, parsley, lots of different peppers, and recently I added some fried onion bits to the blend as an update and I'm really loving it.
Which local restaurants do you highly recommend? I really like Toranj in NDG, their food is great and the shop is very aesthetically pleasing.
What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a culinary career? Definitely to just always be open to trying new things! Cooking is an art and art is something that requires constant exploration and fearlessness to pursue.
What advice would you give to an aspiring home cook? Don't limit yourself to thinking that fancy or "strange" ingredients don't belong in a home cooking. Home cooks are the best because you have the freedom to do whatever you want and not be limited by a high dining portion size lol. Be fearless! If you want an octopus, go get an octopus! When my family moved to NYC when I was in high school, one of the most fun things was going to Chinatown fish markets with my mom and watching her pick out lobsters for us to cook at home. Something we'd never done before and didn't really know how, but she was fearless and wanted lobster- so she did it and it was a little scary at first but honestly a great life lesson around breaking out of your comfort zone to do something special and exciting- even if it is just for you and your kid.
What's your favorite way to prepare an egg? If you're around me on your birthday you're getting eggs benedict for breakfast. I don't do it often, but it is my favorite way to eat eggs. I especially love eggs benedict over hash browns with toast points on the side. Although I have recently been thinking a lot about tea eggs and I haven't tried to make them yet but they look so beautiful it is definitely on my list of things to try!
You're hosting a dinner party, what's on the menu? About 5 thousand things. I LOVE throwing dinner parties and one of the saddest things about this pandemic has been the fact that I haven't thrown one in two years. The last dinner party I threw though was to launch my business Sumac and Sugar and we served sour cherry rice, fesenjan (a walnut, pomegranate, and chicken dish), chicken and sausage gumbo, saffron rice with potato tahdig, cucumber/beet/mint salad, a fresh herb kuku (like a frittata but not really), ashe reshteh (like a noodle and veggie hearty soup), sweet corn muffins, and a baklava cake!
What are your long-term culinary goals? I am really hoping to get a food truck in the next 3-to 5 years that I can travel around with and combine with my other art and burlesque stuff for like a little traveling dinner and a show kind of set up.
What recipe would you like to share with us?
It's eggplant season, so I've been making and eating a lot of baba ganouj as an easy and healthy snack to binge while I work. I love dips, probably because I can eat them with bread lol but also because they're really customizable! So here's what I do!
a big onion
garlic (like a whole head)
salt, pepper, cumin, paprika
** Please note that I do almost everything to taste, so if you're someone who likes exact measurements you're gonna hate this recipe and I'm sorry- but be fearless! trust the process, and have fun!*
First! slice your eggplant into like 3-4 sections lengthwise and then sprinkle those babies with salt and set them in a bowl or a colander for like 20-30 minutes to let the salt draw out some bitterness and moisture. While that happens, preheat your oven to 450F/240C.
Then, pat the eggplant dry to soak up that moisture you'll see beaded on your beauties after the 20-30 minutes wait. Take a baking dish and plop your beauties in coating them in olive oil. I also usually sprinkle some pepper and cumin at this point so the spices bake into the eggplant but you don't have to! Put them in your oven and let them roast for about 20-30 minutes. Keep an eye on them and flip them over like halfway through. They should come out soft and easy to mush while still having crisped skin.
While your eggplant is roasting, wash your parsley and chop up your onion and garlic! You have two options here. For an extra tangy/spicy dip, leave them raw. For a gentler alternative, you can sautee your onion and garlic in some oil on the stovetop. Both options are good, just depends on your taste preference! I'm a fan of sharp, so I usually leave them raw.
Finally, when your eggplant is done cooking, take them out of the oven, and here again, you have two options! You can either scoop out the eggplant meat and get rid of the skins for a smoother dip, or you can leave it on for more texture (and in my opinion, beauty). I like texture and color, so I tend to leave the skins on.
Once the eggplant has cooled a bit so you can handle them easily, put them in a food processor with your garlic, onion, parsley. Give it a pulse or two, and then slowly start adding your salt, pepper, cumin, lemon juice, and olive oil until you get your desired consistency. I find half a lemon suits me well for one eggplant, but it depends on the size of the eggplant so start with half and go from there! Same with the spices, start with maybe a 1/4 teaspoon at a time and taste regularly until you're satisfied!
Then serve that baby up in a dish with some warm flatbread and enjoy!