Pittsburgh is final stop for Persian cooking expert Reyna Simnegar
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Pittsburgh is final stop for Persian cooking expert Reyna Simnegar

Venezuelan chef visits Pittsburgh

Turmeric, saffron and cardamom characterize much of Persian cooking, and last week, about 60 women gathered at the Fox Chapel Racquet Club to sample several authentic and fragrant Persian dishes. The event was sponsored by the Jewish Sisterhood and featured Reyna Simnegar, a Venezuelan native and author of “Persian Cooking for the Non-Persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Recipes You Will Love.”

A VIP reception prior to the cooking demonstration featured wine and Persian appetizers like eggplant quiche with tomatoes and zucchini; mini salmon kabobs; and Libyan butternut squash salad.

Simnegar, who lives in Boston and is the mother of five sons from 11 to 18, told the attendees about her journey to becoming Jewish. She was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school in Caracas, Venezuela. As a child, she could not understand why her uncle would wrap himself in a “schmatte” and rock back and forth (she thought perhaps that he had dementia), nor why her father would place stones upon family tombstones. As a young child, she was told not to ask so many questions. But at the age of 12, after she told her aunt that she spotted a Jewish person (her first sighting of a Jew), her aunt finally told her the long-buried family secret: Her father’s family was actually Jewish, having fled Spain for Venezuela during the Inquisition. They became conversos, pretending to be Christian to the world but secretly maintaining their Jewish faith.

That revelation led her on a lifelong path toward finding her Jewish spiritual roots. Over the years she uncovered more Jewish family history that goes back centuries, as well as Jewish objects, paintings and other family heirlooms.
Simnegar wanted to formally convert to Judaism at 17 but the rabbis advised her to wait until she was at least 18; she said it was about a three-year process before her conversion was complete.

At 18, when working in a Taco Bell after having come to Los Angeles for college, she met her future husband, who was a Persian Jew. Because her future mother-in-law was worried that she would have to FedEx her son some of his favorite Persian dishes, Simnegar learned to cook from her husband’s mother. “I thought it was poetry,” she said. Eventually, that encyclopedia of knowledge would prompt her to write a cookbook, published in 2011.

Entertaining the guests with humorous anecdotes, Simnegar demonstrated some of her tried and true cooking techniques, while guests were treated to an exquisite three course Persian meal from recipes in her cookbook.

Simnegar served ash’e anar (Persian pomegranate soup), made with beets, suffused with turmeric, cilantro and mint and topped with pomegranates; joojeh budemjune (chicken with eggplant), cooked with saffron and topped with gureh (sour grapes); and javaher polo (jeweled rice), aromatic basmati rice crowned with currants and pistachios. Dessert was Persian roulade, literally a rolled cake, brushed with rose water, filled with whipping cream, drizzled with chocolate syrup and topped with powdered sugar and strawberries. She also explained the significance of each dish, such as how rice is considered a “canvas” in Persian cooking.

She alluded to her relatives cooking with eggplant frequently; at the time, she did not realize that it was a holdover from Sephardic Jewish cooking in Spain.

As she was demonstrating the right way to shred beets, cut onions and roll a cake, Simnegar passed along helpful kitchen tips:

• Hungry? Take a whiff of cinnamon and the hunger pangs will pass.

• When caramelizing onions, add turmeric for a deep golden color.

• Add powdered sugar to thicken whipping cream.

All attendees not only partook of a sumptuous three course meal but took home a signed copy of Simnegar’s colorful cookbook, filled with 350 pages of Persian Jewish recipes, the titles of which are translated into Farsi. Examples of other recipes represented in the book include Moroccan tomato and roasted pepper dip (matbucha); Persian ground beef kebab (kebab’e kubide); Persian potato latkes (kookoo sibzamini); chickpea cookies (kuluche nochkotchi); and Turkish coffee (kahveh).

Because of the importance of rice in many dishes, the cookbook also features a Persian rice tutorial as well as other tutorials; pages lovingly devoted to saffron (the golden threads of Persian cuisine); and descriptions of the spices, seeds and other ingredients that characterize Persian cooking. Gorgeous photography captures the mouthwatering recipes, and photos of the author and her family are interspersed throughout the book.

After having traveled extensively since her cookbook was first published almost a decade ago, Simnegar said that her trip to Pittsburgh will likely be her last cooking demonstration, as it takes time away from her family. But it was important to her that Pittsburgh be her final stop, particularly as her hometown also experienced a tragedy during the Boston Marathon in 2013.

“The [Pittsburgh] community is very special,” she said. “I wanted to talk about the story of my family in a place where there was also a tragedy. It was extremely difficult for Bostonians; you feel alone and lost. We had that in common with Pittsburgh. I felt like it was like serendipitous, that Pittsburgh would be my last show.”

The cooking demonstration was the Jewish Sisterhood’s second annual kickoff event. A nonprofit organization, the Jewish Sisterhood was founded in 2016 by Shternie Rosenfeld to tend to the needs of the greater Pittsburgh Jewish community in the areas of education and special programming geared toward women. Other events have included family Shabbat dinners, self-development courses and the latest addition, “Journey with Shternie,” a weekly video blog with short Kabbalistic thoughts on the Torah portion.

“This is our second year bringing out a cookbook author to delight and engage us with their delicacies and also their fascinating life story. We love meeting other Jewish women who are strong, influential, beautiful, courageous and who are making a difference. That is what our sisterhood is all about,” said Rosenfeld. pjc

Hilary Daninhirsch is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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