There's no one actually named Miller at Miller's Market Place, an Iranian supermarket in Reseda known for good kosher meats. It's simply the name that came with the business when Danny and Benny Aghaee bought it in 1980. Back then, when it was on Vanowen Street near the Van Nuys Airport, it was a mid-sized neighborhood American market. The Aghaee brothers did little to change the character of the place--at first.
"We were only 16 and 18," Danny Aghaee explains. "We needed a business to support our family when we settled here after the revolution in '79. Our father was detained in Iran and we didn't have much capital to invest in inventory."
Now, sitting in his offices above the market on Sherman Way, snappily dressed in a well-tailored deep mauve suit, Aghaee admits with a kind of I-can-laugh-now grin that they had sunk most of the family's fortune into a white elephant. "People stopped shopping (at the old Vanowen location) because a lot of modern supermarkets were opening nearby. Suddenly we had to start thinking about how we could save the business."
At the time, few stores catered to the growing Iranian expatriate population in the San Fernando Valley. And so, with only $1,000 for merchandise, Danny and Benny Aghaee began to stock most of the necessities for the cooking that Iranians living here prefer to call Persian cuisine.
At Miller's former location the ambience--if you can apply such a term to a supermarket--had a bit of an old-country Asian market feel to it. Perhaps it was the unadorned cement floors or the faintly musty aroma of sumac dust mingling with cumin and fenugreek, and the way shoppers scooped the bulk spices into plastic bags to be weighed. Near Eastern-style breads, almost the size of bath towels, were stacked by the window like folded laundry. And its shelves held Near Eastern staples: bottled pomegranate juice, basmati rice, garbanzo flour.
At the butcher counter there were always serious discussions accompanied with enthusiastic gesturing as housewives described exactly how they wanted their meat cut. The same serious discussions go on today at Miller's new store, which opened in Reseda in 1990. But now the spices are prepacked and bar-coded and there are even convenience foods--for instance, seasoning mix for kubideh (a kind of ground meat shish kebab) and freeze-dried herb mixtures for ghormeh sabzi , the popular meat and herb stew.
* Torshi: Miller's sells a huge variety of pickles. They may be baby eggplants, okra, a mixture of seasonal vegetables, whole heads of garlic or even cucumbers.
* Mast-o Musir: In the cooler to the right of the cheeses you'll find this shallot-and-yogurt appetizer ready for the table.
FRESH HERBS AND SABZI-KHORDAN
Whatever else there may be on the table, one essential ingredient is sabzi-khordan , a tray of fresh herbs, radishes and green onions. This is a sort of finger salad to be nibbled as a refreshing counterpoint to the main dishes. Add cheese to the herb platter (usually a fresh white cheese such as the Syrian cheese from Miller's cheese department) and you have panir-o sabzi-khordan ; add Persian bread and you'll have nan-o panir-o sabzi-khordan , the staple of any Persian table.
Miller's produce department always has a luxurious selection of fresh herbs in generous bunches. Many are exclusively for sabzi-khordan while others, such as fresh baby dill, also flavor cooked dishes.
* Mint: Known as nana in Farsi, mint is to the Persian kitchen what cilantro is to Mexican cooking--the all-purpose fresh herb. It flavors cold drinks and salad dressings and it is sprinkled over salads and soups as a last-minute garnish.
* Persian Watercress: Called shahi , it lacks the bite of Western-style watercress. Instead its taste is mild and refreshing. You can recognize shahi by its two- to three-inch-long pointy leaves with serrated edges on a single stem.
* "Persian-Style" Parsley: This turns out to be the same thing that mainstream markets call Italian parsley. It's optional as sabzi-khordan but it is used in great abundance in many stews and stuffings.
* Persian Basil: At least that's what Miller's calls this clear relative of the sweet basil of Italian cookery and its anise-flavored Southeast Asian cousins. This basil has distinct, astringent citrus-like flavor of its own.
* Fresh Tarragon ( tarkhun ) and Fresh Coriander ( gashniz ): These are always available at Miller's to use for cooked dishes. As a matter of personal preference, some cooks include them on their herb tray.
* Fresh Fenugreek: We've all tasted fenugreek seeds, which adds the musky maple aroma to curry powder. Iranians prefer the greens, called shambalileh in Farsi. They remind me of a sturdier version of clover--the leaves, though slightly firmer, have a similar heart-like shape. Fenugreek's distinct, aromatic flavor is an essential part of khoresh-e ghormeh sabzi , a classic Persian stew loaded with fresh herbs that may be made with fish or meat.
* Persian Chives: Known in Iranian markets as tareh , these are flat and much wider than standard chives or even Chinese garlic chives. Tareh 's sweet, slightly onion-like flavor resembles that of leeks. Along with fenugreek, tareh is essential in khoresh-e ghormeh sabzi and Persian-style herb omelets.
* Baby Dill: Shevid turns up in hundreds of dishes, from soups and stews to the green pea frittata known as kuku-ye nakhod sabz. Shevid 's slightly bitter edge is especially fine in cold yogurt soup.
BASIC PERSIAN FLAVORING INGREDIENTS
* Somagh: Somagh is simply dried, shredded sumac berries. Besides being an all-purpose table condiment, this fruit-scented seasoning eliminates the gamy flavor from lamb and is, therefore, popular in marinades.
* Adviyeh: This mixture of several spices, with cloves and cinnamon predominating, is the Persian equivalent of India's garam masala . That is to say, it's the spice mixture that shows up almost everywhere, alone or in combination with other seasonings. Usually cardamom, ground angelica, cumin and coriander seeds are included and mixed together with ground, dried rose petals. Miller's sells adviyeh in two-ounce packages.
* Limu Omani: These dried Persian limes look like slightly shriveled, khaki-colored ping pong balls. However unattractive they seem, nothing exudes the wonderfully intense flavor of condensed lime essence like them. Limu omani are generally used in stews and soups, often in combination with adviyeh. The limes should be pierced in several places before adding them to the pot so they will release their flavor.
* Zereshk: Some cookbooks refer to zereshk as Iranian currants. They are more correctly known as barberries, and best known in zereshk polo , a pilaf flavored with them.
The berries also add their tart flavor to herbed frittatas ( kuku ) and to "bejeweled pilaf" (known as javaher polo or morassa' polo ), an elaborate pilaf mixed with nuts, slivered orange peel and chicken.
Before using zereshk , pick off any stems and soak them in a colander immersed in a bowl of water until they soften, about 20 minutes. Then lift the colander and tip out the water. Holding the colander over the bowl rinse the berries; the dirt will fall through the colander and the bowl will catch any escaping berries.
* Narenj: Prized for its sour juice and fragrant peel, narenj goes by the name Seville orange in English and naranja agria in Spanish-speaking countries. Its juice compliments fish; its peel, boiled in a light sugar syrup, is often used as a flavoring or garnish, for instance in khoresh-e morgh-e torsh , a chicken stew made with orange juice and fresh herbs.
You can find the julienned, dried peel in Miller's spice section and the fresh oranges, in season, in the produce area.
* Pomegranate Concentrate: If any dish represents the flamboyance of the Persian kitchen it is fesenjan , braised chicken or duck smothered with a sauce of ground walnuts and tart pomegranate juice. Many other dishes call for pomegranate, including ash-e anar , a lamb soup seasoned with pomegranate, ground angelica and assorted fresh herbs.
* Angelica Powder: Angelica ( golpar ) is an ingredient in adviyeh , pomegranate soup and many stews and pickles. It comes packaged in four-ounce packets and is found among the spices.
* Saffron: Iranian saffron, an important element of Persian cooking, has a character all its own. At Miller's it is sold by the mesghal (or mithqal ), a medieval measurement of weight equivalent to about 4 1/2 ounces. You must ask for saffron at the check-out stand.
* Albalu: Sour cherries, best known from the flavor (and dark pink color) they give to the famous pilaf albalu polo , come in several forms: in packets (dried) and bottled, either in water pack or sweet syrup. When fresh sour cherries are unavailable, cooks use the water-pack bottled variety for pilaf. A refreshing iced drink is made from the syrup-pack cherries and the dried cherries are eaten as a snack, like prunes or raisins.
* Kashk: This is a dried powder with a sour-cream-like aroma, made from wheat-thickened yogurt. It's often used as a delicious enrichment for soups and stewed dishes, most notably ash-e reshte , a complex meat, bean and noodle soup. The rich puree of roasted eggplant known as kashk-o bademjan is always blanketed with creamy reconstituted kashk .
* Turkey Parts: Although Miller's sells plenty of kosher beef, lamb and chicken, turkey--something you won't find abundantly in Iran--has become a brisk seller here. "People use it for kubideh and for stews because it has less cholesterol," Danny Aghaee points out.
* Beef and Veal: Unlike Western markets, where the meat is broken down into specific cuts, at Miller's, the beef and veal are usually sold in large pieces, such as the shoulder clod ( sar shaneh ) and shank ( mahicheh ).
Miller's Market Place, 18248 Sherman Way, Reseda, (818) 345-9222. Open Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.