Iranian cuisine is a complex amalgam of styles and traditions from the Levant, Caucasus, Turkey, Greece and all the way to Northern India and the food of Moghuls. With these cross-influences having permeating menus so indelibly, we get to eat the evidence of this cultural exchange. Rice biryanis, flatbreads, kebabs, sweets, stews — all have their roots in this ancient and rich mix.
Iranian communities haven’t been in Canada that long. Immigration started in the 50’s and comprised mainly of students going to Canadian universities. But the 1979 Islamic coup that toppled the US-backed monarchy changed all that. Through the 80’s and 90’s the Iranian immigration rate grew from several hundred to the several thousand per year. Many of them were well-to-do urban sophisticates from large cities like Tehran. They settled mainly in the suburbs of Toronto (hence its “Tehranto” sobriquet), but a large number – about 30,000 – moved to the Lower Mainland, mostly to North Vancouver. Our city, or so my Iranian friends tell me, has many similarities to Tehran. Our skyline and the North Shore mountains look uncannily similar to Tehran with its snow-capped Alborz mountain backdrop.
Clustered along central Lonsdale Avenue are a number of Iranian shops, bakeries, kebab joints and restaurants that serve the small but active community. Yaas Grill House spun off a few years ago from the fast-food buffet set within Yaas Bazaar – a popular Iranian supermarket that closed when their location was slated for redevelopment. (That still has not happened and a new grocery store has since occupied that space). They served various stews, kebabs, rice pilafs and other simple but tasty traditional fare. And it was fast food: you could come in, order, eat and be out of there in 20 minutes.
Their new, more modern premises allowed them to expand their offerings. They now have a larger grill, a much longer buffet, a couple of attractive blue-tiled tandoors, a naan dough rolling machine — even a gelato bar.
Yaas is first and foremost a kebab shop, so that’s where you should start. Undoubtedly the central dish of Iranian food – and indeed its national dish – is the kebab. According to tradition, it was invented by medieval soldiers who used their swords to grill meat over open-field fires and, to this day, kebab shops use sword-like steel stock for their skewers.
At Yaas, the chicken kebab ($11) in particular is succulent, tender and slathered with butter. All kebabs come with Persian-style rice, with a generous spoonful of melted butter and a dusting of sumac powder. (Persians are emphatic that one of the true benchmarks for a kebab shop is the quality of their rice. It should be fluffy, firm, pearlescent and perfectly salted. As an Asian person – I totally get this).
The selection of meat ranges from chicken breast to a mixed grill of chicken, ground beef, and lamb (between $10 and $16). All kebabs are served with rice, a grilled tomato, a simple tomato salad and if you ask, a raw onion (a traditional accompaniment). Bring friends and you can share in the stews, kuku sabzi (a Persian “frittata” of sorts), and various rice dishes like sour cherry rice ($7). Always take note of the daily specials.
These are turbulent times and I would like to emphasize that our vibrant Iranian community was the result of a political and refugee crisis. The Canadian people accepted them without hesitation. And while relatively small in size, the community has an become an outsized influence politically, culturally, and economically. They are now an invaluable addition to the Canadian national fabric and – thankfully – our food scene.
1629 Lonsdale Ave. | North Vancouver | 604-990-9099 | www.yaasgrill.com