The Purim story can sometimes feel a little distant, taking place, as it does, in Persia many centuries ago. It all becomes a bit more real, however, when we remember that Persia is present-day Iran and that Jews are still living, cooking and struggling there today.

Rafi Hakimi, currently of Baltimore, is a kosher supervisor (mashgiach), aspiring caterer and father of two, Raina (3) and Yoel (1). His fledgling catering business, Panache, offers kosher catering services all over the Baltimore region and features American and Persian cuisines.

Rafi Hakimi of Panache Catering

Rafi Hakimi of Panache Catering

If there’s one thing Hakimi knows, it’s Persian cooking. Born and raised in the city of Shiraz, Iran, Hakimi grew up in a genuine Persian kitchen and learned to cook from his mother, who still lives there. “I was very close to my mother growing up,” he says, “She used to call me her daughter because we didn’t have a girl in the family, and I loved to cook.”

Hakimi recalls there was only one kosher butcher in Shiraz, and he was not able to meet the needs of the local Jewish community, so Hakimi’s father would hire a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and they would go off to slaughter kosher meat. “My earliest memories of being in the kitchen are of sitting on the floor plucking chickens,” he said.

If you’ve ever plucked a chicken, you know it can be time consuming. “The thing about Persian cooking,” Hakimi said, “is that it takes so long! You really have to have patience to do it right.” Ghormeh sabzi, for instance, is a meat stew made with complex blends of dry and fresh herbs. “That recipe has over ten steps and can take all day to prepare!”

But what he loves most about Persian cooking is the spices. “Nothing about Persian cooking is plain or bland, we use many spices and special blends of flavors: cumin and cinnamon, turmeric and saffron, za’atar and fresh herbs.”

Persian Jews, Hakimi says, don’t celebrate Purim by baking hamantashen or drinking alcohol. “I never even knew Purim was celebrated by drinking until I came to the States,” he said. “In Iran, whenever they say Haman’s name at the synagogue, we set off firecrackers and shoot cap guns. Imagine five minutes of solid noise! Sometimes they would even close down synagogues because of noise complaints.”

They do, however, dress in costumes. “Once, at school, I dressed as a girl, and I was so convincing that I got in trouble for riding on the back of a motorcycle. Girls don’t do that in Iran…definitely not without a covering.”

“In Persia we don’t have a specific Purim food, but my mother and I would always make sholeh zard and bring it to our neighbors.”

Hakimi explains that in Iran, there is a mandatory draft at age 18, and Jews don’t fare so well in the army. So at the age of 16, he left his family and embarked alone on an odyssey that eventually led him to Baltimore. He developed his commercial cooking skills along with his passion for food presentation while working at the Pearlstone Center, in Reisterstown, MD, as prep cook, mashgiach and eventually assistant director of food services.

“That’s where the idea for ‘Panache’ came from,” he said, “When I make food, I always want it to be beautiful, to present it well, and people always told me I should start something of my own.”

Panache Catering, 410-905-5930