It’s the first properly warm day of 2019 when I set off to meet Yasmin Zahedi and Katharina Schulze-Berndt, the pair behind dining pop-up Princess of Persia. As I enter the flat where they held their first dinner almost a year ago, I’m met with a glorious sight: a kitchen bathed in sunlight as Iranian dates soften in the oven, and kashk e bademjan stews on the stove. It’s almost too perfect.
“For a long time, I kept thinking that as an Iranian, there's no place that I would feel good to take my friends to introduce them to Persian food,” Zahedi tells me as we sit around an art deco dining table in Schulze-Berndt’s flat. “There just wasn't. There were a couple that had good food, but their atmosphere and the decor was really not my taste.”
Both Zahedi and Schulze-Berndt first discovered this issue when living in Germany. Zahedi, who grew up in London, moved to Germany after she married and stayed in the country to raise her children. Years later, one of those children—Ryan—went on to date Schulze-Berndt, who was born in Munich. When Zahedi and Schulze-Berndt moved to London (with son/boyfriend Ryan in tow), they saw an opportunity to bring modern Persian food to a new audience … even if it did involve the unconventional route of working with your boyfriend’s mum.
“We were talking about it and thinking, ‘This is crazy, there's definitely a gap here, it would be great if there was a restaurant that served food this way and had this kind of decor we’re kind of talking about it,’” explains Zahedi. “We saw a gap and thought, ‘Let's design what we want.’ We didn't want to go straight into opening a restaurant. We wanted to introduce the idea to people in a slow way.”
“I think if you're of my generation, you can't really have that experience if you don't know someone who's Persian,” adds Schulze-Berndt. “That's what we want to do—to have a restaurant where you can take your friends and introduce them to Persian food, in the way we like to have Persian food.”
While London can be a hostile place for a new restaurant, the city is conveniently bursting with kitchen takeovers, supper clubs, and pop-up markets. Schulze-Berndt and Zahedi began small. With a crowd of around 12 people, they hosted the first Princess of Persia dinner from the comfort of Schulze-Berndt’s living room, serving their take on classic Persian dishes like masto labou, a beetroot dip, or khoresh gheymeh, a yellow split pea and lime stew, traditionally served with mutton but transformed into a vegetarian main. The dinner was a success, and Zahedi and Schulze-Berndt have now hosted numerous kitchen takeovers around South London, from a former Mexican restaurant in Peckham to a cafe in Deptford. Their goal: to transfer Persian food from its often stuffy or formal context in London restaurants, to the more laid-back style of dining that they and their friends enjoy.
“For me, it's not only about food,” explains Zahedi. “When I go to a restaurant, I like where I'm sitting, I like the crowd, I like the decor, I like the presentation. It's the whole thing.”
“I think having a really relaxed atmosphere and a low-key environment—that was what we were always aiming for,” agrees Schulze-Berndt. “So you can relax and have Persian food.”
This is certainly the vibe at a Princess of Persia dinner. At the event I attended earlier this month, modern Iranian music played while mounds of bread and dips emerged from the kitchen, all served on handmade ceramic plates from Iran. Menu items included paniro asal, a feta, ricotta, and honey dip with chives; kookoo sabzi, an omelette packed with herbs; as well the khoresh gheymeh. Not to mention one of the most absurdly delicious desserts I've ever tried: dates stuffed with mascarpone and honey, then sprinkled with pistachio, pomegranate, and salt flakes.
With such a vast array of Persian food to pick from, how do the pair decide on the menus for Princess of Persia?
“We started off with the recipes we liked and grew from there,” explains Zahedi. “We take traditional recipes and just modernise it in a way that usually means less meat.”
The pair have prepared some of those dishes in the flat today. In the kitchen, Zahedi mixes whey into the kashk e bademjan, and plates it up with barberries and walnuts. The dates are cooling from the oven and filled with the sweet, creamy mascarpone. We sit down to eat, and I ask what they hope their diners take away from the experience.
“We don't want to just focus on the food, the whole idea is the bigger picture,” says Zahedi. “[We want] to introduce Iran through the eyes of the people rather than through the stories that you hear. To us, what connects people is food and community and giving and sharing. That's what we want. We want them to enjoy the food and enjoying being around together.”
“[We want] to show how modern Iran is,” adds Schulze-Berndt. “Because there are so many amazing creative influencers come from Iran, and I think that's really important to show that side.”
I pop another date in my mouth (they are better than I remember, if that’s even possible).
“[Iran] has the coolest cafes, the coolest museums, rooftop cafes with views,” continues Zahedi. “It's really different to what…” she trails off.
“Maybe with our food and decor we can bring a little bit of that here, so people can see that side of Iran as well.”