“Food was the main thing that kept me sane while living in the diaspora,” explains Helia Sadeghi, a UC Berkeley student and rising Oakland-based baker-chef. Sadeghi, who uses the pronouns they and them, left their homeland of Iran in 2016 at the age of 17. “When I finally found a stable home in the United States, the first thing I did was buy an electric stand mixer.” Six years later, they’ve moved far beyond that single mixer, as Sadeghi has since founded a commissioned cake business called Big Dill Kitchen that’s producing some of the region’s most in-demand cakes.
It took a little time for Sadeghi to get to this point. After moving around the Golden State for a few years, shuffling from Sacramento to the Central Valley to Long Beach, Sadeghi finally planted solid roots in Oakland, the city they have called home for nearly two years. It’s in Oakland where Sadeghi creates their baked goods tinged with flavors and scents of their homeland, like lavender-soaked chocolate sponge cake or vanilla layer cake filled with banana slices, bathed in rose milk and topped with salted honey whipped cream. “It reminds me of the bakeries back home,” they say.
The name Big Dill Kitchen is a play on the idiom and herb, yes, but also, as they explain, a nod to the fact that it took so long for them to feel comfortable sharing their food on social media. “It was a ‘big deal’ for me to finally share my food with people.” The other layer of meaning is from Farsi. “Dill or del also means ‘heart’ in Farsi, so ‘big heart kitchen’ works too because it reminds me of my grandma and how she was always in the kitchen.” (They cite their grandmother and mother as their main culinary influences.)
And finally, to add another layer of meaning, Sadeghi further adds, “dill/del also means ‘belly’ or ‘stomach’ in modern Farsi slang.” Got that?
Big Dill Kitchen brings this same multilayered mindset to the kitchen, introducing underrepresented or misrepresented food to the masses. Too often, Stadeghi said, restaurants in the U.S. water down Iranian fare and bypass its more complex dishes. That’s why Sadeghi doesn’t stop at sweet.
“Everybody knows kebab or saffron rice, but there’s a lot of other amazing food from my country that also deserves to be showcased,” Sadeghi said. Morgh o aloo, a chicken and plum stew with walnut chunks in a pomegranate molasses broth, is one dish Sadeghi highlights as a favorite from their oeuvre. Another is loobia polo, their take on the rice and beef/lamb dish that’s cooked in a large pot until the outside layer is browned crisp, and then overturned onto a platter dramatically, a la tahdig.
Other standouts on Big Dill’s savory menu include ab doogh khiar, an Iranian refreshing summer soup of cucumbers, red onion, and yogurt topped with dried rose petals. “I feel like a lot of people here don’t entirely understand yogurt the way as we understand it,” Sadeghi explained. “Almost everything is accompanied by yogurt.” See, on that note, their borani bademjoon, a smoky and garlicky yogurt-based dip with roasted eggplant.
Sadeghi also prepares dishes that aren’t necessarily connected to their homeland, at least not directly. The fresh fruit tart, with a kaleidoscopic layering of seasonal fruit brushed with a rose glaze, is an ode to summertime harvest. And, everybody, please rise in honor of Sadeghi’s unabashed appreciation of angel hair pasta. Their tuna lemon pasta with olives and kale brings the unfairly maligned thready shape to center stage. “I think angel hair pasta is underrated,” they playfully proclaimed. “Don’t @ me.”
The nascent Big Dill Kitchen started accepting cake submissions around six months ago. While the cakes they bake for their customers are commissioned (and there for client-driven) efforts, they’ve found that most orders have a sumptuous vibe that align with their own. Sadeghi’s dream flavor combination, for example, is this pistachio-yogurt sponge cake with raspberry-rose jam filling and rose frosting. “She might just be my favorite cake…the kind I would make for you if you asked me to combine all of my favorite flavors,” they said.
Describing themself as “your local dinner party host, tea-aficionado, [and] spice-enthusiast,” Sadeghi’s works can be ordered by direct Instagram message, but be aware that their cakes are wildly popular commissions right now, so order sooner rather than later. Big Dill also holds intermittent pop-ups, including two coming up soon: On July 30 at Oaktown Spice Shop and another in late August at Crisis Club Gallery, both in Oakland.
The menus for those pop-ups, which will be posted on their Instagram once solidified, will be “very limited because I’m just one person,” Sadeghi said: In addition to studying at Cal, they also work at the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law, so that “one person’s” time is in short supply. But Sadeghi will definitely find a couple hours to whip up some Persian carrot jam for their next event, a condiment made with orange peels and hints of rose and cardamom that’s proven popular with their friends. “Whenever I bought the stuff at Middle Eastern or Persian stores, it just didn’t taste like the one I grew up with, so I started making my own,” they said.
Eventually, Sadeghi will create a website to showcase their bakes and dishes, and also — they say — their recipes. “I just want to share things that I grew up eating in Iran,” they said. “Things that are very underrepresented here but I know people would love to try, things that go beyond what’s offered at your typical Iranian restaurant.”
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