The Secrets of Marin Gourmet’s Aubergine

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
March 24, 2017

The first day of spring was Affi’s favorite time of year, a moment of rebirth, renewal, and reconciliation. Known as Nowruz in her homeland of Iran, the annual celebration was the one occasion she would close her popular farmers market stand, in observance of the New Year.

Affi Panahi (pictured above) passed away in 2000, but her spirit lives on at Marin Gourmet, a Ferry Plaza Farmers Market original, where you’ll still find her famous roasted eggplant spread, handcrafted hummus, and other wholesome, vegetarian snacks faithfully recreated and shared week after week.

“When she prepared food, she always had the idea of having it be healthy and taste good,” says her son, Sadegh Panahi. “When she started selling at farmers markets 29 years ago, nobody understood gluten-free or vegetarian or vegan, but that’s the diet she lived herself.”

A New Life

Affi fled to the United States in 1978, just before the Iranian Revolution, a time when the government’s attitudes toward women took a conservative and oppressive turn. Thousands of Iranians immigrated to the US, becoming the largest population of Iranians abroad.

An educator with a master’s degree, Affi had to quickly adapt when she settled in San Rafael, California, with little money. Though not a trained cook, she worked in a church kitchen for five years, then opened her own restaurant, Café Affi, where she served healthy Mediterranean and Middle Eastern inspired cuisine to a loyal lunch crowd of people working for the Marin County courts.

Her cousin Hadi Shirazi (pictured above), who was a mechanical engineer in Texas, moved to California to join the business in its nascent days. “She needed help, so I jumped in,” he recalls. “Affi was very enthusiastic about the food. There were times when we used to work really hard, sometimes 72 hours without sleep.”

By the mid-eighties, they moved into catering and leased a farm in Dinuba, where they grew vegetables. They started selling their eggplant at farmers markets, and eventually introduced Affi’s spreads and dips as value-added farm products, to extend their offerings throughout the year.

Farm-Fresh and Fire-Roasted

As Marin Gourmet’s fans know, Affi’s signature is the addictive Aubergine, a savory spread of roasted eggplant and garlic. It’s a recipe passed down from her mother, who learned it from her mother, who learned it from an Italian friend some 70 years ago.

The flavor of Aubergine is one of a kind and the process is laborious, which may be why it has become Marin Gourmet’s flagship dip. In the summer, fresh eggplants are cleaned and peeled, then put on a mesquite charcoal grill at 1000°F until burnt and crispy. They’re then cooked again to capture the remaining juices, and vacuum-sealed and stored until ready to be turned into dip.

With help from Sadegh’s sister, Sherry, the product line has grown over the years to include an array of ready-to-eat vegetable-based fare, including falafel, crackers, baba ghanoush, artichoke dip, chimichurri (a parsley-based Argentinian paste), and an array of hummus flavors. Marin Gourmet also makes a special sprouted version of their hummus exclusively for Google. The small crew of employees makes the products from scratch at their factory in Petaluma, starting at 2:30 in the morning.

While store-bought commercial hummus often includes preservatives like sodium benzoate to extend its shelf life to several months, Marin Gourmet’s products are made with fresh and minimal ingredients (sourced mostly from California farms), so they last just a couple weeks. “Ingredients from farmers are the key part that we based our products around,” says Sadegh. “It’s those good ingredients that we’ve been able to build a good company on.”

Spreading the Hospitality

Today Marin Gourmet’s products can be found Whole Foods (an early adopter) and independent grocers throughout the Bay Area, but farmers markets remain a pillar of the business. Situated in the back end of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market facing a sweeping view of the Bay Bridge, the booth is a bustling hub of regulars stopping by to pick up their weekly hummus, and curious tourists grazing on free samples of falafel and dip.

On Saturdays you’ll still find Hadi at the market, where he is the warm and welcoming face of Marin Gourmet. “I love the people, and I just like to talk to them. The farmers market is the best part of the business for me,” he says. Sadegh occasionally works at the market greeting shoppers with samples, but mostly remains on the sidelines, letting Hadi and other core staff run the show.

Sadegh estimates that about a third of what they bring to market is given out in samples, but they’re proud to share with the community. At the end of the market, leftovers are donated to Food Runners, a volunteer-run nonprofit that recovers perishable food that would otherwise go to waste and delivers it to neighborhood food programs.

It’s a practice established by Affi, who donated food to homeless and women’s shelters even in the bootstrapping days of her café. “My mom’s philosophy was always to help people and feed people,” Sadegh says.

Find Marin Gourmet at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Archival photo of Affi courtesy of Sadegh Panahi. Photo of Hadi Shirazi by Tory Putnam.

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