America is often called a "Melting Pot." The term refers to the ever-growing population, its many cultures and skin tones - and in essence - its flavor. Sometimes, however, those flavors are literal. This Iranian vegetarian restaurant provides an unlikely pairing of cuisine's … in an even unlikelier place.
Homa Jahannia's idea was unique. She is the owner of the Sage Vegetarian restaurant, which serves traditional, and non-traditional, Iranian foods in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Jahannia said, "It's a vegetarian restaurant. No meat; no fish; no animals. Everyone said how risky it is. In the South. No one will come. But I said, 'It's okay. I don't care. If it hits, it hits. If not, it's no big deal.'"
While North Carolina is a typically-conservative southern state, the so-called "Triangle" of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill contains three major universities, and is considered both progressive and highly educated. It seemed the ideal location for Homa and her son Ramin to open a restaurant.
"People say that 'it's like we're at our mom's house when we come here,'" said Jahannia.
There's a family-style atmosphere both inside and outside the kitchen. One Mom said, "My son is a vegetarian and he loves this place." A Dad gushed, "For a non-vegetarian I love it. Food's terrific; this is the best vegetarian place without question."
Another patron of Sage Vegetarian had this to say: "We hear that Homa is a magician in the kitchen … and that has certainly proven to be true. So, when we get a chance we treat ourselves, we come here. This is our special place."
Iranian dishes are typically meaty stews served over rice - and there is no vegetarian option. That is the untraditional part of this Persian Restaurant.
"I've been vegetarian for many years," said Jahannia. "It wasn't hard for me to change the recipes. We use beans, potatoes and tempeh instead of meat in "ghormeh sabzi." We make eggplant stew. Plenty of protein. People love it. 'Fessen Joon,' I also make with tempeh. Everyone loves it. Everyone knows it and calls it by its Farsi name. It's so cool."
And that "cool" extends to the décor of the restaurant. "My kids did it, said Jahannia. "I can say that I did very little. It was all them. No one believes me when I say that, but it's true."
The owner's son, Ramin Jahannia, said, "My sister was a big proponent in having the earthy type of feel here. It was a mixed effort; mostly my sister and I."
And almost all the food is from local farms and markets. Homa Jahannia said, "We try as much as possible to buy local and organic. It's not always practical - out of season, etc. - but if we can, we buy organic and local."
The clientele also is local, and not necessarily Iranian.
"I can say that probably 98 percent of our customers are American," said Homa Jahannia. "Most are meat eaters, too, but they come to try it and they love it. Many people - the men, usually - are here by force from their women. They ask, 'what are we going to eat?? There's no meat, no chicken, no fish? What will we eat?'
"Just come in and try it. And once they do, they see how good it is, how good it is for them. It won't make you fat. If you're concerned about cholesterol, or if you're diabetic, this food is so good for you. People come from all over the place and tell us that we should open in their home towns. If I were younger, I'd want to make this a chain. I tell my son, 'Do that.'"
Iranian traditional, vegetarian non-traditional, and a mother-son team spreading their take on Persian food across the country? That would be a literal stirring of the American "melting pot."