From constructing buildings to constructing a business that would introduce a favorite food from his homeland, Mehdi Parnia has traveled a long way to deliver the Persian specialty Kuku to American consumers who love new food experiences.
Mehdi’s parents had moved to Tehran from the Azerbaijan area of Northern Iran when they were in their 20’s, so Mehdi grew up speaking Farsi. “My wife Aisan’s family is also from Iranian Azerbaijan, so on special holidays we visit both families. I can understand Azeri and speak it, just not very well,” he smiles.
Oyna means “dance” in Azeri, and the name is a tribute to Aisan, a contemporary dancer and choreographer. Since dance is illegal in Iran, the couple went to live in the United Kingdom in 2008 for her to study at the Conservatory of Dance and Music in London. Mehdi got his master’s degree in construction management.
Back in Iran in 2012, the Parnias realized that in order to fulfill their dreams, another move would be necessary. Aisan came to Mills College in the Bay Area to get her master’s degree in dance, and Mehdi came to visit.
“It became clear that my knowledge and expertise in the construction business wouldn’t transfer readily to the United States. In the process of helping a friend with his food business, I learned a lot and became more and more interested in that field myself,” he recalls. “I had always had a passion to start a business, so I began looking for food products I could be enthusiastic about.”
“Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, there were a number of restaurants that served Middle Eastern food, but it was predictable. I wanted to bring something new.”
“The Persian culture is very, very ancient. Persian Muslims celebrate moments of nature. Each change of the seasons marks a special holiday in Iran. The autumn equinox celebrates the season turning to winter. The winter solstice is Shab Yalda, and on this longest night of the year in December, the whole family gathers at the home of the oldest person in the family, and the party can go on all night. Sweets are a big part, especially pomegranate.”
“New Year’s is celebrated at the spring equinox in March, when the sun is moving north into the Northern Hemisphere. At the New Year celebration, fish and rice are traditional, along with Shabzi Kuku.”
“We made very little change in the traditional kuku recipes. Ours is true to how it’s cooked and served in Iran. The difference here is that it’s packaged as a ready-to-eat item that’s convenient and healthy. Each snack pack contains one of our four flavors of kuku, plus a complementary sauce.”
Mehdi has encountered lots of challenges in running a small business, but he has a mission that’s bigger even than providing value for consumers, and that is creating a bridge between the two cultures, American and Persian.
“I want to give another meaning to the word Persian, that leaves aside the politics and instead grows out of an appreciation of our people and our culture, including our wonderful food.”