By Paola Totaro
She calls him ‘Mr. Shopkeeper.’ He smiles at his wife with a quiet pride. Together, they run the Persian emporium Persepolis, now one of Southeast London’s most intriguing shops – and an Iranian vegetarian haven.
Sally Butcher, whose flaming-red hair forms a wild halo, is busy behind the counter of her little café kitchen. It’s late on a weekday afternoon, and traffic into the bright yellow shop on the corner of Peckham High Street and Collyer Place shows no sign of abating.
Two young mothers, their babies in giant prams, are seated next to the window, while another couple – clearly regulars – have cleaned their plates to shining perfection. A man arrives asking for a specific type of Iranian pickle, another visitor requires a very particular type of cheese, while a young woman wants to buy, not one, but three copies of ‘Soup for Syria’ – a splendid new full-color book of hearty recipes from star chefs including Sally, created as a fundraiser for refugees.
People come from all over London, from the poorest and the most affluent neighborhoods, in search of specialist Persian ingredients that you cannot find anywhere else in the British capital. They’re fuelled by a bout of homesickness for Iran, or by a gourmet’s whim.
Sally and her husband of 22 years Jamshid, also known as Jamie, have run Persepolis for more than 15 years. They brought it to life in the very same spot where his parents for many years ran a shop (though a very different one). It was ‘Mr. Shopkeeper’s’ idea to start this business initially, and Sally insists that she was a very reluctant recruit. Yet the natural balance between “his business brain – he runs the wholesale side of the business – and my creative spirit meant it just worked for us from the very beginning.”
Within days of starting behind the till, she was hooked. Now, despite it being a cliché, the shop really is best described as an Aladdin’s Cave. Painted a saffron colour on the outside, Persepolis is a local beacon, particularly at night, when garlands of rainbow lights beckon the visitor. The shop windows are stacked with a riot of gorgeous Persian tea cups and platters and bubble pipes.
Inside, everywhere you look are banks of bagged spices, piles of glittering sugar in crystal form, Iranian lollies and sweets, shiny freshly made baklava, hookah pipes, music CDs, cans of exotic-looking pickles, oils, a small fridge full of fresh cheeses, incense, rose petals and dried limes, exotic grains, rice, and two wonderful walls plastered with beautifully photographed recipes from Sally’s own cookbooks.
“It is an Aladdin’s Cave. People come and find things,” says Sally. “There are lots of different levels to this shop so the more you poke around the more you find.”
In the tiny kitchen at the back, beside the little cluster of tables and chairs, Sally prepares the vegetarian feasts that fill her cookbooks and attract diners from all over London. Her blog, http://foratasteofpersia.co.uk , is full of local foodie news, recipes, and upcoming pop-ups and events.
To date, Sally has published four books which have become hits in the U.K. and Europe (she’s big in Holland and Germany too). She says she is currently being courted to front a new TV cookery show.
‘Persia in Peckham,’ her first book, is as much an ode to the food of her adopted culture and its customs and traditions as it is to the little pocket of southeast London that she so loves. The three books that followed are all published by Pavilion and include Veggiestan, a delectable journey into Iranian and Middle Eastern vegetarian dishes – from to-die-for ‘Swooning Imam’ stuffed aubergines to an exotic kookoo sabzi or herb omelet; Salmagundi, for salad lovers; and Snackistan, a guide to Middle Eastern snacks made with with fresh ingredients and to eat with your hands or share with friends.
Her cookbooks, Sally insists, are much more than just recipes: “They explore and explain the richness and complexity of Persian culture.”
Before she met Jamie, says Sally, she had no personal spiritual or cultural connection with Iran. Now, she laughs, she is the self-appointed “Cultural Minister of Persia to Peckham.”
Erudite and wonderfully eloquent about her adopted nation’s long and extraordinary history, she is also fluent in Farsi now, insisting she learned the Persian language “out of paranoia:” “Persians say sahih – ‘I see’ – a lot, and because my name is Sally I thought that is what they were saying! So I had to learn!”
Sally adds that she has a “lovely non-Persian cat who is fluent in Persian too!”
Like many Iranians, ‘Mr. Shopkeeper’ was sent to Europe by his parents for an education and to prevent him from getting drafted into the war. He was educated in France, where he went to school, finished his education in Belgium and moved to Britain to work.
The couple met when they were both in catering, forged a great friendship and “things went from there.”
“We are opposites,” Sally explains with a laugh. “He is numbers, I’m words. I’m vegetables, he’s about meat. Iranians are carnivores. It’s the classic attraction of opposites.”
“I love the outdoors, being in nature. He, being Iranian, likes the sophistication of the city, and his electronic gadgets. More than 22 years later, here we are!” she says with a happy smile.
Sally says the life of a shopkeeper is “not dissimilar to showbiz. I’m incredibly busy, there doesn’t seem enough time, but when you love what you do, you always find a way.”
“I’d always wanted to write. And I love being here in the shop. Now, somehow, the two have come together, and once a few things are settled here in the café, I’ll spend more time writing. For now, the shop has a life of its own – from being my creation, to me now being its servant.”