In 2013, Ora Imanoel was operating a successful catering business called Mazza From Heaven with a close friend, Pearl Dwek.
The cuisine was as unique as it was popular — Syrian and Persian dishes infused with spices rich in flavor like turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, allspice and saffron.
And although Mazza From Heaven closed a year later — both Imanoel and Dwek had young children at home — Imanoel continued to cook.
“I cooked for my son’s bar mitzvah,” Imanoel said. “On Friday, for about 95 people, for kiddush for about 200 people and for lunch for about 120 people.” Imanoel had four people helping her the week of the bar mitzvah, she explained, but she cooked all the Persian and Sephardic dishes for the occasion.
Imanoel, an immigrant from Iran, has taught cooking classes at home and continued to teach Zoom classes during the pandemic. She even has a YouTube channel titled Cooking with Ora, though she is not currently uploading new content. Her last video was posted eight months ago. The channel — which was run by her 15-year-old son — stopped when her son got busy with school, but Imanoel would like to return to it one day.
“I was concerned for my son and did not want the channel to be a distraction for him,” she said.
Cooking with Ora references Imanoel’s 25 years of fine tuning “her love of cooking into a science,” and describes her as a “master cook, specializing in Sephardic cuisine for the Ashkenazi palate.
“One bite of her creations,” the description continues, “and you will understand why she is a sought after to teach her recipes to crowds large and small.”
Imanoel is a nurse, a wife and the mother of three children ages 17, 15 and 11, who all attend Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. After working for several years as a critical care nurse, she now works with her husband of 21 years, Dr. Babak Imanoel, in his medical practice. They attend Beth Tfiloh Congregation, as well as the Persian Sephardic shul, Ahavat Shalom.
In the beginning
Growing up in Iran, Imanoel learned how to cook from her mother.
“My mom had a high school diploma and took the cooking class in high school and learned the authentic way of cooking the Persian food. And because she was a great cook, a combination of both helped me learn the authentic way of cooking Persian Sephardic food,” Imanoel said.
“My earliest memory is of me cooking as a 6 year old,” Imanoel recalled. “I had made meatballs, and when my mom saw them, she told me that they were all different sizes, so they would therefore cook at different times. She made me do them all over again.”
Imanoel does not shy away from cooking for large groups. Persian families are big, she said, and it is not unusual to have between 150 and 200 people invited to celebrate special occasions.
“My mother was one of 12,” Imanoel said.
In Iran, Imanoel and her family lived in Shiraz, one of the cities with a large Jewish community before the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Jews first came to Iran after the destruction of the First Temple, in the 6th century BCE.
According to the World Jewish Congress, prior to 1979, there were 80,000 Jews in Iran who lived primarily in Tehran, Shiraz, Kermanshah, Isfahan and Kuzistahn. Many Jews left Iran during the revolution, and by 2012, there were approximately between 9,000 and 12,000 Jews left in Iran.
Imanoel was 17 years old when she left Iran, joining an older sister in New Jersey and leaving her parents behind. She left in the early ‘90s, after the Iran-Iraq War, which ended in 1988. Her family had lost many of their assets.
“There was no stability and no future” for a young Jewish woman, she said.
Her parents were not able to leave because her father was blacklisted. They would join her and her sister in the United States in 2000. Her father, Syon Eghbali, died in April of this year, and her mother, Iran Yaghoubzadeh Eghbali, currently lives in California.
As a refugee in the U.S., Imanoel did not speak English, so she enrolled in a community college to learn the language of her adopted country.
She married and moved to Baltimore five years later, then enrolled at the University of Maryland School of Nursing.
She credits her career as a critical care nurse for the organizational skills that help her in cooking.
“Being a critical care nurse taught me how to supervise myself,” Imanoel explained, “so cooking for 20 to 30 people is easy for me.”
After a particularly long or stressful day, Imanoel said, losing herself in the creation of Persian delicacies brings her comfort.
“Cooking to me is therapy,” she said.
Flavorful, not spicy
“I want to clarify that Persian food is a flavored food,” Imanoel said. “It’s not spicy/hot. It is flavorful.”
Every region in Iran has its own food, which varies by climate, Imanoel said. For example, the climate in the south, which is closer to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, is different from the climate to the north, which is closer to Russia. This difference in climate influences the range of foods and flavors throughout the country.
“Sixty to 70 year ago, Jews in Iran lived in a ghetto, and they did not know how to use saffron, because it was not an option economically,” Imanoel said.
As things changed and the Jewish community became wealthier, they were more able to partake in the use of spices that make Persian food so flavorful. They started to use more saffron and started to cook more authentic Persian food.
The use of saffron, for example, has become like the use of turmeric, which is one of the main spices for Persian food. Spices are particularly important since observant Jews are not able to use butter, fat or milk in meat dishes.
In general, Muslim and Jewish cuisines are similar, Imanoel said, but Jews in Iran long ago could not afford beef cubes, so they used more vegetables in their dishes.
Imanoel’s YouTube channel features 23 videos with cooking lessons ranging from how to make Persian basmati rice, to easy three-ingredient lemony tofu, to desserts such as chocolate tofu muffins and a two-ingredient fried puff pastry Chanukah dessert.
“I like to play with taste buds,” Imanoel said. “I love to use different techniques and to be creative with the use of spices.”
Before COVID-19, Imanoel used to give cooking lessons in her home, and she is still open to doing that.
“My goal is to teach new, busy families to cook so they avoid buying prepackaged food, which has a lot of preservatives,” she said.