- Noor Yadegar – Noor grew up in Tehran in the late 1960s-early 170s with her father Zod, her Naneh Goli, and her brother Mehrdad. She is forced, unwillingly, to leave Tehran and immigrate to America as a teenager by her father to protect her from the Islamic regime. In America, she eventually assimilates to Western culture and marries a Hispanic man named Nelson. Noor and Nelson have one daughter named Lily. When the reader meets Noor, she has just discovered that Nelson has been having an affair and her daughter is caught in the middle of a painful separation.
- Behzod "Zod" Yadegar – Zod Yadegar is the father of Noor and Mehrdad. He was raised by Russian immigrants who taught themselves how to cook Persian food and started the Cafe Leila. Zod initially spends time in France learning the art of French cooking but returns to Tehran after the untimely death of his brother. Zod ends up marrying his brother's would-be fiance, a beautiful opera singer named Pari, with whom he falls deeply in love and eventually runs the cafe. He is well-known and beloved by his patrons and his community, calling them by name and asking about their families. When the reader meets Zod, his old age has made him sickly and Noor is coming to check on him.
- Lily Olivero – Lily is the daughter of Noor and her husband Nelson. Lily has grown up in California, with little to no understanding of her family's history in Iran. Her mother has even gone so far as to tell her daughter not to mention that she is Iranian in order to save her from ridicule at the hands of ignorant Americans after 9/11. Lily is a teenager who is rebelling especially against her mother during her parent's situation. Lily prefers her father and initially feels as though she has been kidnapped when her mother takes her to Iran to visit her grandfather.
- Mehrdad Yadegar – Noor's older brother and Zod's oldest son. He is also shipped to California to escape the Islamist regime. Mehrdad eventually marries a white American girl and has a family in America. He is protective and often teases his older sister, but is ultimately thankful for her loving hand.
- Pari Yadegar – The beautiful wife of Zod and mother to Noor and Mehrdad, she is imprisoned and eventually killed by the Islamist regime while she is on her way home from a gig singing opera. The family never learns about the circumstances of her death and it is never made totally clear to her just what she did wrong.
- Nelson Olivero– Husband to Noor and father to Lily, when he first meets Noor, Nelson is a flirty womanizing man. When he and Noor get married it seems as though he has changed his womanizing ways and become a devoted husband and loving father but when the reader first meets Nelson, it is revealed that he has been having an affair.
- Naneh Goli – Davoud and Zod's nanny, she is adopted by the family after she is kicked out of her own family and moves in full time when married life doesn't suit her. She is more like a big sister to Zod and Davoud than a hired servant and shows remarkable devotion to the family.
- Ferry – A young woman who suffers from an acid attack witnessed by Lily after she turns down the marriage proposal of an unwanted suitor. Her disfigurement after the attack eventually leads to her being disowned by her own family and the Yadegar's adopt her at Lily's insistence.
- Soli– An employee of the Cafe Leila and Zod's cousin, he was the Cafe's original apprentice. He works primarily in the kitchen and when Zod falls ill he becomes the Cafe's main chef. He is in charge of training Karim.
- Karim– A young boy hired by the family to serve under Soli as the Cafe's apprentice. Due to his youth, most of his responsibilities during the book include running errands and helping with maintenance. He eventually befriends Ferry and falls in love with Lily, forming a strong bond with them both.
- Nina Yadegar– Mother to Zod and Davoud and wife to Yanik, she quickly learns to cook Persian food and speak Farsi when she and Zod arrive in Tehran from Russia. She also is the author of many of the family recipes passed down among the Yadegars for generations.
- Yanik Yadegar– Father to Zod and Davoud and husband to Nina, he is also trained in the culinary arts, having trained in St. Petersburg. He brings his Russian cuisine to the original Cafe Leila after changing his name from Yedemsky to Yadegar upon arrival in Tehran.
- Davoud Yadegar– Nina and Yanik's eldest son and older brother to Zod, he is initially engaged to Pari but dies tragically young in a car accident.
- Family – The Yadegar family has been held together by their love for family for generations. The love that Zod has for his brother leads to his marriage to Pari, her love for Zod leads to the procurement of the family recipes, and this love keeps the Café Leila open.
- Family, to the Yadegars, is not limited to people who are blood-related as shown through their adoption of Naneh Goli, Karim, and Ferry
- Patrons return to the Cafe Leila for the homey tastes of the food and the family atmosphere that makes them feel like they belong.
- Food – The Yadegar family cooks and eats together, the passing of recipes being a rite of passage for members of the family. Spending time in the kitchen together is one of the ultimate ways this family shows they care about each other.
- When Noor and Mehrdad leave Tehran one of the first things they become homesick for is the tastes of the Cafe Leila and the food their Dad made
- There are certain foods to be made for every occasion, from funerals to birthdays to weddings, joy and mourning alike have a dish associated with them
- Immigration/Home – At first, Zod doesn't know what to do when the Islamist regime invades. When he ultimately decides to send his children away, he is worried how they will turn out so far away from him and from home. Zod himself spent some time away from home but he ended up back home. The Cafe Leila has been a home for the Yadegar family for 3 generations.
- When Noor and Mehrdad come back to Tehran they have lost a good amount of their Persian culture at the cost of assimilating to American culture
- Noor and Mehrdad do not immigrate by choice and therefore get very homesick
It’s the same everywhere, she thought, they’re small and they live with you and you’re in love with them and they move away and a slightly bigger version of them moves in. Then you fall in love again, only to watch that little person leave, and yet a slightly taller, more agile version, who still fits in the toddler bed, but just barely, arrives and there you go again, head over heels. Another birthday will come and this one, too, will go, pigtails and all, and so on, until your heart could burst. You see them turn two, then three and four and you miss that tiny newborn who smelled like milk, the one-year-old who teeter-tottered, and how sweet was that two-year-old who would not let go of your hand, and do you remember running alongside her bicycle at five? Where did she go?
Maybe we don’t really grow up until our parents die, she thought. Maybe her infant memory was forever looking to Zod and Pari to make things better because they always did. Because if our parents didn’t exalt us, we spend our adult lives blaming them—for not doing this, and not doing that, not being “supportive,” not making an appearance at our first recital, being overprotective or aloof, damaging our self-esteem. Yet at our best or worst, who sees everything? Who knows us best? Who waits and waits to see what we yet may be? Then one day they’re gone and it’s just you, and there’s nothing left to squeeze, no one to blame for the dismay over the course your life has taken. Once the tears have stopped, it’s just the here and now and the desire to do better, to be closer to the person you want to be.
The eternal tracing and patching took weeks: walnut and caraway strudel, apricots in syrup, chicken necks with turnips and prunes, ponchik (fried dough balls filled with custard), rice porridge, vatrushki(savory tarts), beef pelmeni, kulich, each one translated by a family friend in exchange for meals. His mother had salvaged these formulas from the hands of Bolshevik barbarians, learned what she could from them, and stowed them away until fate brought another round of fanatics to their door.
Maybe if you’ve lived as long as he had, you knew all too well that looking for blame was futile, that you need not go back and ask for explanations
To live into your forties thinking it was you who brightened rooms, because nothing of what you had seen so far prepared you for the truth: how small and inconsequential your so-called luster, how easily extinguished and utterly dark.
Lush, with all her shyness gone, Noor's thinking on this evening was anything can happen. And it did, only it was nothing like the scenes of urgent, breathless arousal she'd seen on film, but a murmur, a slow and quiet awakening of a fantastic feeling she didn't know existed; his body moving around her, an explorer's voice in the dark, responding to her smallest breath.
Alone in the kitchen, without Zod's supervision, he found himself turning to the wholesome food of his childhood, not only for the comfort the simple compositions offered, but because it was what he knew so well as he set about preparing a homecoming feast for Zod's only son. He pulled two kilos of java beans from the freezer. Gathered last May, shucked and peeled on a quiet afternoon, they defrosted in a colander for a layered frittata his mother used to make with fistfuls of dill and sprinkled with sea salt. One flat of pale green figs and a bushel of new harvest walnuts were tied to the back of his scooter, along with two crates of pomegranates- half to squeeze for fresh morning juice and the other to split and seed for rice-and-meatball soup. Three fat chickens pecked in the yard, unaware of their destiny as he sharpened his cleaver. Tomorrow they would braise in a rich, tangy stew with sour red plums, their hearts and livers skewered and grilled, then wrapped in sheets of lavash with bouquets of tarragon and mint. Basmati rice soaked in salted water to be steamed with green garlic and mounds of finely chopped parsley and cilantro, then served with a whole roasted, eight kilo white fish stuffed with barberries, pistachios, and lime. On the farthest burner, whole bitter oranges bobbed in blossom syrup, to accompany rice pudding, next to a simmering pot of figs studded with cardamom pods for preserves.
It wasn't that Nina didn't make equally tasty buns, but Zod, her rogue apprentice, had refined the dough to a featherlight brioche with a subtle tang. He filled the pockets not just with beef and onions, but peach jam, saffron rice pudding, smoked sturgeon, potatoes and dill, cabbage and caraway apples, duck confit and chopped orange peel, and, once, even a pearl that fell into the lemon custard when Nina's necklace snapped, beads hitting the counter like hailstones.
The cuisine of Northern Iran, overlooked and underrated, is unlike most Persian food in that it's unfussy and lighthearted as the people from that region. The fertile seaside villages of Mazandaran and Rasht, where Soli grew up before moving to the congested capital, were lush with orchards and rice fields. His father had cultivated citrus trees and the family was raised on the fruits and grains they harvested.
Alone in the kitchen, without Zod's supervision, he found himself turning to the wholesome food of his childhood, not only for the comfort the simple compositions offered, but because it was what he knew so well as he set about preparing a homecoming feast for Zod's only son. He pulled two kilos of fava beans from the freezer. Gathered last May, shucked and peeled on a quiet afternoon, they defrosted in a colander for a layered frittata his mother used to make with fistfuls of dill and sprinkled with sea salt. One flat of pale green figs and a bushel of new harvest walnuts were tied to the back of his scooter, along with two crates of pomegranates- half to squeeze for fresh morning juice and the other to split and seed for rice-and-meatball soup. Three fat chickens pecked in the yard, unaware of their destiny as he sharpened his cleaver. Tomorrow they would braise in a rich, tangy stew with sour red plums, their hearts and livers skewered and grilled, then wrapped in sheets of lavash with bouquets of tarragon and mint. Basmati rice soaked in salted water to be steamed with green garlic and mounds of finely chopped parsley and cilantro, then served with a whole roasted, eight kilo white fish stuffed with barberries, pistachios, and lime. On the farthest burner, whole bitter oranges bobbed in blossom syrup, to accompany rice pudding, next to a simmering pot of figs studded with cardamom pods for preserves.
Jessica Jenkins ’19