POMEGRANATE SOUP, by Marsha Mehran, Random House, 223 pages, $23.95.

This is a most unusual and charming novel about the three Aminpour sisters — Marjan, Bahar and Layla — who leave revolutionary Iran to settle in the small, sheltered village of Ballinacroagh in County Mayo, Ireland. They acquire a pastry shop on Main Mall and start creating a Persian oasis in "the land of crazed sheep and dizzying roads."

Soon, tempting aromas of cardamom, cinnamon and saffron are reaching the people on the street who are coming to the Babylon Cafe to check it out.

The natives, accustomed to a diet dominated by boiled cabbage, are quickly converted — but the self-proclaimed king of Ballinacroagh, Thomas McGuire, is incensed. He has trouble with "foreigners," but he has no idea how to stop the red lentil soup, the abgusht stew and rosewater baklava from gaining public support.

The sisters' most ardent supporters include Father Fegal Mahoney (an unorthodox priest and a stand-up comedian of sorts); Estelle Delmonico, a gentle widow; and Fiona Athey, a headstrong hairdresser. These strong characters help create a heady, funny, interesting environment.

Unfortunately, the Aminpours are destined to have continuing trouble from back home in Iran — and McGuire, a true

scoundrel, is determined to put them out of business. But Pomegranate Soup, the most favored dish and a lovely remnant of the author's own childhood, is symbolically strong enough to deal with the elements of evil.

(The author slyly adds an exotic Persian recipe, such as baklava, elephant ears, dugh yogart drink, torshi and lavash bread, at the end of each chapter).

The story is complicated when Layla, the pretty youngest sister, falls in love with McGuire's stepson, Malachy, a sweet young man who is soon disowned by McGuire.

Rehearsing in the sweltering room had proven nearly unbearable, so Layla welcomed the cool caresses of sea breeze on her moistened skin. She checked her watch again, eager for Malachy to finish his errand with Father Mahoney and join her on the beach. How romantic it would be if they were caught together in a rainstorm, Layla thought, hugging herself tightly. Straight out of a movie. Grinning, she looked up and winked at grumpy Croagh Patrick, sharing her fantasy with the ancient mountain.

Bahar, the middle sister, the one with neurotic tendencies, is haunted by a difficult Iranian past involving an evil ex-husband. Marjan, the stable sister, tries to guide and comfort the others — and to deal with the slowly evolving McGuire war on Persian culture.

The conflict described here is between the Persian spices and the Irish temperament.

The narrative is brisk, detailed and charming, the humor is delightful and the story, while simple, is addictive. Mehran effectively captures both the lexicon and atmosphere of the Irish and the Persian. The best way to describe it is to call it a modern, enchanting fairy tale in which multiple cultures and foods interact so effectively that they defeat the human tendency to ostracize because of racism and intolerance.

Not only are the Irish and Persians apt to fall in love with the story — but people of just about any other culture or ethnic group given half a chance. The author shows an exceptional imagination bound to lead her to a prolific writing career.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com