Introducing Persian food

Introducing Persian food

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740668620
Photographer
Mark Roper

As a Lebanese chef running a modern Middle Eastern restaurant, i have long been intrigued by all things Persian. Since writing our first cookbook in 1999 Lucy and I have been struck, time and again, by just how many culinary trails lead back to Persia. And yet it’s a cuisine that has been sadly neglected in the West. Indian restaurants abound, everyone is familiar with Lebanese felafel and Turkish doner kebabs, but Persian restaurants (which many people would probably consider to offer some kind of vague amalgam of these cuisines) are thin on the ground, to say the least.

It’s true that Persian food shares some common ground with all the aforementioned food cultures, but, to be honest, the entire region is such a tangle of culinary threads – of influences and counterinfluences – that it’s almost impossible to unravel the genesis of many of them. Food historians have varying, often conflicting, theories as to what began where and who bequeathed which dish to whom, but in the end, perhaps, it doesn’t really matter – all the world’s cuisines are the richer for the melting pot of Middle Eastern influences. One thing is quite clear: Persian food is not the same as Arab food. Nor is it a variation of Indian food or of Ottoman food. It is its own distinct cuisine, with its own distinct history and traditions, and it deserves to be better known and appreciated in the West

Perhaps the first thing to do when embarking upon a study of Persian food is to open an atlas. Persia – modern-day Iran – is a surprisingly large country, stretching roughly three thousand kilometres from north to south, east to west. It forms a natural corridor between the Far East and the Middle East, and its lands are criss-crossed with a fragile skein of well-worn caravan routes that made up the ancient Silk Road.

Climate and terrain are two of the key influences on any country’s cuisine, and Persia is no different. At first glance it seems that much of Iran is made up of a high desert plateau, and managing the extreme climate has certainly had a significant impact on the country’s social and cultural evolution. But the long stretches of mountain ranges that wrap around the desert heartlands are what have really shaped the country. These jagged peaks are covered in snow over the winter months – and some remain ice-capped even in the summer – providing a source of water and cooling blocks of snow and ice for the people in the valleys and nearby desert communities. Several millennia ago Persian engineers constructed a system of underground pipes – qanats – to transport water from the mountains to villages and, crucially, to irrigate fields, thereby ensuring the survival of settlements. They also built yakchal – squat, thick-walled houses purposebuilt for storing ice blocks for chilling food and drink through the summer months.

Despite the perception that it is largely desert, much of the Iranian plateau is surprisingly fertile and many fruits, vegetables, herbs and nuts are indigenous to the region. Wheat, barley, lentils, almonds, walnuts, citrus fruits, pomegranates, plums, cherries, dates, beans, peas and many, many herbs have all been grown there for centuries. Some ingredients have even given their names to the English language: saffron, pistachio, spinach, orange, lemon, aubergine, tarragon and caviar all derive from ancient Persian words for these foodstuffs, while Shiraz grapes (which some say originated near the city of Shiraz in the Fars Province of Iran) have a particular resonance in Australia, where a modern-day grape of the same name is used to produce iconic wines.

As well as being a bountiful garden of produce in its own right, Persia benefitted from its position on ancient trade routes, and all manner of goods have flowed through the country down through the centuries. As the Persian empire swelled and expanded its borders, trade with the East brought in new and exotic spices; rice, sugar and wild fowl arrived from India, and from China came apricots, peaches and tea. By way of return, Persia sent sesame seeds, basil and coriander, a variety of nuts, broad beans and peas.

As they amass wealth and lands, all great empires seem to focus on the pleasures of the senses, and food is one of the most important of these. It is, after all, inextricably woven into a nation’s culture and history, and associated with religious feast days as well as important family events such as births, marriages and funerals. After the Achaemanids suffered defeat at the hands of Alexander the Great in 331 BC, new empires emerged in Persia, culminating in a golden era of culture under the Sassanids from the third to the seventh centuries. Their imperial courts were quickly filled with culinary riches, as well as other splendours. Although no books of recipes remain from this time, according to eminent Middle Eastern food historian, Charles Perry, in his foreword to Lilia Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, Persian aristocrats maintained their own volumes of personal favourites. Other Persian texts from the era tell of food served on plates of silver and wine drunk from golden goblets. Rarefied dishes emerged, the precursors to many that are still prepared today: whole beasts were stuffed with fruit and herbs and roasted or braised with sugar and vinegar, nuts were layered with pastry, and sweet jellies and cordials were made from fruit juice.

Although the Arabs conquered Persia in the seventh century, they were in turn conquered by the civilising influence of their new subjects. The diet of pre-Islamic Arabia was limited and monotonous, revolving largely around barley, dates and dairy products. But when they discovered the sophisticated Persian court, with its diverse and rich culinary repertoire, they enthusiastically adopted it as their own. In the kitchens of their new capital at Baghdad, the cuisine was further enriched by ingredients and techniques brought back to the court kitchens as their empire expanded. Here, too, for the first time, books of recipes and culinary protocol were written down, following practices thought to have originated in the Sassanid court. The oldest surviving Arab cookbook, the Kitab al-tabikh, was compiled in the tenth century, starting a tradition that was continued in the medieval Islamic world, long before Europeans began documenting recipes

One of the most significant impacts that Islam had upon the medieval kitchen was the prohibition of alcohol. It seems, though, that the newly Islamicised Persia was slow to abandon wine – both as a drink and for use in cooking. Wine and wine vinegar were used extensively in the Baghdad Caliphate (although it was eventually replaced by verjuice – sour grape juice – and other souring agents, such as lime or pomegranate juice and tamarind). Wine as a beverage, and the effects of its consumption, are recurring themes in Persian literature and poetry and many Persian poets, from Omar Khayyam to Hafez, have sung its praises.

Shah Abbas I, the great king of the Safavid dynasty at Isfahan, was also fond of a drop of wine, and it certainly features abundantly in the gorgeous frescoes reflecting those times that adorn the walls of the Chehul Sotun Palace, built by his successor, Shah Abbas II, in the seventeenth century. Wine was often served chilled with small blocks of ice, as were syrupy cordials or sherbets.

It was at the height of the Safavid era, in the sixteenth century, that Persia’s famous rice dishes emerged, becoming more and more elaborate concoctions, layered with herbs, nuts, fruits and spices such as saff ron. The refinement of these rice dishes proved so exciting that it even led to rice being exported to India, from where the grain originated. This only served to develop the link that had already been forged between Persian and Indian cuisines. Like the Arabs before them, the barbarian hordes of Mongols who smashed into Persia in the thirteenth century quickly absorbed the Persian language, religion and cuisine. One Mongol dynasty – that of Timur the Lame or Tamerlane – was so successful that it branched off to the north of India, where it became known as the Moghul empire, one of the most refined and extravagant courts ever known in that country. The Moghuls took a number of Persian influences with them: linguistic, architectural and, of course, culinary. Many of the popular and famous northern Indian dishes that we know today – biryani, naan bread, koofteh, kebabs, tikkeh and tandoor dishes – can all be traced back to their Persian antecedents.

Climate, geography, history have all shaped the evolution of Persian cuisine. Another key influence has been religion. As touched upon above, the arrival of Islam in the seventh century saw the prohibition of alcohol in the daily diet. Pork and unscaled fish were also forbidden, although neither have had much impact on the Persian diet, where sheep provided most meat and fish is consumed only on the shores of the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.

Going back further in time, the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster had a far more profound impact. His philosophy of duality – of the eternal struggle between good and evil in the world – also extended to the human spirit and body, with each individual seeking to achieve good health and happiness over sickness and depression. According to Zoroaster, the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – are reflected within the body in our blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile. It’s a philosophy that was subsequently developed by Hippocrates in his theory of ‘humours’, and it became the prevailing view of the human body – of a person’s mental and physical makeup – until the nineteenth century. Curiously, a similar philosophy – that diet affects one’s entire health and well-being – developed quite independently in China’s theory of Yin and Yang and in Indian Ayurveda medicine.

To achieve balance within the body, and maintain health and happiness, Zoroaster suggested that we must maintain balance in our diet, and thus food was divided into categories of ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ (Hippocrates later added two further groups of ‘wet’ and ‘dry’).

This ancient theory of dietetics is widely followed to this day in Iran, and most people seem to have an instinctive understanding of whether an item of food is ‘hot’ or ‘cold’, probably absorbed at the dinner table from their early childhood. Everyday meals are always planned to be in balance both in their own right, and with the circumstances. For example, if you have a fever, or during summer, you need to eat ‘cold’ foods. Conversely, in the cold winter months you need ‘hot’ foods. Similarly, one’s constitution or personality may also need to be balanced by diet. A person with a ‘cold’ constitution – someone who is naturally relaxed, patient, sluggish even – should avoid ‘cold’ foods, while a ‘hot’ person – quick-tempered, active, restless – should avoid ‘hot’ foods. Many Iranians are so devoted to this theory that they will always prefer to deal with ailments by tweaking the diet before visiting a doctor.

The classification of foods can be hard to work out – it is to do with the intrinsic ‘energy’ of an ingredient, and bears no relation to temperature – and it can seem rather bizarre to people who are not familiar with it. (Why are apples hot, for example? Or radishes and coffee cold?) To add confusion, some ingredients are classified differently across regions, but the list given here provides the usual hot or cold classification for the majority of common foodstuffs.

‘Hot’ and ‘Cold’ foods

Hot: Almonds, apples, bananas, butter, cardamom, cherries (sweet), chicken (hen), chickpeas, chives, cinnamon, cucumbers, cumin, currants, dates, dill, duck, eggs, fenugreek, figs, garlic, ginger, grapes, honey, kashk, lamb, mangoes, melons (sweet), mint, mulberries, mushrooms, oils, olives, onions, oregano, peppers, pistachios, quinces, raisins, rosewater, saffron, salt, sesame seeds, split peas (yellow), tarragon, turmeric, vanilla, walnuts, wheat.

Neutral: Tea, pears, feta.

Cold: Apricots, barberries, beef, beetroot, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cherries (sour), coffee, coriander, eggplants, fish, green beans, kidney beans, lemons (and sweet lemons), lentils, limes, milk, nectarines, oranges (sour and sweet), parsley, peaches, peas, plums, pomegranates, potatoes, prunes, pumpkins, radishes, rhubarb, rice, spinach, sugar, sumac, tamarind, tomatoes, turkey, veal, verjuice, vinegar, watermelon, yoghurt.

Nowruz Food inevitable plays a major role in festivals and to mark other special occasions. In Iran, the New Year is the grand-daddy of them all. As a celebration, it is like our Christmas, Easter and the summer holiday, all rolled into one, with presents, painted eggs, elaborate table decorations, feasting and a fortnight’s holiday. It is far more important to the Iranian heart than any religious event and any discussion about the country would be incomplete without mention of Nowruz.

Iran uses a calendar that dates back to pre-Zoroastrian days, and the year still revolves around the vernal equinox – which occurs on March 20 or 21 – when the first day of spring is celebrated. At the moment of the equinox, the sun is directly above the equator, and from this point onwards light once more begins its defeat of the dark. The rituals that surround today’s celebrations date back at least to Achaemenid times, and the famous complex at Persepolis is thought to have been built around 515 BC specifically to celebrate the Nowruz festival. Bas reliefs around the ruins depict images of the eternally fighting lion and bull – symbolising light and dark, spring and winter – and the great staircase up to the central Apadana reception hall is lined with carved dignitaries from all the nations of the empire, bringing gifts to the king.

As befits a spring festival, many Nowruz rituals revolve around rebirth, new beginnings, and a desire to ensure health and prosperity for one’s family in the year ahead. Today in Iran the run-up to New Year’s Day involves a flurry of spring-cleaning, the purchase of new clothes and gifts, and filling the house with spring flowers – hyacinths are the traditional favourite. Ten days before Nowruz, children plant trays of edible seeds, which are carefully tended to ensure they will have sprouted by the big day. And, of course, the kitchen becomes a hive of activity, as cookies, pastries and all sorts of sweetmeats are prepared. These days, many people will stock up on these goodies from local pastry and sweet shops (particularly those selling gaz – nougat – which is eaten and given away in prodigious amounts over the holiday), as well as bringing in supplies of fresh and dried fruit and nuts, to serve to guests or to take as gifts when visiting other households.

The real climax of the celebrations is the countdown to the exact, magic moment of equinox, which varies from year to year. To greet the arrival of the New Year, families gather around a specially decorated table, which is called the haft sin – or seven S’s. The haft sin table is set with seven items that start with the letter ‘S’, to symbolise the seven elements of life (fire, earth, water, air, plants, animals and humankind) and the seven guardian angels of creation (birth, life, health, happiness, prosperity, beauty and light). The haft sin themselves have evolved over time, but usually include sabzi (sprouts or herbs that symbolise rebirth), samanu (a wheat-paste pudding representing wealth), sib (an apple, for health), senjed (lotus fruit – love), sir (garlic – medicine), somaq (sumac berries – the sunrise), and serkeh (vinegar – age and patience). Other ‘S’ items might include sekeh (coins, for wealth) and sonbol (hyacinth flowers). Goldfish are another absolutely essential decorative item on the Nowruz table: they represent life within life, and also the sign of Pisces, which the sun is leaving. Each family also has its own special decorative touches: candles, painted eggs, a mirror, an orange, a bowl of rice or a jug of rosewater are all popular. Many families will include a collection of the revered fourteenth-century poet Hafez, and some – the only nod to Islam – a Koran. The first meal of the New Year includes symbolic dishes: sabzi polow (green herb rice) and kuku-ye sabzi (herb omelette) are served with white fish, to represent growth, bounty, rebirth and freshness.

During the Nowruz holidays, families and friends engage in a round of socialising, always in a strict order, with younger family members visiting their elders first. On the thirteenth and final day, it is considered bad luck to stay at home, so the whole country goes out on a picnic! This is not a Thermos-of-tea-and-packet-of-sandwiches kind of picnic, though, but rather an elaborate meal of hot rice, fried fish, omelette, bread, lettuce with sekanjabeen, pickles, yoghurt, fruit, pastries, cakes – all spread out on the picnic sofreh. As the celebrations draw to a close, the specially grown herb tray (now beginning to look a little the worse for wear) is discarded into running water (along with the devil), and each family member makes a wish for the year ahead.

And then, on the first workday of the New Year, ash-e-reshteh, a soup filled with fine noodles that symbolise the threads of life, is served to celebrate new beginnings, and so the cycle begins – until next Nowruz.

Eating the Persian way Persian food is one of the most sophisticated and complex cuisines of any in the Middle East, and the influences that prevailed down through the centuries can still be seen in many dishes today. There are some regional differences – the people of the Caspian Sea littoral are big fish eaters, and they also consume huge amounts of locally grown rice; on the Persian Gulf, many more spices are used than elsewhere in the country – and even the occasional touch of chilli-heat, reflecting the long history of trade with nearby India, Africa and Arab countries. On the whole, though, the approach to eating and the dishes themselves remain consistent around the country.

Perhaps the one great unifying theme is that of generosity and sharing. Middle Eastern hospitality is legendary – it is after all one of the important tenets of Islam to welcome a guest as a gift of God – and this is no truer than in Iran. Iranian women always seem to be able to cater (in vast amounts) for the unexpected visitor; indeed it would be unthinkable for a family not to invite anyone who happened to be around – friends, friends-of-friends, neighbours, passers-by – to share in mealtimes. And this approach extends from the wealthiest to the very poorest villager.

A Persian meal begins even before one sits down to eat. As a guest, one is welcomed into the formal reception room, and plied with an endless succession of little morsels: bowls of dried fruit and nuts, sweets and pastries, chunks of melon or other fruit are served with tea (chai) or sherbet drinks, all accompanied by polite and charming conversation.

When the meal is ready, one is invited to the table – although in many homes, whether rural or urban, the meal is often eaten, by preference, on the floor. A sofreh (a cloth or brightly coloured plastic sheet) will be spread out over the carpet and then the real business of eating begins.

Persian meals are less structured than we are used to in the West. There are no fixed courses, as such, but instead dishes accumulate on the sofreh and everyone helps themselves to a bit of what they fancy throughout the meal. That being said, there is a definite order to proceedings.

All Iranian meals, however humble or elaborate, begin with a dish of mixed fresh herbs, fresh white cheese and stacks of flatbread. The bread is often used instead of cutlery, to scoop up or wrap food, but otherwise meals are eaten with a spoon, or sometimes a fork. Yoghurt dishes, small salads, pickles and wedges of onion, lemon or lime follow in quick succession. A simple meal, or a light lunch or supper, might then include a thick, tortilla-like omelette known as a kuku, or in the winter there might be a hearty soup (ash), thick with pulses and vegetables. For bigger meals, or when entertaining, there will always be rice – either a plain chelow or a more complex polow, served with khoresht (a stew–sauce) or kebabs. The meal ends with more fruit, and soft drinks or dugh, a lightly sparkling yoghurt drink, are drunk throughout.

If you would like to experiment with eating the Persian way, then try to plan a simple meal around one rice dish and a khoresht or kebab dish. Select one or two small dishes to begin (and include a basket of fresh herbs, some cheese and bread, of course), and finish with fresh fruit. For a more elaborate meal, build upon this basic structure and add a dessert (a Western rather than Persian touch), and perhaps offer a few sweet treats to go with coffee (or tea) after dinner.

How to use this book

We would like to stress that this book is not intended to be a traditional, all-encompassing, definitive work about Persian food. There are several excellent Persian cookbooks available, written by respected and knowledgeable Iranian authors, where you will find a wide range of authentic and traditional recipes – although we wait with bated breath for Roza Montazemi’s comprehensive, classic cookbook, Honar-e Ashpazi (The Art of Cooking – in print since the mid-1960s), to be translated from Farsi into English. If you develop the kind of passion for Persian food that we have, we strongly urge you to buy as many of these books as you can. Having said that, Persian cookbooks are sadly underrepresented on bookshop shelves in the West, and we hope that readers will look on our off ering as a welcome addition to the repertoire.

This, then, is the crux of the matter: the recipes that follow are intended to complement, rather than replace, traditional versions. They are a little bit free-form, a little bit – dare we say it – modern. As such, we hope you will use them in an equally free-form and modern way. Please don’t feel that you have to recreate a Persian banquet faithfully in your dining room! Instead, flip between the sections and put together a meal in your own way, with dishes that appeal. Eating should be pleasurable, rather than an academic exercise, after all. So please also consider that many of the recipes and ideas in the following pages would be just as wonderful as part of a Western meal. Khoresht dishes, for instance, while uniquely Persian and usually served with rice, are also lovely when served with a big bowl of creamy mashed potato, or soft polenta.

The sections that follow are arranged somewhat differently from a traditional European cookbook. There are no starters, main courses and desserts, as such, because that is not the way Iranians eat. Instead, the recipes are organised to reflect, more or less, their role in a Persian meal. So you’ll find sections covering the staples around which every meal revolves; small dishes; soups and ‘ash’; stews and sauces to accompany rice; grills, roasts and fried dishes; sweets (which include pastries, cakes, sweetmeats, ice-creams and a selection of Persian-inspired desserts), and, finally, preserves (pickles, relishes, jams and cordials). Each section includes an explanatory introduction that outlines what to expect from the recipes.

At the end of the book you’ll find food notes to help with any ingredients that might be new or unusual. But, with a few exceptions, most Persian dishes are made from ingredients that you will probably already have in your pantry or that are readily available from supermarkets or providores. After all, most larger supermarkets stock a good selection of formerly ‘exotic’ ingredients these days – tamarind, flower waters and spices such as saffron and ground sumac can all be found easily. There are a few particularly Persian items – such as barberries, dried limes and liquid kashk – that you may have to hunt down in Middle Eastern or Iranian food stores. But we do urge you to take the trouble to do this when they are called for, as they are often the key to an authentic Persian flavour.

You really don’t need any special equipment for Persian cooking. Many Iranian families have an electric rice cooker, which makes good sense given the vast amounts of rice they consume, but to be honest once you’ve familiarised yourself with the technique, a large, heavy-based, lidded saucepan will do the job just as well. Make sure you’ve also got a metal sieve for straining, a wide, shallow kitchen spoon for mounding the rice gently in the saucepan, and a supply of tea towels to wrap around your lids when steaming. Sharp knives are essential, as in any cuisine, for chopping fresh herbs, and a mortar and pestle will help with grinding spices.

Saraban encompasses some of the wonderful dishes, flavours and techniques that we were able to enjoy on our travels around Iran. Some recipes are indeed authentic, and were kindly shared with us by cooks we met on our journey. Others are highly personal interpretations and are offered up by way of being a new take on old favourites and flavours. They might not be strictly traditional, but we hope that they capture the spirit of the traditions from which they emerge, and that they will inspire you to create a bit of Persian magic in your own kitchen.

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