Stews and sauces

Stews and sauces

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

We are back in the capital and stuck in a traffic jam. in the front seat, Ebi is having a heated discussion over directions with our taxi driver, a wizened man in a flat cap who looks to be about ninety years old. Greg and I sit mutely in the back, stunned into silence by the surrounding mayhem. All around us cars are honking, flashing their lights and pushing through the gridlock like bumper cars at a fairground. Motorcyclists, usually with one, two, three or more passengers, weave in and out of the crush like angry wasps, and pedestrians launch themselves into the fray with an apparent total disregard for their own safety.

Our driver mutters a vicious curse, winds down his window and shakes an angry fist at a car that is nudging through the skinniest of openings ahead of us. ‘He says he has been driving in this stinking city for thirty years and it is has all turned to shit!’, Ebi says over his shoulder. The taxi driver rants on as Ebi translates. ‘In the Shah’s time it used to be a good place. But now it’s full of thieves, drug addicts and other sons-of-bitches who would sell their mothers for a few lousy tomans.’

It’s true that Tehran is a hard city to love. It was made Iran’s capital relatively recently, by the first of the Qajar kings at the end of the late eighteenth century. Whatever charms it may once have had, as a small town tucked into the foothills of the Alburz Mountains, have long disappeared under the weight of concrete and metal and the relentless thundering traffic.

Despite its relative youth, in just over two centuries Tehran’s population has exploded a thousand-fold and today nearly fifteen million souls cram into its ever-expanding suburbs. And the population goes a long way to explaining the volume of traffic. The problem is that there are just too many cars here – and in the main they are old cars, most of them dating back long before today’s emission standards. The pollution is terrible. Since we’ve been in Tehran, we’ve barely seen the mountains as they’ve been shrouded in a yellowish-grey haze, the same poisonous haze that reportedly kills a staggering twenty-seven people here every day.

At last we break free of the traffic impasse and our driver flicks the gears, thumps his foot down on the accelerator and takes off at a terrifying pace, careering along a series of narrow alleyways with blatant disregard to the noentry signs. ‘If he’s been driving for thirty years I suppose he must know the city well,’ I gasp. ‘It’s impossible to know Tehran well!’, the driver retorts. ‘It changes every five minutes when they tear something down and put up another monstrosity in its place.’ By now we are in Ebi’s neighbourhood, an old suburb in the east of the city. It’s where he grew up and still lives, and now he joins in with the driver’s tirade. ‘Look around you here! When I was a boy there used to be more than a hundred garden squares in this area. There were old houses with beautiful walled gardens. It was green here!’ He gesticulates angrily at the charmless, densely packed apartment buildings that line the streets on either side of us.

The driver gives a snort of disgust. ‘See, I’m right,’ he says. ‘It’s all gone to shit!’

A few days later, we’re experiencing a very different Tehran. we have been invited to dinner by a Zoroastrian family who live in in a leafy suburb north of the city. Out of politeness, as we enter I ask if may take off my hijab and bend down to remove my shoes. Shirin laughs at me. ‘Take your scarf off darling, take it off! But leave on your shoes, I insist.You must feel at home in my house.’ I like her immediately!

Like many privileged Iranians, Shirin and her daughter, Laleh, spend part of the year abroad and part of the year in Tehran and they speak flawless, slightly inflected English. Both are elegantly coiffed and made-up, and although they are dressed casually, they are immaculate. They welcome us warmly and I try hard not to feel self-conscious about our own scruffy travel attire. They usher us into their spacious, exquisitely appointed house and through to a lovely salon where a tempting array of biscuits and sweets is arranged on a low table. Laleh is a keen cook and tells us that she had been busy in the kitchen testing sweets for Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Within minutes we are sitting down, nibbling on dainty shortbread and sipping glasses of chilled orange-flower cordial.

Unlike many other houses we’ve visited on our journey so far, their home is decorated in a Western style, with elegant modern furnishings and exquisite ornaments. They come from a family of artists, and the walls are hung with bold modern paintings. A display cabinet is filled with row-upon-row of antique stone heads, and I long to reach up and stroke their worn, fragile contours. Apart from the odd Persian touch, we could be in a fine apartment in Paris, London or New York.

We dine on velvety eggplant soup, delicately spiced rice with lamb and green beans, and a salad of finely diced cucumber, tomato and spring onion. Despite the usual Iranian protestations about the humbleness of the offerings, it is beautifully presented, perfectly balanced and quite delicious. We retire to a cosy seating area and the meal is rounded off with fresh fruit salad and homemade blackberry ice-cream. Shirin and Laleh are charming hostesses and we feel ourselves sinking into their world of effortless good manners and easy sophistication.

The conversation roams pleasantly from cooking to art, poetry and philosophy, and eventually I can’t resist asking the inevitable question. ‘Does it get you down, living here?’ Shirin leans in towards me. ‘Listen darling,’ she says. ‘What you must understand is that in Iran we live two completely different lives.’ She waves a dismissive hand towards the window. ‘Out there is one world, with the traffic and the stupid rules about what you can and can’t wear or do. That’s the world the government worries about – the visible world. But they know that they can’t touch us here, inside our homes. Here we do what we like.’

This mantra of a double life, a hidden life, is one that we’ve heard for several weeks now, from men and women, the young and old, wealthy and poor. And here in this lovely home, with these warm, generous people, I am almost convinced. This is a Tehran I think I could grow to like.

We’ve put in a solid morning sightseeing. we’ve been to the Golestan Palace, admired carpets and glass in their respective museums, and whirled through Persian history – pre-and post-Islam – at the National Museum. But now we need a break from culture and we’re tired of rushing around. ‘Take us somewhere great for lunch,’ we say to Ebi.

A few minutes later we are tucked around a table in a small subterranean dizi restaurant near Tehran’s heaving bazaar. The busy traffic noise and the shouts of the stallholders fade away, and now all we can hear is the dull thud of the dizi pestle and the slurp of satisfied diners.

Somewhere between a soup and stew, dizi is not gourmet fare by any stretch of the imagination, but it has become one of our favourite meals, and it’s the perfect restorative after a hard morning of museums. Dizi is also known as abgoosht – which literally means ‘meat-water’ – and is a category of thick soups that often have meat as a main ingredient. Dizi is usually made from lamb, chickpeas, potatoes and broth in individual clay or aluminium pots, and we can see dozens of them simmering away on a massive slow oven at the rear of the restaurant.

The tables are already crowded and our fellow customers seem to be shopkeepers and businessmen from the nearby bazaar. As we wait, a delivery man heads out the door with a tray of lunchtime orders. Finally our dizi arrives, accompanied by folds of hot, blistered flatbread, wedges of raw onion and sour orange, and our own distinctive dizi pestles. The technique is to pour off most of the rich, meaty stock and to load it up with bits of torn-up bread. The soup being slurped, we take a lead from Ebi and our fellow diners and tip the vegetables and meat back into our soup bowls and pound them to a paste with the pestle. This is fun! But keeping track of a chunk of slippery lamb fat keeps us busy. It’s not for the fainthearted, but no self-respecting Iranian would remove this fat – it adds flavour and a rich sheen to the entire dish – and we don’t either. We munch on onion and sour orange in between mouthfuls of this rich brew, and we leave feeling both sated and refreshed.

It is almost impossible to visit Tehran and not tackle Valiasr Street at some point. This twenty-kilometre stretch of traffic-clogged road bisects the entire city, running from the working-class south to the privileged northern suburbs. Near its end it climbs steeply into the foothills of the snowcapped Alburz Mountains, and in the late afternoon sunshine we find ourselves here, clambering along the Darband walking track. It feels more like northern Europe than Iran, with its waterfalls and rushing streams, dense plantings of spruce and silver birch, and the mountain peaks as a backdrop.

The start of the walking track is lined with gaudy, neon-lit restaurants and stalls selling drinks and snack foods. We pass vendors with trays of hot broad beans sprinkled with cumin, jewel-like boiled turnips, pickled walnuts and endless varieties of dried fruit pastes. We pause to buy a tub of candied sour cherries and a glass of pomegranate juice – the first of the season.

‘It’s quiet today,’ says Ebi, ‘but on Fridays it can be so busy here.’ In a nearby tea house we stop to chat with a group of young men and women who are sprawled on daybeds, drinking tea and smoking water pipes. The men sport leather jackets and gelled hair; the young women are doe-eyed beauties, and instead of the all-enveloping black chadors that are a common sight in country areas, they wear skin-tight manteaus (a kind of belted overcoat) and headscarves that barely contain their tumbling black locks. One sports a sticking plaster over her nose, the tell-tale sign of Iran’s most popular surgical operation. At least three of them have mobile phones pressed to their ears. It reminds us that this is, above all, a young country, and that around two-thirds of the population (which totals some seventy million) are under the age of thirty.

I tell Ebi that I’m surprised to see young people mixing so freely. I had thought that under the current regime unmarried men and women were not meant to socialise – not in public at least. Ebi is amused. ‘I think it’s the same as any place there are rules,’ he says. ‘People will always find a way to break them. This is also the Iranian double life.’

Ebi insists that we leave Tehran at night to avoid the worst of the traffic, so when we load up the car a slim crescent moon hangs low in the sky. We stop for petrol and I am childishly excited that it costs a mere four dollars to fill the tank.

I am sleepy and it feels strange to be starting a journey so late at night, when others are already tucked up in bed. And then it occurs to me that this is the way it has always been done in this part of the world. Pilgrims, armies, merchants on the Silk Road – they all travelled under the cool mantle of darkness to avoid the heat of the day. My lagging spirits are revived by this sense that even here on our small journey we are in some way reliving history and it feels good to be on the road again.

And then we’re off, leaving the choking city behind and speeding south along the Qom highway into darkness – and towards another world.

I’m sitting on a carpeted platform in the courtyard of our traditional hotel, eating breakfast of warm flatbread and honey in the open air. The sun is warm on my shoulders and I can smell orange blossom. It’s a relief to be out of the city again and I realise that the hard little knot of anxiety I’ve felt for the last few days in Tehran has disappeared.

Kashan is an oasis town on the edge of Iran’s northern desert and is most famous for a collection of fine traditional houses built by wealthy merchants in the nineteenth century. I read in my guidebook that, like all oasis settlements, a great deal of its charm lies in the contrast between the parched desert surroundings and the greenery within the city walls – although as yet we’ve seen nothing of the countryside because of our middle-of-the-night arrival. As we set off to explore, Ebi reminds me that this theme of contrast is also found in traditional Persian architecture.

And so it proves to be. The houses are hidden behind high walls at the end of narrow, twisting alleyways and the simplicity of the exteriors gives little clue to the delights within. All that is visible from the street are massive wooden front doors, each with two different door knockers – a heavy one for male visitors, and a lighter one for women. Each has a small octagonal vestibule where visitors are received; from there, separate passageways lead to public entertaining areas or to the private, internal quarters where the family lives. ‘You see,’ says Ebi, ‘It’s not so hard for Iranian people to live a double life. It’s something that’s bred into us. Even our architecture has taught us that we must have a public and a private face.’

Each house – or grand mansion, as they really are – seems more gorgeous than the one before. We wander languidly through large sunny courtyards with long reflection pools that magnify and double the surroundings. They are fringed by delicate, two-storeyed façades, some embellished with exquisite carvings or elaborate stucco work. Every now and then we stumble into secret gardens containing fig, orange and pomegranate trees or flowerbeds of Kashan’s famous roses.

Inside one house, I stand in a cooling draught at the base of a wind-tower and laugh in surprise. It really does work! Large airy spaces are flooded with coloured light from stained-glass windows. Elsewhere, the walls – in soft shades of pearl, pink or alabaster – are illuminated from above by pierced domed ceilings. I crane my neck in another lofty chamber to admire the intricately carved niches – muqarnas – that glitter with a million tiny fragments of mirror.

A serious young woman with feathery eyebrows and wide eyes points us towards Boroujerdi House. There I sit for a while in the reception hall and watch in fascination as an architecture student struggles to capture the proportions of the central courtyard in a sketchbook. When I look up, I discover that I am surrounded by a group of teenage schoolgirls. They have identified me as a foreigner and pepper me with questions. ‘What is your name?’ ‘Aahh, Khanum Lucy!’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Sydney or Melbourne?’ ‘Do you like Iran?’ ‘Why are you visiting?’ ‘Can we have your email address?’ ‘Your phone number?’ ‘Please go back to your country and tell them we are not terrorists.’

The girls are bouncing around excitedly, all flashing eyes and high spirits, despite the gloomy black of their chadors. ‘They must wear this type of chador because they are on a school trip,’ says Ebi, who is listening to their chatter and trying not to smile. ‘I think if hijab is abolished, tomorrow this lot will be dancing in the streets in bikinis!’

We make a pleasant diversion to the Bagh-e Fin. These lovely sixteenth-century gardens are fed by water from a mountain qanat, ingeniously supplied via underground pipes, and are laid out in the typical Persian design of squares edged with avenues of trees and bisected by long turquoise-tiled canals of rippling water. In the centre is a pretty pavilion, where we nearly trip over a young couple canoodling in the shadows. As the sun filters through the ancient cypresses onto basins of overflowing water, it’s easy to appreciate the blissful respite these gardens offer from the blistering summer heat. And here I learn that this is indeed the intent: Persian walled gardens or pairidaeza (from ‘pairi’, meaning ‘around’ and ‘daiza’, meaning ‘wall’) are creations of paradise here on earth. A few glasses of chai perfumed with rosewater revive us further, and we gather our strength for the onward journey.

We drive out of town in the fragrant wake of a truck loaded with a vast container of rosewater. Abyaneh lies eighty kilometres south of Kashan and soon we find ourselves winding through wide valleys and sweeping hills, their shadowy slopes tinged with pretty shades of mauve and lilac. The village is nestled on the side of a valley, and glows pink in the spring sunshine. It is reputed to be nearly two thousand years old, and its twisting lanes and red mud-brick buildings have earned it UNESCO World Heritage listing. After the Persian New Year it will be packed with Iranian tourists, but today it is quiet and we are the only visitors.

A few old men sit in doorways, rattling their worry beads, but otherwise the village seems to be populated by toothless crones swathed in floral shawls who try to sell us bags of dried apple and borage-flower tea. This sleepy backwater has been all but abandoned by the younger generation, who seek better prospects in Tehran. We walk out of the village to a better vantage point across the valley, and clamber around happily on the rocky hillside where spring wildflowers are starting to push their way up through the scrubby ground. The sky is a bright clear turquoise and as we gaze back at Abyaneh, through a cloud of almond blossom, the world is utterly silent.

We return to the village through a maze of miniature walled orchards and stumble across a group of elderly farm workers enjoying a late breakfast of carrot jam and white cheese with wholewheat flatbread. They invite us to join them for a glass of cinnamon-infused chai, and we crouch down for a few moments, enjoying their company and the warm sunshine. As we listen to the soft hiss of the lunchtime dizi pot, simmering in the embers of the fire, and watch them eat their simple meal, I feel time and space slipping away.

Together with polow rice, khoresht is the dish that is most distinctively and uniquely Persian. Iranians think of khoresht as sauces that accompany rice (or occasionally bread), but in reality they are thicker and more substantial – closer to a stew.

However, neither sauce nor stew comes close to describing the exotic reality of many khoresht, which are imaginative and often unusual combinations of meat, chicken or fish with vegetables, fruit, nuts, spices and herbs. While they are slow-cooked so the flavours develop and intensify, khoresht are, in fact, about subtlety and refinement and are rarely strongly spiced or chilli-hot. Many have a sour – or sour–sweet – edge through the use of dried limes or lime powder, tamarind, verjuice or pomegranate juice. And nearly all khoresht are thick with varying combinations of fresh herbs that are often purchased ready-mixed from the market.

Every region has its own khoresht specialities based upon locally grown produce. In the northern provinces around the Caspian Sea, sour oranges are popular. The central provinces of Iran favour pairings of lamb with fresh and dried fruits such as quince, apricot, peach and apple or pomegranate, barberries and even rhubarb. Khoresht from the Persian Gulf make good use of fish and seafood, and are some of the few that use hot spices, as they are influenced by nearby India and Pakistan.

Traditionally khoresht only used a small ratio of meat to vegetables, and this is still the case in many rural areas of Iran. In more affluent urban quarters – and among the Iranian diaspora in the West – meat is eaten in greater quantities, and the recipes that follow reflect this preference. Meat for khoresht (which is nearly always lamb or chicken) is often cooked on the bone, but even if it is diced and trimmed the bones are usually added to the cooking pot for extra flavour, and are removed before serving.

Khoresht dishes should be fairly thick, a consistency achieved by adding minimal water or stock and long, slow cooking. And this is one of the chief virtues of the khoresht: after the initial preparation, you can leave it to simmer away on its own, entirely unattended. Some cooks even suggest preparing khoresht a day ahead of time, for the flavours to meld and develop, although others feel that the dish tastes fresher if served on the same day. Either way, a khoresht should be served with plain white or saffron rice, and accompanied by torshi – pickles and relishes, various yoghurt dishes such as borani and mounds of fresh herbs by way of a salad.

There are seemingly endless khoresht recipes. I’ve selected some of my favourite Persian classics, while others included here have been inspired by dishes we ate on our travels. I’ve also included a few meat-free khoresht, which are not strictly authentic but are good for vegetarians or lighter meals.

For family dinners one khoresht served with rice makes a really satisfying meal. For special occasions, choose a couple of dishes that you feel will complement each other. Iranian cooks will, of course, always make sure there is an appropriate balance between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ ingredients at any mealtime, to ensure a happy and healthy home.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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