Iran

Iran

By
Tess Mallos
Contains
68 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742704920
Photographer
Alan Benson

While Iran is its official name, I cannot help referring to the country as Persia, as this seems to me to be an expression of the essence of the country and its people. Do not be confused with my Irans and Iranians, Persias and Persians: they are all one and the same. Most countries of the Middle East were influenced in one way or another by Persia, particularly in terms of cuisine. The dolmeh of Persia, for instance, became the dolma and other sundry variations of Iraq, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, Lebanon, Syria and the Gulf States.

The flavour of Persian food

One of the most popular dishes in Tehran is chelou kebab, and there are restaurants that specialise in its preparation. It is simple, and its success depends on the quality of the basic elements, which are melded into a culinary delight with a simple stir of the diner’s fork.

My first taste of chelou kebab won me over to Persian cooking, for in it I could see the true art and dedication of the Persian cook. To behold, it is a dish of rice and grilled lamb. But once tasted it is much, much more. Only the best portion of the lamb will do — the tender, lean eye of the rib, trimmed so that not a trace of fat or gristle mars its purity, sliced thinly and marinated in lemon and onion juice to melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. Charcoal-grilled only seconds before, it is served nestling in a pile of steaming hot chelou (rice), with a tomato or two for colour. Pats of butter, a generous dusting of sumac and raw egg yolk accompany it, to be stirred into the rice for an amalgamation of subtle flavours complementing the lamb. The rice is the most important element of the dish; Persian rice is aromatic, hard-grained and almost without equal. Pakistan’s basmati rice is the nearest and certainly the best substitute. Once you make chelou and taste it, you will never cook plain rice any other way again.

Polous (another rice dish) are an extension of chelous and are well worth trying. The imaginative use of fruits is another high point in Persian cooking, with sweet–sour flavours the Western palate has learned to appreciate. Fruits are frequently combined with meats in Iran’s polous. Persian cooks, like their Western counterparts, do take shortcuts, and if you find chelous and polous are too time-consuming in their preparation, then try kateh in place of chelou, and dami instead of polous. The most important factor is using the right rice. Experiment by trying basmati rice first, so you have a yardstick against which to measure the success of future efforts using another more readily available long-grain white rice. The quantities of rice have been trimmed to suit Western tastes and appetites, but the essence of the dishes has not suffered.

The Persian khoresh, loosely translated as ‘sauce’, is a combination of meat or poultry with vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices, to make a substantial ‘sauce’ for serving with rice dishes. Abgusht, on the other hand, is a meat stew that can become, with the addition of more liquid, a substantial meat-based soup, while aashe is always regarded as a soup.

The fruits of Persia are highly regarded and are served during the day, preceding meals. The cucumber is regarded as a fruit — and if you have ever tasted a Persian cucumber you will understand why.

Herbs are an important part of Persian cooking. Sabzi khordan is a platter of mixed herbs served with nane lavash bread, panir (goat’s milk cheese) and mast va khiar (yoghurt and cucumber salad) as a refreshing start to a meal. More detail is given in the recipe.

Spinach is native to Persia; how it came to be known as English spinach I cannot say. It features in salads, stews and kuku (egg casseroles or omelettes).

Sweet–sour flavours are essentially Persian in character, with dishes featuring fruit such as pomegranates, peaches, sour cherries, apples and quinces, and lime or lemon juice added for good measure. Verjuice — the juice of green (unripened) grapes — is widely used in Iran for a really sour flavour.

The samovar is an essential item in every Persian household, as tea ranks with abdug (yoghurt drink) as Persia’s principal beverage. Tea is taken in small, slender glasses and served with lumps of sugar. To drink it in the Persian way, one must hold the lump of sugar between the teeth and sip the tea through it. The sugar can be conventional cube sugar or small ‘cushions’ of clear white toffee.

Now Rooz

Though Iran is predominantly a Muslim country, their most joyous feast has its origins long before Islam, in the time of the prophet Zoroaster and the great kings of Ancient Persia. It is the celebration of Now Rooz, the Persian new year, actually beginning on the first day of spring, 21 March. The new year means new life, and this celebration places constant emphasis on the newness of life. About two weeks before Now Rooz, wheat or other grain is sown in a sandy bed. By Now Rooz Eve the green shoots are well in evidence and the clump is usually divided according to the number of family members. Each piece is tied with a colourful ribbon and set on the haft seen (seven S’s) table, symbolic of the roots of life. Altogether, seven food items whose names begin with an ‘s’ must be placed on the table. The number seven probably relates to the seven days of the week, or the seven planets of the solar system. Apples (sib), garlic (sir), sumac (a kind of spice), herbs (sabzi), vinegar (sarkh), coin (sekeh), and a samanoo (a sweet pudding made with a special wheat) are the usual items. The table would also have a bowl of water with a green leaf floating in it, fresh fruit, eggs, meat, fish, fowl, sweetmeats, pastries, grains and nuts — in other words a harvest festival in miniature. These are the raw foods used for meals throughout the holiday period.

We arrived in Iran on the thirteenth day of Now Rooz. On that day every person who is able leaves their home and travels as far away as possible so that their bad luck can be left behind. Persians love picnics and this is one massive picnic day. Food is packed along with the samovar to supply the copious amounts of tea consumed. A clump of green shoots is placed jauntily on the bonnet, roof or trunk of the family car, and during the picnic it is thrown into a running stream. In Tehran, the deep gutters that carry the spring water from the mountains behind the city were dotted with these clumps, as those who cannot get to the country, picnic instead at one of the city’s beautiful parks or gardens. Now Rooz celebrations last for about two weeks.

Persian breads

Bread is the staff of life: in Iran, as in most other Middle Eastern countries, you are constantly aware of the importance of this most ancient of foods.

As Persia has influenced the bread-making of so many of the countries surrounding it, a description of the process should be part of this chapter.

Bread is still baked traditionally, though the oven is more likely to be heated by oiled burners than by wood.

One bakery we visited in Shiraz was baking nane lavash. In one room was the dough-maker, tending the modern breadmixer in the centre. Along the full length of three walls ran a waist-high bench structure made of a stone compound, with straight-sided holes 50 cm in diameter formed into the structure. There were at least thirty of these proving vats, each with softly rounded cushions of dough gently billowing above the level of the bench. We were looking at just one of the three ‘bakes’ of the day.

Next door was a room filled with cream-coloured flour, shovel at the ready. Then came the bakehouse. The heat exuding from this area was sufficient to keep the proving room warm enough for the dough to rise, though with the flat breads the rising of the dough is not necessary.

The procedure in the bakehouse goes something like this: one person breaks off lumps of dough from the huge mass on his table, shaping them into balls. These are rolled out to an oval shape by another worker. A more experienced baker takes the rolled-out dough, expertly throws it back and forth across the backs of his hands, enlarging it even further, runs a jella (a spiked wheel on a handle) across the dough three times, then throws it onto the manjak — a slightly domed oval cushion about 60 cm long and 30 cm across. After all the rolling, throwing and tossing, the sheet of now-thin dough covers this cushion completely. The baker then slips his hand into a pocket in the back of the manjak, takes it up and presses the dough deftly onto the scorching hot wall of the tannour, the beehive clay oven of the Middle East and India. In 30–40 seconds the bread bubbles and cooks to golden brown crispness. Another baker, armed with a mengash (a long rod finished with a metal hook), pulls off the cooked bread and flicks it through a waist-high opening into the actual shop, where it is sold immediately.

The whole procedure is carried out with rhythmic precision and at a pace so rapid that the onlooker almost becomes mesmerised. The aroma of the baking bread alone is enough to keep one in a state of euphoria.

Other breads baked in Iran are:

Taftoon: Similar to nane lavash in preparation and baking, but round and slightly smaller. Usually made with flour resembling wholemeal flour with the bran removed.

Sangyak: About 75 cm long and 30 cm wide. The top is oiled and well indented by fingertips. Baked in a traditional oven on a bed of hot pebbles, it is a bubbly, crisp flat bread, usually made with wholemeal flour. At its best when warm.

Barbari: Shaped in long loaves about 60 cm long, 25 cm wide and 4 cm thick when cooked. The top is oiled, and four grooves running the length of the bread are made with the fingers. Baked on trays in a traditional oven, it is the most popular breakfast bread. Excellent when warm, but not as pleasant cold as the texture is rather coarse. Plain flour is used for barbari.

Eating Persian style

The midday and evening meals are almost identical, with the same variety of foods served.

The Persians serve their meals on carpets. The carpet is spread with a leather cover called a sofreh, which serves as protection and provides a firm base for the dishes. This is covered with a white cloth sofreh and the carpet is surrounded with cushions for seating. China dinner plates are set out with spoons and forks, which have now replaced the traditional method of eating from the fingers of the right hand. A rice dish, either chelou, polou, dami or kateh, is always served with a khoresh. Abgusht, either as a soup or as a stew, could also be served, or perhaps a baked chicken or fish. A borani (salad), if made with a yoghurt base, often replaces the khoresh, particularly in summer. A mixed green salad with cos lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, radishes and herbs, and dressed with olive oil and vinegar, is frequently included. Yoghurt, pickles, flat bread and fresh fruit complete the meal. Abdug (yoghurt drink) is usually served as the beverage.

Tea, sharbat (fruit sherbet) and sekanjabin (a sweet–sour mint-flavoured beverage) are usually taken as refreshments between meals. Kuku (an egg casserole or omelette) is often included at the table, particularly for festive occasions, or served as the main dish for a light meal. Kababs and kuku are favourite picnic foods.

Ingredients for Persian cooking

Basmati rice or a suitable substitute is a must for Persian cooking. The meats that are generally preferred are lean lamb, veal, venison if available, lean beef and poultry. Though recipes may list a particular meat and may give two choices, often any other of these meats may be used. Turmeric, cinnamon, saffron, sumac and dried mint are the popular spices and seasonings. For cooking, ghee (clarified butter) is preferred, though oil, butter or margarine may be substituted. Limu omani (dried lime) is used whole in Persian cooking, generally when the cook wishes to remove strong flavours from meats. Directions for preparing your own dried limes are given in the loomi recipe.

Kuku

These delicious egg dishes feature prominently in Persian menus because of their versatility. Cut into small squares they can be served with pre-dinner drinks; with yoghurt and bread they make an excellent luncheon or supper dish; for dinner in the Western tradition they make an excellent first course, and are almost always part of the menu for a Persian dinner. As they are just as delicious served cold, prepare one for the picnic hamper, as they do in Iran.

The usual method of cooking is in the oven, a relatively recent adaptation, since ovens were seldom part of the early Persian kitchen. The other and more authentic method is to cook the kuku in a frying pan on the stovetop. The finished kuku should resemble a cake when served, lightly browned and crisp all over, so your choice of cooking utensil and cooking method can be determined by the equipment you have on hand.

Modern Persian cooks have been quick to see the advantage of non-stick cookware for many of their dishes — in particular for certain rice dishes and for kukus.

For oven cooking, choose a smooth-surfaced casserole dish, or a Dutch oven or cake tin with a non-stick coating. The straighter the sides, the better.

For stovetop cooking, a well-seasoned heavy-based frying pan, or one with a non-stick coating, should be used. An omelette pan is far too small, unless you halve the recipe.

Where initial cooking of the vegetables is required, use any pan, keeping your special pan for finishing the kuku.

To present the kuku for serving, it always looks better with the top uppermost. If unmoulding from an oven dish, invert the kuku onto a plate, then place the serving plate on top and turn it upright.

Of course you can serve it straight from the dish it was cooked in if you find your kuku has stuck!

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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