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Persian Cuisine

“Food is central to the lives of Iranians in different ways: medicinal, cultural, philosophical, and historical”

Ariana Bundy the author of “Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes.”

Persian restaurants are countless around the world and thriving in metropolitan hot spots in the United States. Yet, it’s hard to describe the taste of Iran if you haven’t experienced a home cooked Persian meal. This rich, exotic cuisine has influenced cooking all over the worldfrom the sweet and sour that was popular during the medieval era to the beef dishes of India, and the pungent cuisine of South Asia. The warmth of the Persian table will always be central to family gatherings, parties, good times and memories.

The special thing about Persian cuisine is that it goes beyond the taste buds. Many of the recipes are softly blended with vinegar—which is known as an additive cure for almost every disease under the sun, including heart diseases. The sweet sharp mint and vinegar syrup called “Sekanjebeen” is a refreshing healthy drink that can be served with pride.

Pomegranates and Roses is about more than a list of recipes, it reflects passion for cooking, bringing a glimpse of history and the traditional methods of preparing Persian delicacies with a different unique attitude.

To add an exotic flavor to the table I chose the “Taachin” as it is a different way of cooking chicken in a Saffron rice cake along with the easy to prepare “Salad E Shirazi.”

SALAD E SHIRAZI

Fresh crunchy Cucumber, Tomato and Onion Salad sprinkled with Mint

A simple refreshing salad, its vinegary taste marrying well with heavier Persian meals, cutting through any slightly oily stew or rice. Salad e Shirazi resembles a coarse salsa or pico de gallo (chunky uncooked Mexican salsa), but it is a salad not a condiment and is served as a side dish to many Iranian rice dishes such as Lubia Polo.

It is extremely simple to make. Use Persian cucumbers if you can find them, otherwise any compact small ones will do. Since there aren’t many ingredients in this recipe, it’s best to use the freshest, crunchiest vegetables available. Traditionally, the dressing was made with Middle Eastern red vinegar, which contains no alcohol, but red wine vinegar or lemon juice will do if you can’t track any down. Dried mint was used in preference to fresh in the past, but I like to chop some fresh mint leaves along with the dried.

  • 4–5 Persian cucumbers, or any small compact cucumbers (skin on or peeled, as you wish), chopped into small even-sized cubes
  • 2 large firm but ripe tomatoes, deseeded and chopped into small even-sized cubes
  • 1 large sweet red onion, chopped into small even-sized cubes
  • 2–3 tbsp Middle Eastern
  • red vinegar or juice of 1 fresh lemon
  • salt and a little pepper, to taste
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp dried mint
  • 5–6 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped (optional)
  • 4–5 Persian cucumbers, or any small compact cucumbers (skin on or peeled, as you wish), chopped into small even-sized cubes
  • 2 large firm but ripe tomatoes, deseeded and chopped into small even-sized cubes
  • 1 large sweet red onion, chopped into small even-sized cubes
  • 2–3 tbsp Middle Eastern
  • red vinegar or juice of 1 fresh lemon
  • salt and a little pepper, to taste
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp dried mint
  • 5–6 fresh mint leaves, finely chopped (optional)
Step 1:
Chopping the vegetables to approximately the same size ensures even distribution of the dressing – and the salad looks prettier. Add the vinegar or lemon juice, salt and pepper, olive oil and mint and mix gently. Serve straight away, as the cucumbers tend to release their juices and become limp over time.

TAACHIN

Yogurt and Garlic Marintated Chicken in a Saffron Rice Cake

Taachin means ‘to arrange everything at the bottom’. This is a savoury cake that’s perfect for parties for its stunning visual effect. It’s ideal for picnics too, as it’s easy to transport. Rice is layered with chicken marinated with yogurt and garlic and lots of saffron. There’s also a lamb and spinach version, as well as one layered with aubergine, which is a fairly ‘new’ recipe. You could also stud the rice with barberries as in Zereshk Polo (rice with chicken, saffron and barberries). For parties just prepare it in advance and put in the oven at the last minute – the presentation is guaranteed to impress.

There is much debate in our family as to whether onions and egg yolks should be included or not. I decided to do the version that I like best, with both onions and egg yolks.

  • 800g (1lb 10oz) 4 cups basmati rice, soaked in water for at least 5 hours
  • 500–600g (1–11/4lb) skinless, boneless, chicken breasts, cut into 8cm (3in) cubes
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium white onion,chopped
  • ½–1 tsp salt
  • few twists of pepper
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 6–7 small garlic cloves, peeled and diced
  • 1kg (2lb) 4 cups Greek yogurt
  • ½ tsp saffron threads, pounded then dissolved in
  • 2–3 tbsp hot water
  • 75g (3oz) 1 cup dried barberries (optional)
  •  4 egg yolks
  • 800g (1lb 10oz) 4 cups basmati rice, soaked in water for at least 5 hours
  • 500–600g (1–11/4lb) skinless, boneless, chicken breasts, cut into 8cm (3in) cubes
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium white onion,chopped
  • 1/2–1 tsp salt
  • few twists of pepper
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 6–7 small garlic cloves, peeled and diced
  • 1kg (2lb) 4 cups Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads, pounded then dissolved in
  • 2–3 tbsp hot water
  • 75g (3oz) 1 cup dried barberries (optional)
  •  4 egg yolks
Step 1:
Cook the rice till al dente; follow the method for Polo Ba Taadig (perfect fluffy rice) up to draining and cooling.
Step 2:
Place the chicken, butter, oil, onion, some salt and pepper, turmeric and half of the garlic in a large frying pan. Cover and cook for about 30 minutes on a low heat. Tip the mixture into a bowl and cool for 10–15 minutes. Add the yogurt, the rest of the garlic and saffron liquid: mix well. Marinate in the fridge for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
Step 3:
If using barberries, wash them as for Zereshk Polo.
Step 4:
Preheat the oven to 190˚C/375˚F/Gas Mark 5. Take the chicken out of the marinade and set aside. Add the egg yolks to the marinade mixture with some extra salt and stir well. Then take the cooked rice and set aside 175g (6oz) 1 cup for later. Ladle the remainder of the rice into the yogurt and egg mixture. Fold it in, but be gentle so that the rice grains don’t get crushed, otherwise you’ll be left with a mushy cake. Stop as soon as the whole thing is amalgamated.
Step 5:
Take a non-stick baking dish and spread the reserved cup of plain rice over the bottom. Then add a third of the rice and egg mixture. Layering the dish in this way stops the rice and egg mixture coming into direct contact with the pan and burning. Add a layer of chicken pieces (and barberries if using) then a layer of rice again. Repeat until the dish is filled. Cover with a lid if it has one or wrap with foil. Place in the oven and cook for 1½ hours until the bottom is golden brown. When the dish is cooked, invert it over a plate immediately, so that the crunchy taadig (crust) at the base doesn’t go soggy.

SEKANJEBEEN

Sweet Sharp Mint and Vinegar Syrup

This delicate clear thick syrup is pure sweetness and fresh mint. Sharhzad Dowlatshahi, who was married to my mother’s cousin, Behzad Mohit, gave me the recipe. She used to tie her beautiful Andie MacDowell-style hair up and set the table with bottles waiting to be filled, while the syrup bubbled away on the stove. Her whole house smelled heavenly for days.

You can dilute it like a cordial to drink, and she also served it in summer for dipping lettuce leaves in. The contrast between the cool lettuce hearts and the thick liquid is fabulous – it makes a good party dish. Her daughters and I would sit with a tray in front of us in the shaded garden, dipping and chatting away about food. They eventually became serious foodies, opening a series of popular trendy restaurants around northern Tehran serving Asian, French and Californian dishes.

  • 675g (1lb 6oz) 3 cups caster sugar
  • 600ml (1 pint) 2 ²⁄³ cups
  • white wine vinegar or white grape vinegar about 50 fresh mint leaves
Step 1:
Boil the sugar with 2 litres (3 ½ pints) 8 cups of water in a saucepan. Let it bubble away for about 10 minutes over a medium heat, making sure to stir it once in a while.
Step 2:
Add the vinegar and boil for another 10–15 minutes until the liquid thickens and a syrup forms. Add the mint leaves and boil for another 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool before straining and bottling in sterilised bottles. Store in a cool dark place.

Editor’s Note:
Try grating a small unpeeled cucumber in each glass before adding the syrup, water and ice cubes for a refreshing summer drink.

Recipes and images excerpted with permission from Pomegranates and Roses: My Persian Family Recipes (Simon & Schuster) by Ariana Bundy. Image copyright Lisa Linder.

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