Four months after signing a historic nuclear accord with the U.S. and other western powers, Iran now has a seat at the world political table. Many details remain to be settled, though, and since negotiations generally go better over a shared meal, what better time for Iran's complex and unique culinary culture to get the spotlight?
"The nuclear accord can only bode well to introducing people to Persian culture and food, which has been obscured for years by a veil of political animosity," said Louisa Shafia, the Philadelphia-born author of The New Persian Kitchen (Ten Speed Press). Shafia, whose father is Iranian, believes that Persian food is a global treasure waiting to be discovered.
"Poised between East and West, Iran boasts a remarkable history that stretches back at least three millennia," she writes in her book. Over thousands of years' trade, neighboring and rival nations from the ancient Greeks and Romans to Arabs, Mongols, Turks and Africans have influenced the Persian table.
Beebe Bahrami, an artist and writer who divides her time between Ocean City, N.J., and Sarlat, in southwestern France, spent several summer vacations at her grandparents' in Tehran. That stopped when she was 12.
"I didn't go through the revolution on the ground [the 1979 conflict that deposed the shah of Iran], but I did go through it - all of a sudden all of the family I had there were just separated from us," she recalled. Because of that wrenching change, the food of her childhood, the food she'd learned at her grandmother and great aunt's side, became even more important.
"Cooking Persian dishes is a way to feel connected, to recreate the good times we had," she explained.
Persian food resists stereotyping. For the uninformed, the cuisine may be lumped together under the generic category of Middle Eastern food. But that would be a mistake.
"People don't eat hummus and tabbouleh in Iran," said Shafia, a Germantown Friends and University of Pennsylvania graduate. "The cuisine is particular, unique for many reasons."
Herbs, both fresh and dried, are ever-present. What Shafia calls "fantastical fruits" both fresh and dried are also incorporated into many savory dishes - fruits like persimmon and quince and pomegranate. An emphasis on sweet and sour, fruity and tart flavors runs like a thread of gold through many traditional dishes.
"There's a mouth-puckering, vibrant character in Persian food," said Shafia.
Common ingredients like saffron and pomegranate molasses can be sourced at local specialty grocery stores, including Makkah Market, in University City; Bitar's, in South Philly; and Falafel Hummus, in Fishtown.
Persian cuisine is also extraordinarily healthful. Besides a natural emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, traditional Persian dishes have evolved over centuries based on the way the ingredients complement one another, a throwback to the advent of Zoroastrianism, one of the religions that predate the Islam majority.
Dating back to 600 B.C., this system classifies all foods as either cold (sarmi) or hot (gardi). Think of it as the yin and yang of Iran's culinary Id. For example, sumac and yogurt (cold) are paired with meat and onions (hot) to aid digestion. Important also in understanding Persian food is recognizing the culture's mystical, melancholic and ageless devotion to poetry, both spoken and in song.
"Poetry and food have been called the anchors of Persian identity," Shafia said.
For Bahrami, the labor-intensive aspect of Persian cooking, the constant of cleaning and chopping fresh herbs, for example, is a welcome reminder of warm times in the family kitchen.
"There was always gossip and stories to hear, with people coming in and out," she recalled. "Then there's the cult of rice and bread. I remember a funny kind of competition in Iran - who are bread eaters and who are rice eaters. My brother and I would go get fresh baked bread every day. And when I smell basmati rice, I'm always transported to that time."
Aromatic basmati rice, often flavored and colored by saffron, is a linchpin for every Persian meal. And then there's the tahdig - a kind of crispy fried rice crust that is so mindfully made that there's even a kitchen utensil called a damkoni that is used to catch condensation from the cooking rice, necessary for a truly crisp tahdig.
Shafia sells them, along with a slew of sustainable kitchen goods, through her side business Magpie Cookshop (magpiecookshop. com). A clean tea towel tied over the pot's lid will also do the job.
Shafia's inclusion of whole grains in the recipes in her book is one reason for the word "new" in its title.
"Basically I took out white sugar from most things, reduced the amount of frying that can go into traditional dishes and offer the option of using whole grains in place of white rice," she explained. "I also tried to give vegetarian options for everything."
But while she agrees that you can get a crispy tahdig layer with say, quinoa or brown rice - "It's a cooking technique that works with almost any grain" - the real thing, made with basmati rice, is the best.
"My dad makes the best Persian rice," she said. "Even though he wasn't usually the cook, his rice was our favorite. He would stir the crunchy bits in so you'd have tahdig in every bite. I never understood how he did [it] - and he isn't telling."
Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years in local and national publications. Read more at bethdaddono.contently.com
SABZI KHORDAN (FRESH HERB PLATTER)
8 ounces feta cheese
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt, such as Maldon, fleur de sel or kosher
2 bunches whole fresh herbs, in any combination: spearmint, basil, cilantro, flat-leaf parsley, tarragon, dill, chives, marjoram
1 bunch scallions, quartered crosswise, roots removed
2 cups walnuts (see note below)
6 radishes, trimmed and quartered
Lavash or other flatbread
Drain the feta and place it in a medium bowl. Grind the spices coarsely, if desired.
Heat a small skillet over high heat. Add the coriander, cumin and caraway seeds, and shake the pan continuously until the spices start to release their aroma, about 2 minutes. Immediately transfer to a bowl and pour in the olive oil. Add a pinch of coarse salt. Swirl the spices in the oil and steep for a few minutes.
Pour the mixture over the feta. You can even work it in with your hands, gently crumbling the feta, if desired.
Wash and dry the herbs. Trim stems but leave them intact. Place herbs on a large platter in a few fluffy piles. Place walnuts on the platter, along with radishes and lavash. Transfer the feta to the platter and garnish it with coarse salt.
For a single serving, pick up a few stalks of herbs. Tear the flatbread into a manageable piece and stuff it with the herbs, walnuts, a small piece of cheese, and a radish or two. Fold and eat like a sandwich.
NOTE: To remove bitterness from the walnuts, place them in a bowl, add boiling water to cover and a pinch of salt, and soak from 1 hour up to overnight. Before serving, drain and rinse until the water runs clear. Serves 4 to 6.
NO-BAKE PERSIMMON AND GOAT-CHEESE CHEESECAKE
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups pistachios, toasted
1 cup crushed graham crackers
3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil, melted and cooled
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons organic cane sugar
5 very ripe hachiya persimmons
1 pound fresh goat cheese, at room temperature, crumbled
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
Lightly oil a 10-inch springform pan with coconut oil.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream into stiff peaks. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside in the refrigerator. Replace mixer bowl without washing.
In a food processor, combine the pistachios and graham crackers with 3 tablespoons of the coconut oil, the cinnamon, the cardamom, and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Add a pinch of salt and pulse until the mixture clumps easily. Transfer to the springform pan and spread evenly over the bottom. Press down with the bottom of a juice glass to pack it down evenly.
Scoop the flesh from the persimmons and puree in a blender until smooth. Set aside 1/2-cup of the puree, and store the rest in the refrigerator.
Combine the goat cheese, the remaining 3/4-cup coconut oil, and the remaining 1 cup sugar in the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and beat for 2 to 3 minutes, until smooth. Fold in the 1/2-cup persimmon puree, the lime juice, and a pinch of salt. Fold in the whipped cream. Pour the mixture into the springform pan and smooth the top. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, until firm.
To serve, remove the pan sides and cut the cheesecake into wedges. Garnish each serving with a generous spoonful of the persimmon puree. The cheesecake will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Makes one 10-inch cake
Source: The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia (Ten Speed Press)