Because I’m a chef and food writer, I’m often asked, “What’s your favorite food?” The answer is visceral, born of my childhood instead of my professional training or the international food experiences I’ve been lucky to have.
My favorite food is the cuisine of my mother’s native Iran — an overlooked area of the culinary world because of Iran’s 35 years of tense relations with the United States.
Persian food has typically been at the end of anyone’s list of favorites, but that’s starting to change. Driven by the recent foodie interest in the region at large — the Middle East and Indian — Persian food is having its day, and nothing could thrill me more.
By Sabrina Ghayour, Interlink Books, 2014, 240 pages
Those who know about this cuisine already know it is one of delicately nuanced flavors, rich varieties of meats and, in particular, produce, and deft technique that melds sweet and sour in an elegant way. Like Indian cuisine, basmati rice is a staple ingredient, but where much Indian food makes use of pepper, Persian cuisine prodigiously uses warm spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric. Saffron and rose petals add flavor that is actually more based in delicate aroma than pure taste.
Lamb and, traditionally, game birds are used in stews and grilled meat dishes and baked into rice dishes, but in Western adaptations, beef and chicken have become standard substitutes. As in Arab-Middle Eastern cuisine, a variety of salads and dipping sauces — most often made with yogurt and herbs — is the norm. Two hallmarks that make Iranian food particularly different are the vast array of pickles made from vegetables, spices, herbs and even fruit as well as the habit of consuming fresh herbs, onions and radishes as a condiment eaten out of hand or with bread. You’ll see this on most dinner tables.
I often describe Persian food as “north Indian cuisine without the heat,” and there’s a good reason for that description. The Mughal emperors of Northern India brought the food of the Iran they admired into their own region in the 16th century and mastered the layered rice dishes, fragrant stews and delicate fruit-based desserts. Today, that cooking sensibility remains the hallmark of most Indian restaurant cuisine and is still in evidence in many of the dishes’ Persian names. (Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire.)
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One of the best new entrees into the world of Persian cooking is Sabrina Ghayour’s cookbook “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond” (Interlink Books, 2014). In it, Ghayour, a London-based chef of Iranian descent, features both classic Persian dishes such as jujeh kebab, grilled boneless game hen marinated in a saffron yogurt sauce; morassa pollow, or “jeweled rice,” which is made with barberries, mixed nuts and orange peel; and fesenjan, a stew made of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup that is often served on holidays and special occasions.
Perhaps more compelling, for me at least, is the manner in which Ghayour melds Middle Eastern flavors that are not strictly Persian but are familiar to Western readers into a more Iranian food sensibility. She uses these flavors to add intricacy to the cuisine’s elegant techniques and presentations, such as with her Fig & Green Bean Salad with Date Molasses & Toasted Almonds or Baked Eggs with Feta, Harissa, Tomato Sauce and Cilantro.
In the past few years, we’ve seen a growing number of blogs and cookbooks about Persian cooking, including the blogs My Persian Kitchen and Turmeric & Saffron as well as Louisa Shaifa’s “The New Persian Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, 2013), all adding diverse voices to the multi-decade stand-alone canon “Food of Life” (Mage Publishers) by Persian cooking doyenne Najmieh Batmanglij. Ghayour’s “Persiana,” however, stands out for its creativity and clean design and the sheer delectability of the dishes.
Newcomers to Persian cooking as well as those already in love with the cuisine will find many reasons to return to the pages of “Persiana” over and over again, as you will see when you give her recipe for fesenjan a try.
Chicken, Walnut & Pomegranate Stew (Khoresh-e-Fesenjan)
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
This recipe appears in “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond” by Sabrina Ghayour.
Khoresh is the Persian word for stew. Fesenjan is a rich, glossy stew of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup, usually made with chicken, duck or delicate little lamb meatballs. The flavor is deep and rich, with a nutty texture and a wonderfully gentle acidity that cuts right through the richness of the dish. Fesenjan is a popular dish in Iran, and its sweet yet tart character has made it one of the most revered stews in Iranian cooks’ repertoires. Like most stews, it is best made the day before you need to serve it.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, diced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 pound, 5 ounces (600 grams) walnuts, finely ground in a food processor
8 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 cups (scant 1¼ liters) cold water
3 tablespoons superfine sugar [38 grams]
3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) pomegranate molasses
Seeds from 1 pomegranate, for serving
1. Preheat two large saucepans over medium heat and pour 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into one. Fry the onions in the oil until translucent and lightly browned.
2. In the other pan, toast the flour until it turns pale beige. Add the ground walnuts and cook the mixture through.
3. Once the onions are browned, season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper and add them to the pan containing the onions. Increase the temperature and stir well to ensure you seal the thighs on both sides. Once they are gently browned, turn off the heat and set aside.
4. Add the water to the walnut pan, stir well, and bring the mixture to a slow boil, then cover with a lid and allow to cook for 1 hour over low-medium heat. This will cook the walnuts and soften their texture; once you see the natural oils of the walnuts rise to the surface, the mixture is cooked.
5. Add the sugar and pomegranate molasses to the walnuts and stir well for about 1 minute. Take your time to stir the pomegranate molasses well — it takes awhile to fully dissolve into the stew because of its thick consistency.
6. Add the chicken and onions to the walnut-pomegranate mixture, cover and cook for about 2 hours, stirring thoroughly every 30 minutes to ensure you lift the walnuts from the bottom of the pan so they don’t burn. Once cooked, what initially looked beige will have turned into a rich, dark almost chocolaty-looking color.
7. Serve sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and enjoy with a generous mound of basmati rice.
Note: Fesenjan is served with chelo (Persian steamed rice).
Main photo: Fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew, is one of the more traditional recipes in “Persiana.” It melds traditional Iranian technique with a diverse ingredient sensibility. Credit: Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton