Koloocheh, A Persian Cookie, Is A Cultural Mother Lode

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in: Soapbox

Louisa Shafia

Is it possible that an exotic date-filled confection offers insights into the secret origins of Christianity? Well, while it remains a fringe theory, researchers have suggested that during Jesus Christ’s so-called “Lost Years” — between the ages of 12 and 30 — he may have traveled east along the Silk Road, studying Zoroastrianism in Persia and then immersing himself in Buddhism and Hinduism in India. These spiritual practices would become the bedrock of his teachings upon his return to Israel.

Implausible, you say? Perhaps. But if you’re looking for clues, you’re less likely to find them in decaying documents or a secret trove of relics than in a delicious Iranian pastry known as koloocheh, the round, doughy delicacy that I discovered while browsing the aisles of my favorite Iranian market in Irvine, Calif. Like a cross between the Fig Newton and the German Jewish Purim pastry hamantaschen, koloocheh have the distinctly Eastern twist of sugary dates, perfumed rose water and cardamom. Intrigued, I decided to re-create them for my Persian cookbook.

Cookie as Cultural Connector

Little did I know when I started to research koloocheh that they would reveal a bridge between diverse peoples and vast distances stretching back millennia. As it turns out, similar filled round cakes form a part of the holiday traditions of virtually all cultures whose paths have crossed the ancient Silk Road trade routes. In India, fried gujia pastries with coconut, dried fruit, and nuts, are eaten during Holi, the Hindu festival of colors that marks the start of spring. Further east, in China, the mid-autumn harvest festival ushers in the season of moon cakes, pastries pressed in elaborate molds and stuffed with fillings both sweet and savory. Heading west, in Eastern Europe, the yeasted buns known as kolachy or kalacs hold jam, poppy seeds and walnut fillings, and are meticulously prepared at Easter. Round, stuffed sweets are also an iconic part of Slavic cooking, where the name kolache is derived from the Old Slavonic word kolo, for “circle” or “wheel.”

To the south of Iran, in the Arabic world, ma’amoul are formed in intricately patterned wooden molds, then stuffed with dates and walnuts. Ma’amoul are eaten by Muslims at Eid, Christians at Easter, and Lebanese and Egyptian Jews at Purim, while their fried, honey-soaked counterparts, known as makroud in Tunisia, are a part of North African Eid celebrations. There is evidence of similar filled confections as far back as Sumer, now modern-day Iraq, one of the ancient world’s most sophisticated civilizations.

Silk Road Influence

If Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims all celebrate holy days with similar foods, it hardly seems outrageous to suggest that their spiritual rituals might also share a common foundation. Indeed, this is why koloocheh goes to the very heart of what my book, “The New Persian Kitchen,” is all about: how the Silk Road’s rich synthesis of ideas formed the unique culinary treasure that is Iranian food. It became crucial to me that a recipe for koloocheh, such an emblematic sweet, be a standout among the book’s recipes.

After several different approaches, I finally created a cookie that was simple to make and beautiful to behold. The key lay in making a buttery dough rendered flexible with the addition of an egg. Formed into disks, the dough is topped with a spoonful of date-walnut filling, then pinched closed and molded into a puck shape. A sprinkling of walnuts serves as decoration, and any imperfections are covered by a snowy layer of powdered sugar. The cookies are flaky and moist, not too sweet, and ideal with a cup of hot tea, which is how they would typically be served in Iran.

My cookie conundrum served as a lesson about the role recipes play in human evolution. They are mobile nuggets of knowledge reshaped by their adopted cultures and eras, living documents of history. I don’t know if koloocheh came to Iran via the east or the west, and I don’t know if Jesus took Buddhist ideas back with him from India to Israel. But it’s clear that the diverse societies along the Silk Road strongly influenced one another, and I need only look as far as koloocheh to see — and taste — the truth of that theory. Just think: Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East have been reimagining and integrating each other’s ideas since before the time of either Buddhism or Christianity. The ancient conversation continues as recipes evolve in the New World.

Top photo: Louisa Shafia (in front of a monitor also featuring her). Credit: James Rotondi


This week's Zester Daily soapbox contributor, Louisa Shafia, is the author of  "The New Persian Kitchen," a fresh take on the vibrant cuisine of Iran. Louisa has cooked at restaurants in San Francisco and New York, including Millennium, Aquavit, and Pure Food and Wine, and her recipes have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Yoga Journal, among others. Learn more about Louisa at lucidfood.com and follow her on @lucidfood.

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Comments

Cathy Kaufman
on: 5/28/13
There is even a more ancient pastry from Mesopotamia, mersu, that descriptions characterize as dried fruits, usually dates, with a range of other ingredients (pistachios, nigella, and minced garlic are all identified in certain versions) all wrapped in a buttery crust. Inventory lists from the palace at Mari record prodigious amounts of dates purchased to make the pastry, and bakers who specialized in it were called episat mersi, suggesting it was well known in Mesopotamia.
Alice Medrich
on: 5/28/13
I love all of these fruit filled cookie/pastries. I was given a cherished family recipe for Meneinas from Jewish family in Alexandria, Egypt: fragrant date and walnut filled cookies scented with orange blossom water and tangerine zest. I loved them so much I was inspired create some new (not necessarily traditional!) fillings for them as well for my recent cookie book. I'm exciting to try your recipe. Congratulations on the new book, I look forward to reading and cooking from it.
Louisa Shafia
on: 5/29/13
Cathy, that is fascinating. I wonder what it would be like to try to recreate mersu, they sound delicious. I figure it would be impossible to do without tainting them with my own culinary preferences for taste and texture. Still, I'm intrigued. In Iran, similar tablets were found at the ancient ritual capital of Persepolis, listing many ingredients that are still in use today. I'm amazed that there is such a clear continuum from those ancient ingredients, techniques, and recipes to modern day cooking.
Louisa Shafia
on: 5/29/13
Alice, I just found images and the recipe for your meneinas - my God these look incredible, I will have to try making them. I see these are also Purim cookies, like the koloocheh. As much as I love hamantaschen (when they're made well), it's great to have an alternative. On a separate note, I must tell you that your Ultimate Flourless Chocolate Cake recipe made our holiday dinner a few years ago. I helped make it with my mother-in-law, so simple and so beautiful. I hope to make it to one of your Bay Area cooking classes some time. Many thanks for the good wishes!
Cathy Kaufman
on: 5/30/13
You're right that one of the problems in playing around with ancient foods is the difficulty in eliminating modern technical knowledge and preferences and, at the same time, not underestimating the creativity of ancient bakers. I've always assumed that any culture sophisticated enough to come up with great art also had great food, approached on its own terms. The contemporary penchant for adding peppercorns to simple syrups and other mixes of savory and strong flavors with sweet shouldn't be a surprise; it really is more a reflection on the culinary biases of the 18th-20th centuries than anything else. I just returned earlier this month from a tourist visit to Iran-- loved Persepolis, and the herb/bread/cheese cover photo brought back delicious memories.
Priscilla Mayfield
on: 5/31/13
So fascinating—adding koloocheh to my must-make list from your book. And, will try from my favorite Persian market!
Louisa Shafia
on: 6/3/13
Cathy, I love your insight about ancient societies with great art having great food, of course it must be true. Well, I am very inspired that you were just in Iran! I haven't been able to go yet, am still in the process of applying for documents, but hoping it will all come together soon. When I finally sit down to my first meal in Iran, all the waiting will be worth it.
Nawal Nasrallah
on: 6/6/13
Louisa, In an article like this, I believe that it is a culinary and historical sin to overlook Iraq. True, Cathy Kaufman gives a nod to ancient Mesopotamia but there is a lot more to this. Have a look at an article I wrote few years ago about the Iraqi Kleicha cookie in Repast: Here is a link to it in my website: http://www.iraqicookbook.com/iraqi_food_cooking_and_recipes/iraqi_cookies
Louisa Shafia
on: 6/7/13
Nawal, so great to have your contribution here! I was sad to see that you had cancelled your reservation to my book launch dinner at Porsena in NYC the other night—I hope my "culinary sins" weren't what kept you away! I'm thrilled to discover the Iraqi contribution to this story, the undoubtedly delicious Kleicha! Thanks for alerting everyone to your own exhaustive writing on this subject; I am sure they will find it as fascinating (and morally blameless!) as I do. ;) Here's hoping that our paths cross soon!
Nawal Nasrallah
on: 6/7/13
Louisa, I here declare myself innocent. Actually I would have loved to attend the Porsena dinner featuring recipes from your beautiful book, but at the time I was away at home. I live in New Hampshire but make occasional visits to New York.
Patricia Agheli
on: 6/16/13
I just had to tell you all that I have enjoyed reading your comments so much. My husband is Iranian, and I must say I have gotten pretty good at cooking several of their traditional dishes as well as a few of their great pastries. I have mastered Baklava and recently have tried a few different koloocheh recipes. Having been raised Christian and married to a Moslem man, it is always fun to hear about and try out recipes that tie us all together. As I was making koloocheh for the first time, I imagined a grandmother in Mesopotamia making them so long ago that she is a common ancestor to both of us, haha. Also, it feels great to hear anything positive about the middle east after so much negativity in the media. Thank you for that.
Louisa Shafia
on: 6/17/13
Patricia, Yes and yes! I love the image of the Mesopotamian grandmother. I know, it's a relief to talk about this part of the world and have the focus be on its rich—and delicious!—history. I'm thrilled to hear that you already have koloocheh in your repertoire! If you've found a particularly good recipe, please share. Thanks for adding your voice to the conversation!
Patricia Aghelli
on: 6/18/13
I do have a GREAT recipe which I've developed over the past several months, blending together a few recipe's I've found online, then having it critiqued over and over by my friends and family. I need to make them again though, noting specific measurements before I can share it. You might not appreciate things like "a third of a bottle of rose water." I hope you won't be disappointed to find that I do not include dates in my recipe. Also, I would like to share a picture of them, as mine are adorned with a brushing of saffron glaze and a sprinkling of cardamom and crushed pistachios. Is there a way to upload a photo for you as well? I'm so excited to share my recipe with you. I will make them on the weekend and send it to you soon after that.
Louisa Shafia
on: 6/18/13
Hey Patricia, I can't wait to see your recipe! The powers that be at Zester aren't quite sure how you would upload a photo here, but please do share the recipe! If you have an image and you cannot upload, perhaps you could post to your FB page, and include a link so we can see. Not only will I not be disappointed that your koloocheh doesn't have dates, I'm intrigued to see a version that's different from mine. Bring on the saffron glaze.

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