TWAS EATS! A Taste of Iran by Saima Hussain


Khoresht Fesenjan

Koresht Fesenjan (photo credit:  saima hussain)

Then I travelled thousands of miles away from Saddar and met Maryam from Isfahan. She described her city’s tree-lined boulevards, majestic mosques, beautiful gardens, historic grand bazaar and glorious Naqsh-i-Jahan Square, all remnants of the Safavid Empire. She also shared luscious tales of sour cherries and pomegranates which had me in thrall. The generous use of fresh herbs, nuts and fruits such as apricots, plums and raisins in addition to the above mentioned sour cherries and pomegranates was a revelation. Her expertise in cooking has over the years sold me completely on the cuisine of the ancient land of Persia. Chelo Kebab is still very good, but Khoresht Fesenjan, Albaloo Polow, Kookoo Sabzi are even better. The Tah-deeg, however, continues to be a mystery.

Tah-deeg. The name itself should have been a giveaway, after all Urdu and Farsi have enough in common. But obviously I was not paying attention to linguistics at the time, because when the platter filled with this Persian delicacy was presented, my thoroughly Pakistani eyebrow instinctively arched up. The same way it used to arch up when my mother allowed the kheer to burn a little at the bottom of the pot on purpose. Or so she said.

“Try some. It is the most coveted part of the meal; all the guests are given a piece of the tah-deeg which is delicious.” Tah-Deeg literally means ‘bottom of the pot’ and it is exactly that: a crisp layer of rice taken from the bottom of the pot in which the rice dish was cooked. It was deliberately allowed to cook long enough to achieve a deep golden or even golden brown colour and crunchy texture. It is an interesting concept no doubt, but nowhere near as enthralling as the Khoresht Fesenjan.

Enriched with herbs, fresh fruits and lots of history, Persian cuisine is delicious and healthy

For anyone who adores pomegranate, this slow-cooked khoresht or stew comprised of chicken, ground walnuts, pomegranate syrup and garnished generously with whole pomegranate seeds is absolute manna. The subtle acidity of the pomegranate cuts through the richness of the walnuts to create a flavour that is sweet but with frequent hints of tangy. It turns out that this stew – often called the king of stews – originated in Isfahan and is always served over a bed of rice. The soft basmati rice I tucked into was flavoured with saffron and sprinkled with dried barberries or zereshk.

From barberries it was back to sour cherries in the Albaloo Polow. A somewhat sticky and tart dish made with rice, saffron and the by now much mentioned sour cherries, it is beloved of children and adults alike. The adults though complain that commercial cooks in North America tend to use the canned version which cannot compare in richness and flavour to the fresh. Maryam herself lovingly tends two sour cherry trees which she planted in her backyard. This national affinity for the fruit appears to be of long standing. It is said that sour cherries were first cultivated around the Caspian Sea by early Persians who brought them to Greece. When the Romans invaded Greece they discovered the sour cherries and took them back to Western Europe and Britain.

Kookoo Sabzi

Kooku Sabzi (photo credit: saima hussain)

Now more attentive to linguistics, I deduced that Kookoo Sabzi was going to include something green and leafy (sabzi), but the fact that it turned out to be a kind of omelette (kookoo) was an intriguing discovery. Similar in appearance to the Italian frittata and Arabic Eggah, this popular Iranian dish is made with fresh herbs such as parsley, dill and cilantro; it can even include spinach, kale, fenugreek, spring onions and mint. The egg mixture really serves only to hold together all the herbs which dominate the flavour which is wholesome and refreshing.  Traditionally served with a thick cucumber and yogurt mixture, it can be eaten hot or cold at any mealtime. Kookoo Sabzi, I am told, is usually served during Nauroze, the Persian New Year to celebrate renewal and abundance.

“Isfahan Nesf-i-Jahan (Isfahan is half the world)” said the 16-century French poet Reiner. Given its rich heritage and generous citizens who make mouth-watering food, one would have to agree.

First published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 14th, 2015

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