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This is it!
on 24 September 2017
For all of you out there who want to get into Persian cooking, this is it!
We are not exactly spoiled for choice with books on Persian cuisine. Maybe this is because Najmieh's book is so good that no one else could even come close? The price is steep, yes. But you get two in one: you get the recipe part, which over the years has grown so much that you may have difficulty deciding which dish to cook first; then you get an extensive essay about Persian history and culture. For me, these have always been intertwined and I firmly believe that one cannot truly master the cooking without understanding the history, culture and geography of a people, which are the roots of a cuisine. Najmieh is an exile Iranian lady, full of pride and love for her country and roots, and it shows in this book.
Persian cuisine is one of the oldest civilized cuisines in the world. Of course, it has been gifted with Mediterranean foods by the country's conquerors, like the armies of Alexander the Great from Greece; the Turkic tribes from Central Asia; seafaring traders from Arab countries long before the dawn of Islam. (Which cuisine hasn't drawn on foreign influences?) But it has, in turn, influenced more peoples with its own culinary gifts, foods and most namely cooking techniques. Nan-e barbari, for example, may have originally been left behind by Central Asian tribes in a more rudimentary form, then enhanced to perfection by the Persians (yes, a tandoor is Persian!) and finally "exported" by Persia's own armies in a much more refined form on their conquest through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and all the way into northern India. And so have the khoreshes and polos (polo = pilau).
But enough of this now. I can, of course, pick holes in this book:
1) Ingredient lists are almost endless. I mean it. Sure, it is better to grind spices for immediate use, and this is what the recipes call for with each of the polos and khoreshes calling for up to a dozen different herbs and spices, but I cannot imagine that Iranian people do this on a daily basis. Thankfully, Najmieh gives us three different recipes for Advieh, the Persian spice mix -- one of these is always suitable for use instead of gathering together a huge array of different individual spices, but you will initially have to find out just how much of which Advieh to use for which dish instead. You can also pass on the garnishes, which are used in Iran only for special occasions. That will make things a lot easier!
2) Portion sizes are enormous. When a recipe specifies it serves 4 to 6 people you can easily assume it serves at least 8, if not more. A 3 course Persian meal (chelow, khoresh, and a starter, accompanied by bread and a condiment or two), if you assume portion sizes as stated are correct, can easily amount to 2000 calories in one sitting! But this is Middle Eastern and Turkish tradition: always prepare plenty of food, case unexpected guests may arrive (and there is nothing as embarrassing than leaving them without enough food! I have a few Iranian friends, and none of them are even remotely chubby...)
3) Najmieh is a purist, for whom cooking rice and baking bread is a form of art and her love and respect for her native cuisine dictate that she wants you to learn how to cook these things to perfection, so preparation is sometimes a bit fiddly and involves a lot of dedication, time and conscientiousness, or special utensils (such as a baking stone), which most of us do not often have. (While I list this as a negative, it is really a positive as it teaches you how to get things done as closely to tradition as possible!)
So be prepared for a challenge!
Another notable thing is that if you want to get involved with Persian cuisine, you have to like sour and extremely sweet. Barberries (zereshk), sour cherries (albaloo), sour grape juice, and pickles (torshi) are everyday fare for khoreshes and polo, while desserts -- like anywhere else in the Middle East and Turkey -- demand a sweet tooth bar none. (I do not have much of a sweet tooth, barely ever venturing beyond dark chocolatey and lemony things; though I found that sweet treats like sholehzard (Persian rice pudding) are quite nice once I halved the amount of sugar...)
Ingredients here in England are quite easy to obtain. If you do not have a Middle Eastern store or supermarket near you, you can order them in pretty decent quality at "A Taste of Persia" (they also sell Iranian-make rice cookers, case you get hooked -- they are not bad at all...). Persian cooking is not chili-hot; even dishes from the Gulf Coast are manageable for more delicate palates. Fresh herbs are used with abundance, so keep cilantro, parsley, dill weed, tarragon and basil in stock at all times. Also pomegranate molasses, which is not as concentrated as the Lebanese stuff, more liquid instead. And saffron (I know... expensive!)
The book was originally written for the American market, but conversion into metric has been done accurately so the recipes should work out nicely for those who do metric. As for myself, I find cup measures are a lot quicker than going by weight, but the maths is spot on! Like in all Muslim countries or regions, the cuisine revolves around meat, but Najmieh gives vegetarian options for many of the recipes. I myself am not a vegetarian, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of these alternatives, but they are there.
I can only hope that once you have a bit of practice, you'll agree with me that this is the only book you'll ever need to recreate authentic Persian flavors.