Persian Cooking: Experience and Lessons Learned

Not long ago, I borrowed from the library the book “Bottom of the Pot” authored by Naz Deravian, a book about Persian cooking. During the latest years, I had the chance to make quite a few Persian friends, and the one thing they all have in common is their praises for Persian cooking. So, since I was looking to diversify a bit my cooking skills, I decided to give this style of cooking a go.

Before I got started, I got the chance to quiz my friends and even cook side-by-side. So I carefully observed and listened in hopes to understand what they appreciated from their native meals. I learned from my friends that Persians love to offer plentiful platters with delicious food to their guests.

KooKoo Kadoo, a persian zucchini and summer squash frittata. I made a sauce out of reducing the drained liquid from the squashes.

As I got my feet wet with Persian cooking, a few elements struck me as a conductive thread. Long-grain rice, saffron, herbs, and yogurt appeared consistently throughout the recipes. But more importantly, how these meals are composed and presented – mostly shareable and family-style – spoke to me of a family and community-oriented culture.

While diving a little deeper, I started making connections and drawing parallels to three other cuisines. First, I could see the plant-centric and community orientation of Mediterranean cuisine. Second, I saw the complex and layered flavors built with spices of Indian cuisine. Finally, the soups and dumplings that resembled so much of those found in Russia and eastern Europe.

It was too tempting to resist taking a deeper look into the Persian empire’s history that would speak to me about this combination of cultures. To this end, I found a very informative Youtube documentary that you’ll appreciate if you’re into history. After watching it, the connection between these cultures was clear.

Kaskh, my new favorite ingredient,

I learned a few new ingredients and ways of using some I already knew, like saffron, from preparing these Persian recipes. One of my favorite discoveries is Kaskh. Kaskh is fermented yogurt whey that has a salty and intense flavor that resembles that of parmesan cheese. To experiment with it, I put it whenever a recipe would call for parmesan, rendering a much more interesting final product. Another discovery was rose petals and buds; the floral quality they deliver to the dishes pleasantly surprised my palate. Before trying Persian cuisine, I preferred fresh mint for my cooking; it was a total surprise the fresh dimension that dried mint adds to these dishes. Finally, many recipes call for barberries as a way to impart a tangy quality.

I also learned new things about bread. Bread seems like a significant item in Iranian eating – mostly flatbreads – and I got to taste and bake staples like Lavash, Barbari, and Sangak. All of them are great options to enjoy dips like “Kashki Bademjan” or “Borani Yeh Laboo.”

Persian beet and yogurt dip with barbari bread, and a pilaf with dates and pistachios.

One last thing I’d like to highlight is the appreciation that Persians have for seasonal fruit. Both as ingredients in their mains and as a simple but delicious dessert. This discovery inspired me to research more on the seasonality of fruits. This use of fruits is not new to me, my family in Argentina always ended their meals with fruit, but I had forgotten this habit as I moved out of my hometown.

To finish, I will leave you the recipe I created by mixing Persian with Argentinian and Italian cooking, which are part of my roots. Kashki Polenta with Persian Chimichurri.

My Persian-inspired polenta

Kashki Polenta with Persian Chimichurri

A fusion between Persian, Argentinian, and Italian cooking.



Chimichurri is a close cousin of pesto. A combination of olive oil, Italian Parsley, mint, garlic, some chilis, and maybe Oregano. In this recipe, I added rose petals for the floral quality and dried mint instead of fresh. To add brightness, I added some preserved lemon rind. Next, I prepared the polenta with saffron and soaked barberries, so its flavor would resemble tahdig. Finally, where I would season my polenta with parmesan cheese, I replaced this ingredient with kashk.

Ingredients

  • 1 garlic clove, chopped.
  • 2 sprigs of fresh parsley, finely chopped.
  • 1 tsp of dried mint.
  • ½ tsp of dried rosebuds, plus extra for garnish.
  • 1 tbsp of olive oil, plus extra for garnish.
  • ½ inch square of preserved lemon rind.
  • ¼ teaspoon of Aleppo pepper.
  • Salt to taste.
  • ¼ cup of barberries, soaked in water for 15 minutes, and drained.
  • 44g of polenta
  • ¼ tsp of baking soda.
  • 5 to 10 saffron strands. (yes, very little)
  • One tablespoon of Kaskh

Directions

  1. With a mortar and pestle, crush and mix the garlic, parsley, mint, rosebuds, preserved lemon, Aleppo pepper, and olive oil. Add salt to taste.
  2. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup of water to boil, and add a few pinches of salt to season and the barberries. Since Kashk is very salty, we want to hold back on the salt we’d typically use for polenta.
  3. Mix the dried polenta with the saffron and the baking soda. Adding baking soda will help prevent the polenta from clumping.
  4. Reduce heat to low, and add the polenta mixture into the saucepan and constantly stir until the mixture has thickened for about 5 minutes.
  5. Off the heat, add the Kashk to the polenta, taste, and season with additional salt if needed. Finally, mix and incorporate ¾ of the chimichurri into the polenta.
  6. Transfer to a small bowl, use the remaining chimichurri, rose petals, and olive oil to garnish. Let cool for a few minutes and enjoy.

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