I have always loved and been intrigued by Parsi food, with its medley of sweet, sour and spicy flavors and the abundant use of nuts. And I often wondered how different Parsi cuisine was from Persian cuisine that the Zoroastrians who fled Persia and sought refuge in Gujarat brought with them. I found my answer and a whole lot more in The Legendary Cuisine of Persia by Margaret Shaida.
I am not surprised that I love this book. It is not unlike yet another of my favorite cookbooks, Grains, Greens and Grated Coconuts. It is filled with history, cultural nuggets and bursts with recipes.
Persia is the hinge between the Far East and the Middle East. Straddled between the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf in the south, it forms a natural highway—and part of the ancient silk route—connecting Europe with Asia. It is a big country, its rhombus shape spanning more than 2,000 miles in each direction; and it is a high country, criss-crossed and encircled with mountain ranges. The central plateau has an average elevation of more than 3,000 feet and most of Persia's major cities, including the capital, Tehran, are between 4,000 and 5,000 feet above sea level; many of its smaller towns and villages are much higher.
I couldn't stop reading. Mountains have defined Persia. They have protected its lands from invaders, only allowing through armies that were the most determined and most fierce. The cuisine of Persia was made even more rich and varied because of these invaders. It absorbed the new influences and made them its own. There are many recipes and dishes that Persia has in common with Turkey, Greece, Italians and of course, the Arabs.
Persia - like Colorado - is high country with desert and semi-desert. However, unlike Colorado, the soil of the Persian plateau is more fertile. The mountains form a rain shadow over the plateau but they drop a lot of snow on the peaks. This snow has served to form natural reservoirs that provide a continuous source of water through the long, hot and dry summers. To save water and to minimize loss due to evaporation, the Persians built a series of underground aquaducts or qanat to carry cool waters from the foothills to the scorched plains. Some were as long as 100 to 150 miles! Despite modern pumping systems, this complex system of distribution of water still exists in Iran today.
As I leafed through the book, I found that I could relate to so many of the dishes. Their names, their ingredients and the method. And, I also thought: hmm! A few green chillies would really enhance the flavor of this dish! Persian cuisine is the delicately spiced version, with a lot less heat, of the Parsi cuisine that I love.
If you have lived in Bombay, then you have to have at least heard of the Iranian restaurant, Britannia, if not eaten there and gorged on their famous berry pulao. Berry pulao uses dried barberries and the original recipe is called Zereshk Polow, the recipe for which is in Margaret Shaida's book. Persian cuisine is known for the way they cook their long grained rice, their liberal use of saffron, dried lemon, and the combination of meat with fruit and nuts.
Anita wrote a short dissertation on saffron a few months ago. I found out some more about saffron in The Legendary Cuisine of Persia.
Saffron or Za'faran is native to Persia. By 500BC, it had spread to India in the east and Egypt in the west. The rulers of the ancient empires really had a good time with this spice. They used it to enhance the flavor of their food, to dye their robes and to perfume their banquet halls. In India, the robes of the elite Buddhist priests were dyed orange with saffron. In Egypt, it is said that Cleopatra used saffron for her complexion. Nero had the streets sprinkled with saffron water to honor his return to Rome.
Saffron was also valued for its medicinal properties. It was considered to be a good tonic for the heart. And, to relieve depression. Too much saffron could produce a state of euphoria and even death from compulsive laughter. It was also used as a sleep-aid. No Ambien CR for the wealthy, just bedding dyed in saffron. Saffron, despite its various properties, made its lasting impression in food. And it continues till today.
It takes over 80,000 blossoms of crocus to produce one pound of dried saffron. The process of collecting and drying saffron is labor intensive and it is no wonder that it is sold by weight in carats, like gold.
The leading exporters of saffron are Kashmir, India and Iran. Most of the saffron grown in Europe comes from Spain and southern France. And Spanish saffron is what we are used to buying in the US. And, although Anita will disagree, the Iranians believe that the most fragrant saffron in the world comes from the sunny plateau of Iran.
I have used saffron while making biryani, in pulaos and in meat dishes. I have either added it directly to the dish or soaked it in some milk before using it. The Persians do it slightly differently. They make liquid saffron, and then use that in their polows and beryan.
- Ensure that the saffron is completely dry. If you feel it is not, take 20-30 strands in a mortar and place them in a warm oven for a few minutes.
- Add a pinch of sugar
- And with the pestle, crush the saffron and sugar to a fine powder.
- If using within an hour or two, add 4-5 tbsp warm water and allow to infuse to a deep orange color.
- If mixed with boiling water, saffron ground in this manner can be kept in a jar for several weeks.
Herbs like cilantro, dill, mint, basil, parsley and fenugreek also have a firm foothold on Persian cuisine. I had organic mint, regular cilantro as well as ginger-mango-mint chutney that were begging to be used. I also had a few tilapia fillets. My soul longed for patrani macchi so I went looking for banana leaves, found none and returned with corn husks instead. I made patrani macchi that night wrapped in corn husks and steamed. And with it, I served Sabzi Polow or Rice with Herbs and homemade yogurt.
Mint, yogurt, rice and fish. I couldn't have asked for more.
Rice with Herbs
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 1/8 cup oil or ghee
- 4 tsp liquid saffron
- 1 cup of mixed fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley, dill, chives or leeks in equal portions
- 2 sprigs of fresh fenugreek or 1/2 tsp kasuri methioptional
- leaves of 2 fresh garlic or 1 clove of garlic
- Wash the rice in several changes of water and leave to soak for 3 hours or more. There should be at least 1 inch of water above the rice.
- Wash and dry the herbs so that they do not have any excess moisture
- Bring about 2 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a 3 quart pot or saucepan. Add salt to taste.
- Drain off excess water from the rice and add it to the boiling water.
- Bring it back to boil and boil for 2-3 minutes (longer for me at this altitude).
- Test the rice to see if it is soft on the outside and firm in the middle. If it is, drain the water and rinse in warm water. Toss rice gently in a colander.
- Put the drained out pot back on the stove, add oil and 2-3 tbsp water and heat until it sizzles.
- Sprinkle a layer of rice along the bottom of the pot. Alternate between a layer of herbs and a layer of rice, building it into a conical shape as you go along.
- Poke a few holes through the rice to the bottom of the pot using a wooden spoon.
- Wrap the lid of the pot with a clean kitchen towel and place firmly on the pot.
- Heat on high for 2-3 minutes and then on low for at least 30 minutes.
- Take about 2-3 teaspoons of the rice and mix with liquid saffron and reserve this for garnish.
- Gently toss and mix the rest of the cooked rice and its ingredients to a warmed platter in a symmetrical mound. Garnish with the saffron rice and some melted butter, if you like.
- Also remove the crusty layer of rice from the bottom of the pot and hide it to enjoy later on when everyone else has gone to bed. No! I am just kidding, serve this on a separate platter.
Sabzi Polow, is the traditional dish of the spring festival, No Rooz. In India, we are familiar with it as Navroz or the Parsi New Year.
- The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup of oil and 1/4 cup of clarified butter. I used about 1/8th cup of oil.
- I have made this rice with just cilantro and mint and it was delicious.
- I have also made this rice the traditional way, as well as skipped right to step 7 using steamed and cooled basmati rice. I prefer the latter as it uses less oil and butter.
- I also mixed the saffron rice with the rest, instead of using it only as garnish
- My Sabzi Polow is an appalling yellow color instead of a rich orange color as I used regular Spanish saffron that I got from my Indian grocer. I can't wait to make this again with the high quality saffron that will be winging its way to me soon.
- I'm sorry the picture isn't the greatest but I was under severe pressure. They had started clanking their forks on their plates and I was afraid the plates might crack.
I am sending this traditional, simple and flavorful recipe from Persia to Sunita for her Think Spice, Think Saffron Event.
Resources on the net:
Saffron on Wikipedia
Quality Saffron Importer in the US, with a lot of information about saffron, in particular Iranian saffron
Ghormeh Sabzi - Persian recipes