Ancient Cuisines: Persia

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.

Liquid Saffron

  1. 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.
  2. Add a pinch of sugar
  3. And with the pestle, crush the saffron and sugar to a fine powder.
  4. If using within an hour or two, add 4-5 tbsp warm water and allow to infuse to a deep orange color.
  5. 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.

Sabzi Polow

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

  1. 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.
  2. Wash and dry the herbs so that they do not have any excess moisture
  3. Bring about 2 quarts of water to a rolling boil in a 3 quart pot or saucepan. Add salt to taste.
  4. Drain off excess water from the rice and add it to the boiling water.
  5. Bring it back to boil and boil for 2-3 minutes (longer for me at this altitude).
  6. 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.
  7. Put the drained out pot back on the stove, add oil and 2-3 tbsp water and heat until it sizzles.
  8. 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.
  9. Poke a few holes through the rice to the bottom of the pot using a wooden spoon.
  10. Wrap the lid of the pot with a clean kitchen towel and place firmly on the pot.
  11. Heat on high for 2-3 minutes and then on low for at least 30 minutes.
  12. Take about 2-3 teaspoons of the rice and mix with liquid saffron and reserve this for garnish.
  13. 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.
  14. 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
Persian recipes
Ghormeh Sabzi - Persian recipes


Anita said...

Nice piece, Manisha! And a glorious simple recipe using saffron.

There is a lot of Persian influence in Kashmiri cuisine too (in my opinion)...and many of our rituals resemble those of the Persians - the celebration of the New Year by putting together nuts, sweets, and dahi (amongst other things)in a thali that is shown to everyone first thing in the morning - and we call it Navreh, quite close to Navroz, don't you think!

As regards the saffron, the Iranians may say what they will, but the gourmands of the world say it is Kashmiri saffron that has the more concentrated flavour and colour! Not my opinion :D but I agree!

lakshmi said...

Parsi cuisine is fantastic isn't it - I love everything Parsi in general, the whole culture is just ridiculously cute. Thanks for book tip - will look out for it.

Kitt said...

If only I had some saffron!

The banana leaves you can find in the Asian and Mexican groceries on Federal. I've made Yucatan tamales with them.


Just perfect. I am great fan of Brittania.

Srivalli said...

Nice rice...but washing it so many times and then soaking for 3 hours??...isn't that too long Manisha?...what variety of basmatic do you use?,...then ones we get here needs to be washed with care for just 2 times and soaked for max 15 mins!

Padmaja said...

Wow!!! Manisha!! What an amazing read?? when do u get time to do this research. Absolutely fantastic and as per the dish its amazing!!

Swaroopa said...

nice post manisha!! im delighted to read it. will try it some time.

Pelicano said...

I once ate that very pilaf of barberries that you mentioned- in San Diego at a Persian restaurant as an accompaniment to kebabs. Unfortunately, despite the marvelous food, (the naan lavash was freshly-made and exquisite, as was the soup- the soup was so delicious I nearly fainted), we had a very snooty waiter. Yes, we were under-dressed for the restaurant, but the hostess assured us that we were presentable-enough and seated us. Still, our waiter verged on rudeness. He glared at us down the bridge of his nose and wore an expression as if he had stepped in something foul. We left him a decent tip anyway to let him know that he hadn't ruffled our feathers.

Your pilaf looks splendid Manisha! They do take great pains to ensure separate grains, but it is so worth it! Please do a post to share pics of the deeper-coloured saffron when you receive it. That would be absolutely fabulous! ;-)

sunita said...

A very nice post and an equally wonderful recipe...thanks.

Latha said...

Very nice post Manisha! We have a wonderful Persian restaurant here and we love their Polow, Shessh kababs, Falafels etc.
Would love to try the cuisine - with recipes form your blog!

bee said...

thank you for highlighting one of my favourite cuisines. i actually prefer the way they cook - delicately spiced. that's the perfect spice level for me. and the aroma of their food is quite something else. i also like their incoprporation of fruits (fresh and dried) and nuts into every course of the meal. afghani food is very much like persian food, with a lot more yogurt, and a little more spice.

musical said...

I love Persian food and love it all the more because in West LA, there are so many Persian restaurants :). Lovely sabzi polo, Manisha!

The best thing to do is top a meal with doogh, which is so much like thick lassi!

Unknown said...

The rice looks fantastic.

Lakshmi said...

Such a informative post Manisha. Loved reading it. That rice looks awesome.

Nabeela said...

lol...clanking their forks against the plates. You must be a very good cook if they are that eager to get to the food :)

Indian Food Rocks said...

Anita, there is a reason for the similarities! History! As for saffron, the only Kashmiri saffron I had was the type that has been the bane of Kashmiri saffron growers - the adulterated kind. I have not had pure Kashmiri saffron nor have I had pure Iranian saffron. Have you had the Iranian saffron?

Lakshmi, I'm with you on that! Persian cuisine is however more delicately flavored and some of the recipes are similar to those in Diana Abu-Jaber's The Language of Baklava.

Kitt, I succumbed and bought some average quality Spanish saffron from the Indian grocer for $4.99. Thanks for the tip on where to find banana leaves! I didn't go that far. The last time I had actually seen them at the new Wal*mart in Lafayette.

HKG, whenever I visit, Britannia will be on the list of restaurants, OK?! I haven't forgotten. ;-)

Srivalli, soaking makes it cook quickly, remain soft and also the grains don't stick to one another. I buy Royal Basmati Rice which is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas. I would suggest that you use your best judgement about soaking time based on the basmati rice you use.

Padmaja, such is the beauty of books like The Legendary Cuisine of Persia and Ammini's book. They are full of history, culture, spices apart from just recipes. I value these books far more than the glossy coffee table books.

Swaroopa, look for it in your local library as they may have it.

Pel, a poor mannered server can ruin a great evening. Happened to us a few months ago and to make things worse, the manager yelled at us for a mistake she made and was trying to cover up. We have never been spoken to like that. We asked for all the food to be packed and walked to the reception area to pay the check. Guess who was the cashier? The snooty manager herself. My husband was so angry that I asked him to step outside lest he say something he regretted later. I gave her a piece of my mind in a low voice that did carry. She tried to make amends by giving us a $50 certificate. I really did not ever want to go back to that restaurant but I took it anyway. She tried to give Medha some free desserts and I was so proud of my child when she refused to accept it. I figured that even if I never went back, I could always give the certificate to someone who might not have the same misgivings or experience as us.

After almost 3 months, we decided to give them another chance but you know what? They had packed up and left. They consolidated their business with their restaurant in downtown Denver and I found out about a week before the certificate expired. Luckily I was able to send tat certificate to a friend in Denver, who went there and had a great time!

Oh, and I left no tip. Rude behavior and attitude is not something I will tip for. Call me whatever you want but I won't do it. Other times, I am happy to leave large tips.

Sunita, thanks! All the best with the round-up! I am looking forward to it!

Latha, we need to spread our wings a little and explore Denver, where the restaurants are at. Whenever we get a break, we head in the opposite direction, right to RMNP.

Bee, you nailed the beauty of this cuisine. Fresh and dried nuts as well as fresh and dried herbs.

Musical, you know I have been thinking of making doogh cos it's so much like a lassi. The recipe needs slightly tart yogurt so homemade yogurt works exceedingly well. But the recipe also calls for sour cream which I think is just to make the drink richer. But I don't fancy drinking sour cream, in whatever state so it probably won't be authentic. Neither will adding carbonated mineral water as the real doogh bubbles because of natural fermentation of the yogurt. But what the hey! I think I might give it a twist and make an IFR doogh instead!

musical said...

Manisha, sour cream is not essential for doogh. Just well whishked homestyle khatta dahi should be good. Mint makes a good addition to doogh. Almost every recipe i see does as carbonated water, even the restaurants do that-so we are on the right track ;).

And its interesting how cultures have similarities: all teh pickled items are labelled Torsh/Torshi in Farsi, a word (tursh)which we use in Punjabi for sour/pungent :-D.
They also call cheese as paneer and sabzi as sabzi :). Fruit preserves are called Moraaba or murabba in either language!

musical said...

Oh, and blending the lassi in a blender gives really nice bubbles from sour yogurt-atleast that's how they do it in country side lassi stalls back home.

Unknown said...

"The leading exporters of saffron are Kashmir, India and Iran."

Kashmir is in India, so I wonder why you have listed it separately here along with the country it is in. No no I don't want to start a political debate. Just wondering why.
I too have that fabulous book by Margaret Shaida and love reading it especially the Dessert section. Zooloobiya, Paloodeh,Fereni, all mouthwatering and so familiar.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Nitya, is there a debate?

Since Kashmir is a state in India and not a country whereas Iran is a country, that is why I wrote it the way it is written. In bulleted points it would have appeared as:
- Kashmir, India
- Iran
Just as if I were to say:
Louisville, Colorado and Maryland. And I am quite sure there would not be issues with that.

Welcome to IFR.

Supriya's Rasoi said...

You have a nice space Manisha. Do visit my blog in your free time.

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