Iran or Persia? I was a little concerned about being PC in the current name of this Vegetarian Cookery School course on Persian cookery. But a little thinking later, and after Simi’s fascinating introduction, I was convinced that Persian was correct, the most appropriate, and the only name for the intriguing cuisine that evolved in her saucepans and decorated our plates and palates.
Simi Rezai is from Azerbaijan. Another clue and not a further confusion. The food of Persia has evolved with the to-and-fro tidal washing of invasions over millennia. Starting from the fact that the Iraq/Iran environs was the origin of civilisation, a brief look at history tells us that invasion from the Mongols, the Turks, the Greeks, from the east, the west and the north means that Persian food is influenced by Indian, Turkish, and Greek cuisines, and all the other countries bordering each of that trio. What’s more, Persian cuisine seems an ancient fusion of all those influences and seems to have resisted the 20th Century industrialisation that has diluted and denatured most Western cuisines.
And just for completeness, since Persia became “Iran” only in 1934, Iranian history is not a saffron stigma’s thickness compared to the length of all the bags of basmati rice consumed in Azerbaijan in 2011 laid out on the road from Istanbul to Tehran. The name Persian food speaks of the history and influences of the cuisine and is thus more apposite than ‘Iranian’.
Simi had the air of a domestic cook and the enthusiasm of an Azerbaijani. Before we were introduced to the treasures of saffron or the Manna like devotion to their rice, Simi explained how Persian food was both a proud statement of culture and a statement of love. Lest we relaxed too much into the importance of household cooking and the skill of mothers and grandmothers (men apparently are left to the job of restaurant chef!) we were warned that Azerbis were both proud of their cuisine skills and were stubborn.
We all tightened our apron ribbons, gathered round the central demonstration plinth, and listened intently ………
The recipes we were being taken through were at first sight rather pedestrian:
But the very reverence in how the role of rice in Azerbi culture and food was described lifted these recognisable recipe names to something very different and very surprising. In short, the basic ingredients were common to other cuisines, but the whole manner of their preparation, combinations, and the techniques used to make each recipe was specific to Persian food.
Rice is local varieties of basmati but is cooked in superfluous amounts of water until it doubles in length and retains a hint of firmness. It is then strained and returned to a clean, lidded saucepan where it is over the meanest of low heat, kept just gently steaming for 30 minutes or more. The stream is stopped from condensing back onto the rice by wrapping a tea towel around the lid and allowing it to absorb the steam safely. The result is dreamy perfection that can be repeated on subsequent reheating.
But rice is used to make many dishes with vegetables, herbs and the Persian saffron (more below). Here the rice is cooked first as above, then returned to the cleaned, lidded saucepan in layers of rice, vegetables, herbs etc as appropriate. However, the bottom of the pan is often protected from ‘burning’ by placing either a flour tortilla-round or some thick slices of raw potato in the saucepan-bottom before any rice is added. Then as the rice is layered in with the other ingredients it is kept away from the sides of the pan by forming into a broad cone. This avoids burning or ‘crisping’ of the rice against the sides. The cooked delight is then carefully spooned onto a serving dish ready for the table.
Such devotion to detail is another distinct feature of Simi’s cooking. Ingredients are added one at a time and the dish is generally cooked very slowly. There is also a fastidiousness that seems paradoxical. The rice and broad bean dish was flavoured with dill. But dried dill is used, despite the loss in flavour, because it looks better in the cooked rice than the freshly chopped herb would. The same applies to peppermint when it is used. A better looking dish is preferred to one with the maximum of herb flavour but soggy green herbs scattered therin.
Onions are used as a base to many dishes, but a more elaborate preparation is used that I had experienced. Instead of just ‘frying-off until golden’ in a little oil, the onions are prepared with the care a treasured ingredient deserves. The large white onions are finely sliced and piled into a frying pan with 1 cm. or so of oil. Simi used a mixture of ghee and rapeseed oil, but any non-burning oil would do. The onions are essentially shallow fried. Care is taken in the early stage when the onions loose water and bubble and fizz about. After about 30-40 minutes of this (much longer than frying until ‘transparent’), the bubbling reduces and the onions become thinner shreds, caramalising with a bronze colouration, which must be watched carefully and removed from the heat before they burn. This gives a greatly reduced mass of fried onion and a delicious flavoured-oil. (Simi confessed her love of this onion just piled on bread. But we were spared a demonstration.) But on less outrageous days she would parcel it up in small sealed bags and pop into the freezer. It is used is so many dishes, takes so long to prepare perfectly, that a ready stash is sensible kitchen practice. Try getting away with that at home in the UK!
Saffron is cultivated in the whole region. It is valuable and is now a treasured gift where gold might have been some years back. This rates saffron up with a Fracino Piccino espresso machine to thank a dinner hostess instead of a box of After Eights and a bunch of wilted chrysanthemums from the local garage forecourt.
Saffron may epitomise Persian food. Like onions and rice, it is widely used. Most interesting though is why they use it and how they prepare it. Simi emphasised several times that saffron was not to be tasted. It was the ethereal colour and the delicate but unique aroma cooks took pride in. Too little or too much was a wasted dish.
The preparation was a revelation. Only true saffron was de rigeur. Clearly there is more of related species of Crocus stigmas about than I realised. The true kitchen saffron is a Crocus sativa stigma, a male sterile species now unknown in the wild and reproduced only by division of the underground corms. None of that key information is on the packets, so best to befriend an Azerbi family and become deserving of occasional gifts!! (Ed: enough diversion, back to preparation please….)
The saffron is made into a ‘tea’ (what a cruel terminological understatement!), a concentrated water infusion of the stigmas, a pinch of which are finely ground in a mortar with a small pinch of sugar as an abrasive. Only two teaspoons of boiled water are added to the ground saffron. Just like a pot of tea, it is left to steep under a tea cosy! It is used to colour and aromatise boiled rice or the oil based part of dishes like the Koresht Havij (carrot stew) or Kashke Bademjan (aubergine stew). The subtility of this spice and its ubiquitous appearance in recipes makes it a good candidate for a stigmata of true Persian cooking.
How I loved that rare, devoted deliberation in the preparation, combining, and slow cooking of ingredients. True culinary mediation and such eye-food and stomach satiety.
Now, where is my Sous-chef to peel and slice all those onions…
Christopher Robbins © July, 2012
You can find more photos from Simi's Persian Cookery Class on Flickr.