Iranian cuisine has drawn influences from many of its neighbouring regions, including Caucasia, Turkey, Greece, Central Asia and Russian. There is a strong focus on rice as a staple, complimented by preparations of meat and vegetables. Fresh herbs are also liberally used, which gives dishes a subtle aromatic essence that is very refreshing. When an Iranian family throws a banquet, there will usually be many dishes centred around the middle of the table, with side dishes circling around the outside. This appeals to me greatly, because there’s nothing I like more than having lots of options to eat from during a meal.
Kabobs, nan-e barbari, rice and salad shirazi
Grilled meat forms an important part of Iranian cuisine, whether simply prepared on the stovetop at home for dinner, or elaborately cooked on giant skewers over hot coals for crowds. Kabab koobideh is possibly one of the most well-known Iranian dishes, consisting of a mix of lamb and beef mince spiced with onion, coriander, garlic, turmeric, sumac, and cumin. “Koobideh” comes from a term meaning “slam”, referring to the original method of forcefully pounding the meat in preparation of the meal. Once the ingredients are well combined, the mixture is moulded around large flat metal skewers, about 3-4 cm wide and 0.5 cm thick, and placed over searing hot coals. To be perfectly honest with you, the pictured meal was actually my second attempt, with the first being much less successful. In the end I learned that my devil-may-care attitude towards recipes in the first instance led to the disregard of a few important factors. First, the fat content of the meat, ratios of beef/lamb/onion and wetness of the mixture (i.e. the onion should be drained before adding) are all crucially important to achieving kabobs that will not slop off the skewers during cooking, nor inconveniently stick to them. Second, the skewers must be flipped frequently during the cooking process to allow them to cook evenly, and therefore prevent splitting of the kabob (and, heaven forbid, half of it falling off into the hot coals). After repeating the process with a little more attention to the wise warnings of online recipes, my second batch turned out perfectly: completely intact and able to slide off the skewers in a single piece. Also, most importantly, they were delicious! My other kabobs were comparatively simple: I made jujeh kabobs by marinating chicken pieces in onion, lemon juice, garlic, saffron, cumin and yoghurt before threading them onto the skewers, and for the vegetable kabobs I simply pierced a few peppers/tomatoes/red onions and sprinkled them with oil and salt. In stark contrast to my unexpected failure with the koobideh kabobs, my nan-e barbari was an extremely unexpected success! Nan-e barbari is a thick oven-baked Persian flatbread, somewhat similar to Turkish bread, that takes its name from a now-defunct term “barbari” that was used by Iranians to describe the Hazara people native to a mountainous region in central Afghanistan. Maybe it’s just that fresh bread is always incredible, but I thought this bread was particularly good, especially as a vehicle to mop up all of the scrumptious juices from the kabobs. I also served my kabobs with some saffron rice (which is the “chelow” that forms the contender for national dish of “chelow kabob”: kabobs and rice), a fried egg (because why not?), and salad shirazi (a mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion and fresh herbs dressed in lemon juice, named after the city Shiraz from which it originated).
Zereshk polow and morgh
Zereshk polow literally translates to “barberry rice”, although sometimes also called “celebration rice”, or “jewelled rice”, is a happy dish that is often served at Iranian weddings, parties or any other joyous celebration. Rice is a bit of a big deal in Iran. Two typical ways of cooking it are chelow and polow, the former describing plain rice usually served on the side of a dish, and the latter describing rice mixed with other ingredients and more commonly serving as the main attraction of a meal. However, my amateur understanding of Iranian rice is that it is primarily cooked not for the rice itself, but for the tadig. A tadig is the golden crust that the rice forms at the bottom of the pan, and is created by parboiling rice, draining it, then putting a thick layer of oil (with the optional additions of saffron powder and/or sliced potatoes) in the bottom of the pan before putting the rice back in. The rice is then cooked on a low heat for another hour or so, with the lid secured over some paper towels, which sequesters the steam and ensures a crunchy crust. The tadig of zereshk polow is usually made with a layer of sliced potato, on top of which par cooked rice is layered, subtly flavoured with saffron, and then steamed with a paper towel on top as for plain rice. The rice is then combined with rehydrated and sautéed barberries, a beautiful red berry common in Iran, which evoke the “jewelled” references to this dish. My potato tadig was incredibly successful, brown and crunchy in all the right ways, and the barberries added an astounding sweet and sour flavour to the rice. I could have eaten the whole bowl by itself! Luckily I didn’t have to, because zereshk polo is traditionally (although not necessarily) served with morgh (chicken). I roasted a small chicken marinated in onion, oil, lemon and plenty of saffron, which imparted a beautiful golden hue and delicate aromatic flavour to the bird. However, do not be fooled by my placement of the chicken in the centre of the photo – the zereshk polow is considered the centrepiece dish and the chicken merely the accompaniment in Iran.
Kuku sabzi and sabzi khordan
Kuku is a general name for an Iranian egg-based dish, that usually has less egg and more filling than a typical frittata. “Sabzi” comes from “sabz”, meaning “green” referring to the colour imparted to this frittata from a huge amount of chopped fresh herbs, such as dill, chives, parsley and coriander, as well as walnuts and barberries. I was truly surprised by this dish, it was incredibly fragrant and light with all of the herbs, and was very delicious and easy to make, but I imagine relatively healthy. It can be served hot or cold, so is great to make and have for lunch the next day, or take on a picnic! In fact, after having the intuition that this would make perfect picnic food, I read that it’s a common dish served at a Sizdeh Bedar picnic, which is held to celebrate the 13th day of Persian New Year. I can predict that kuku sabzi could soon become the “new thing” with the hipster/celebrity community any time now… If only one could place bets on such things. Sabzi khordan also contains the word “sabzi”, which again refers to a pleasing assortment of fresh green herbs, with the “khordan” element meaning “eat”. Together, this term refers to a side dish that could accompany any meal, containing an assortment of fresh herbs and raw vegetables, often along with nuts (walnuts), feta cheese and flatbread (sangak). I think this is a genius concept, as leaving heaping amounts of fresh herbs on the table encouraged me to pick at them as I usually would more calorific sides, and increased the health and flavour of all dishes accompanying the platter. The health benefits of this custom are increased further by the fact that this platter is freshly prepared every day to accompany all main meals. I can only imagine that a lovingly tended and enormous herb garden is an essential part of every Iranian household, as the daily amounts of herbs required to assemble this platter would decimate my humble garden within a week, and the price of supermarket herbs would render this custom unsustainable in Australia.
Gormeh sabzi, khoresh fesenjan and baghali polo
And so we encounter the “sabzi” term again, which here refers to enormous handfuls of finely chopped herbs that form the primary substance and flavour of the stew gormeh (meaning “fried”) sabzi. This dish is rumoured to be as much as 2000 years old, and by first frying the herbs, such as parsley, spring onions, coriander and chives, then combining with sautéed onions, red kidney beans and chunks of meat (usually beef or lamb), flavoured with turmeric, saffron, dried limes and fenugreek, slow cooked for a couple of hours until very tender. The net result is that the stew takes on a beautiful dark green hue from the herbs, with little jewels of red kidney beans beaming through, which looks, smells and tastes amazing. Khoresh is a general Iranian term for stews, with the “fesenjan” element of the name specifically referring to this stew, which consists of onion and chicken slow cooked in a gravy made of finely ground walnuts, water and pomegranate concentrate. The dish is thought to have originated in the northern Iranian city of Gilan, and is supposedly the inspiration for ancient texts claiming that dishes combining poultry and pomegranate personified perfection. I must say, as dubious as I was about this proclamation prior to cooking the dish, I am a complete convert – the combination of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savoury flavours brought about by the meat, pomegranate and walnuts was breathtakingly lick-the-plate-delicious. The common garnish of fresh pomegranate seeds on top of the stew again creates a spectacular bejewelled aesthetic that runs throughout Persian cuisine. With the two stews I served a rice dish, baghali polo, which consists of white rice, lots of dill and broad beans, of course with a tadig (crust), this time made out of rice and not potato.