18. Iran

Iranian cuisine has drawn influences from many of its neighbouring regions, including Caucasia, Turkey, Greece, Central Asiaa 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.

Chelo kebab, nan-e barbari, grilled vegetables and a yoghurt and mint sauce

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Chelo kebab is probably one of the most well-known Iranian dishes, it’s a mix of lamb and beef mince combined with egg and spiced with onion, coriander, garlic, turmeric, sumac, and cumin. The meat is then moulded around large flat metal skewers, about 3-4 cm wide and 0.5 cm thick, and placed over searing hot coals. This process was a lot more complicated than I envisaged. I had several failures before achieving a moderate success. I spoke with some Iranian friends afterwards who said that the ratio of beef to lamb is very important, which may have been a problem for my devil-may-care ingredient attitudes. The other thing I learned on the job is that the skewers have to be turned very quickly initially, otherwise one side cooks more than the other and the raw side will detach from the skewer and fall off into the barbecue. Then, after all of that, I had the problem of removing the kebabs from the skewers in a single seamless piece. I oiled the skewers well, so I’m not sure why I had that problem… I think I need a masterclass session with some Iranians, it may be one of the rare skills that I cannot learn from youtube. On the other hand, nan-e barbari was an extremely unexpected success! Nan-e barbari is a thick oven-baked Persian flatbread, sort of like Turkish bread, but fluffier on the inside and crunchier on the outside (at least in my hands…). Maybe it’s just that fresh-bread is always incredible, but I thought this bread was particularly good, especially with barbecued vegetables and yoghurt. Cherry tomato, eggplant and tomato are always delicious grilled, with charred bits on the skins, I think it’s my favourite way to eat them.

Gormeh sabzi, salad shirazi and Persian saffron rice

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Gormeh means “stew” sabzi means “herbs”, so it may not surprise you to learn that gormeh sabzi is a herb stew, which is rumoured to be as much as 2000 years old. I made my stew with chunks of lamb, potato and kidney beans, slow cooked until very tender. The herbs/vegetables used include parsley, leeks, coriander, spinach and chives, all flavoured with turmeric, saffron, dried limes and fenugreek. The net result is that the brown of the stew takes on a beautiful dark green, with little jewels of red kidney beans beaming through, which looks, smells and tastes amazing. Salad shirazi is the sort of salad that I often make when left to my own devices, so I was thrilled to learn that there is a name for it. It consists of tomatoes, red onion, cucumber, and mixed herbs, with a simple dressing of lemon/lime, olive oil, salt and pepper. The salad should be left to marinate in the dressing for some time before serving, to allow the onion to soften in the vinegar and the flavours to develop. Rice is a bit of a big deal in Iran. Two typical ways of cooking it are chelow and polow, which are both essentially plain rice, but the former is served on the side of a dish and the latter is mixed through something else. However, my 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 normally, draining it, then putting a thick layer of oil (and in this case saffron powder) 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. My crust wasn’t as crunchy as some of the tadigs I’ve had before, possibly because I didn’t cook it for long enough, or because my shameless purchase of less-absorbent home brand paper towels is finally catching up with me. However, it was still much more delicious that plain rice, so I stand by my assertion that Iranians have this whole rice thing under control.

Zereshk polow with slow-cooked chicken, and spinach and pomegranate salad

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Zereshk polow, also known as barberry rice, celebration rice, or jewelled rice, is a happy dish that is often served at Iranian weddings. The tadig 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 dried 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 a great sweet and sour flavour to the rice. I could have eaten the whole bowl by itself! Luckily I didn’t have to, because zereshk polow is traditionally served with slow-cooked chicken. The chicken is spiced with onion, garlic, turmeric, chilli, tomato, lemon and plenty of saffron, and was delicious with the rice. The pomegranate and spinach salad has typical ingredients of Iran – in fact most of the Iranians I have ever met have family who own/work on pomegranate plantations! This might just be a coincidence, but it has seeded a deep association between Iran and pomegranates in me. Apart from being a delicious mixture between sweet and sour, pomegranates always look incredible in dishes, and I think they epitomise the “jewelled” theme. However, I made quite a spectacular mess trying to get the pomegranate seeds out of the fruit. I tried to find online tutorials that might show me a more glamorous way of deseeding it, but I couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. I think I will just need to have a one-on-one session with some of the pomegranate-plantation workers when they come for a holiday!

Salad olivieh with kuku sabzi and garden salad.

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Salad olivieh is popular by regional variations of the name “Olivier” in many European countries, and is named after its Belgian inventor Lucien Olivier. The history of the salad is most scandalous, with the original recipe a closely guarded secret, that survived numerous attempts at plagiarism, but was ultimately altered by the inexorable forces of time and economy. It began as a rich salad of grouse, caviar, crayfish, capers and smoked duck, but now contains more affordable ingredients such as potatoes, hard boiled eggs, shredded chicken, peas, carrots, pickles, mayonnaise, lemon juice and mustard. I think it’s a great take on what I would know as a potato salad, with a lot more interesting flavours and textures. Kuku is a general name for an Iranian egg-based dish, that usually has less egg and more filling than a typical frittata. Kuku sabzi contains a huge amount of fresh herbs, such as dill, chives, parsley and coriander, as well as walnuts and barberries. I was really 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.