From Iran with Love: Sahar’s Persian Dinner Party
I usually only read about Iran in the newspapers, in that usual collage of an embattled nuclear program, oppressive government and international sanctions. Then one meets Sahar Farzanfar and that vision shatters. Picture Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz going from black and white to Technicolour.
What comes next is a colourful culture with surprising elements of modernity – at least through her eyes and contemporary Persian lifestyle. A recent stalking of Facebook photos of her trip back to Iran and I was surprised to see house parties with (shhhh, don’t tell the imam) alcohol, bikini-clad pool gatherings and the kind of modern homes you’d expect to see in the LA hills, not the Iranian countryside.
A stylish, comely and well-spoken (as long as you’re a fast listener) architect, Sahar came to Sydney in 2008 to do her masters degree, where she was living until her imminent relocation to Melbourne (she’s househunting as we speak). Sahar says she was never considered much of a cook back home in Tehran, but living away from her native metropolis, Sahar’s found herself slaving away in the kitchen more and more often, reproducing her favourite Persian tastes.
When I asked her for some of her favourite recipes, Sahar suggested something easier: she’d cook the dishes in person. The result? A full-blown dinner party at The Melting Pot Kitchen. The dishes were inspiring and unique, a far cry from what we generally see as Middle Eastern food in Australia. We’re talking crispy-exterior rice cakes topped with barberries; a tangy lamb and celery leaf stew; dips of eggplant and whey and yoghurt, cucumber and dried mint; and a pomegranate-marinated kebab with mint that’s substantially different from the Turkish and Lebanese versions that have become Aussie staples.
To contribute to the occasion, I joined Sahar in the kitchen to bake some barbari: a sesame- or nigella-seed-topped Persian flatbread that gets its distinct flavour from a slightly sour glazing of bicarb (baking soda), and its unique shape from a lengthways raking with one’s fingers. It was surprisingly close to the real thing, said Sahar. Whether or not she was being kind, it was an exciting way to break out from baking a European-style loaf.
Take it from me; these Persian dishes are traditional and wonderful. Serve them to your dinner guests, and at least for one night, everyone might be thinking more about what we have in common with the Iranians in everyday life, rather than via distant news reports or governments with ruffled feathers. And who knows? Maybe the path to better relations is via the dinner table, rather than the negotiating one.
– Michael Shafran
Tah-Chin (upside-down Persian rice cake)
1 large onion, chopped
700g chicken fillets (breast or thigh)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 large or 2 small eggplant/s
2 cups basmati rice
1/3 cup (4 tablespoons) plain yoghurt
1/3 cup (4 tablespoons) olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon to fry
1/2 teaspoon saffron
Barberries* and sugar, to garnish
1) Place the onion in a pot with the chicken fillets, two cups (500ml) of water and turmeric. Cook over a medium-high heat for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Remove from heat, cool slightly, then chop the chicken into large dice and set aside.
2) Peel the eggplant and cut into 1cm-thick slices. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a pan and sauté eggplant until golden. Remove from heat and set aside.
3) In a heavy-bottomed pot, add rice then fill with water until the rice is covered by about 1.5cm of liquid. Bring to the boil and cook until rice is slightly undercooked and still has some bite. Drain the rice in a colander.
4) In a bowl, add yoghurt, remaining oil and eggs and mix to combine, then add the drained rice and mix again. Dissolve saffron in 1/8 cup (30ml) boiling water, add to the rice mix and stir until the whole mixture is a unified yellow colour.
5) Lay 2/3 of the rice mix in the bottom of the same pot in which the rice was boiled. Top with the chicken first, then the sautéed eggplant slices, and cover with the remaining rice. Cover pot with its lid, place over medium heat and cook for 1 hour or until bottom of the rice has browned – check the (inside) sides of the pot to see if the rice is getting darker and harder in texture. The rice in the centre should be cooked and soft. You may need to leave it cook for longer or a bit shorter depending on the type of pot you are using.
6) When the rice has gone a bit crispy and golden on the sides, remove from heat, put a plate large enough to cover the pot on top of it and turn the pot upside-down.
7) In a small pan, add a large handful of barberries with an equal amount of sugar (about 1/4 cup each), and then an equal amount (again, about 1/4 cup) of water. Place over medium heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved and mixed with berries. Use the berries to dress the crispy top of the upside down rice and serve.
* Barberries are from Middle-Eastern stores.
Khoresht e Karafs (Persian celery stew)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
500g lamb fillet, cut into 3cm cubes
1 large bunch celery
2 bunches mint
2 bunches parsley
4-5 dried limes*
1) Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat, add onion and fry until golden. Add lamb with one cup (250ml) of water and reduce heat to low.
2) Remove the leaves of the celery and chop them along with the mint and parsley. Cut the rest of the celery into 2cm-thick pieces. Add the herbs and celery pieces to a large frying pan and fry over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, and then add to the lamb. Add 3 cups (750ml) of water, close the lid and cook over a very low heat for one hour.
3) After about one hour, when all the herbs are cooked and darkened, use a knife or a fork to poke some holes in the dried limes, then add them to the stew (alternatively, you can add 2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice). Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook the stew for another 20 minutes.
4) When done, serve in a large bowl with steamed basmati rice**.
*Dried limes, also known as black limes, are found at Middle Eastern food stores or via Herbie’s Spices.
** Tip: you can dissolve 1/8 teaspoon saffron in 2 tablespoons of boiling water, then mix it with 4-5 spoonfuls of the steamed basmati rice. Layer the yellow saffron rice with the white basmati rice as decoration.
Kashk-e Bademjan (smoked eggplant dip with whey)
400g kashk (whey paste)
4 large eggplants
1 tablespoon oil, plus extra to fry
1 large onion, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon dried mint
1) Using a small knife, poke a few holes in each eggplant. To smoke the eggplant, place them directly over a gas flame on your stovetop (lined with foil to minimise the mess) or in an oven at 190C. Turn each eggplant with tongs occasionally until the skin is blackened all over. Remove from the heat and place in a plastic bag to steam and cool slightly, then peel skin and slice off the green tops and discard. Alternatively, you can slice the eggplant and fry the slices on both side in oil, then mash up the flesh, although you won’t get the same level of smoky flavour.
2) Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a pot over medium-low heat, then add onion and fry until golden. Add the eggplant to the onion, then use a stick blender to completely puree the eggplant mixture (alternatively, cool slightly, puree in the blender, then return to the pan). Turn heat to medium and add all of the kashk except for one tablespoon, which you’ll reserve for decoration. Finely chop 4 of the garlic cloves and slice the remaining 2 cloves. Add the chopped garlic to the pot and let cook for 15 minutes.
3) In a small pan, fry the sliced garlic in oil, then remove with a slotted spoon. Dry toast the dried mint in a separate pan until fragrant.
4) Dissolve the kashk for decoration in 1/2 cup (125ml) of water, then place in a pan over low heat for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Dissolve a little saffron in a spoonful of hot water and reserve for decorating.
5) When ready to serve, place eggplant dip into a bowl, then decorate with drizzles of the kashk, topped with more drizzles of the saffron water. Garnish with the mint and fried garlic.
Kabab Torsh (sour kebab)
Torsh in Farsi means sour. So the whole concept is that the paste gives the meat a kind of sourness.
500g lamb fillet, cut into 4cm cubes
2 tablespoons plain yoghurt
1 cup crushed walnuts
2-4 tablespoons pomegranate paste* (depending on how sour you like the kebab)
1 medium to large tomato, flesh grated
1 bunch of mint, to garnish
1) Combine the lamb, yoghurt, walnuts, paste and tomato in a bowl, then cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge to marinate for 4-24 hours (the longer the better).
2) When ready, season lamb with salt just before cooking. Place lamb on skewers and cook over a chargrill or barbecue, turning occasionally, until cooked. Serve on a plate, garnished with fresh mint.
* Pomegranate paste is from Middle Eastern stores. If unavailable, you can substitute it with pomegranate molasses, but the latter is sweeter and thicker, so the result is somewhat different.
Persian Cucumber Dip
500g plain yoghurt
1 cup crushed walnuts
1 cup sultanas, soaked in water for 1 hour if possible
2-3 Lebanese cucumbers, peeled and chopped
1/2-2 tablespoon dried mint, depending on your preference
Mix all together and enjoy!