Persian Cuisine, Fragrant and Rich With Symbolism


April 20, 2016

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The scents of Nowruz hit me from the moment I walked in the door of Naz Deravian’s house in Inglewood, Calif. Wafts of floral hyacinth, pungent vinegar, earthy wheatgrass and perfumey rose water — it’s a particular mingling that comes together every spring during the Persian New Year.


As I stopped to take it all in, Ms. Deravian, an Iranian-Canadian actor and food blogger who has lived in the Los Angeles area for the last 20 years, ushered me into the kitchen where new aromas were waiting: browning butter, musky saffron, sharp herbs and smoked fish, all in various stages of preparation for the feast she was cooking.

“Food is at the center of Persian culture; it’s integral to everything,” she said as she lifted the lid on a pot of rice fragrant with herbs.


At the bottom of the rice pot were thin pieces of lavash that would, Ms. Deravian hoped, crisp into tahdig — the golden, crunchy and buttery crust prized at Persian meals. Getting a perfect tahdig, which can also be made from yogurt, thinly sliced onions or potatoes (or the rice itself), is one of the most challenging techniques in all of Persian cooking. Ms. Deravian was fretting over hers, worried that the flatbread would burn or the rice turn mushy.

Persian cuisine is one of the world’s great gastronomies, flourishing for centuries across an area that, at the height of the ancient Persian Empire (circa 550 to 330 B.C.), included modern-day Iran, along with parts of Iraq, Macedonia, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia.

The repertoire of dishes is fragrant, diverse and highly refined, based on complex culinary techniques. They are imbued with fresh flowers and herbs like rose petals, fenugreek and mint; spices like saffron, sumac and cardamom; fruits like pomegranate and barberry; all kinds of citrus; and nuts, including pistachios and almonds.

If this roster of ingredients sounds familiar, it’s because Persian cooking influenced Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Northern Indian and Turkish cuisines yet itself remains somewhat below the radar.


Part of the recognition problem in the United States, Ms. Deravian said, is that even with a robust Iranian-American population (estimated to be one million to two million), there’s a stunning lack of Persian restaurants. Southern California — home to the vast majority of Iranian-Americans and the groceries, bakeries and ice cream shops that cater to them — has a handful. But for the most part, they’re not making the exalted, intricate dishes for which the culture is famous.

“Even in Los Angeles, most people’s Persian food experience starts and ends with kebabs,” she said. “The real Persian cooking happens in people’s houses.”

Luckily, hospitality is another hallmark of Persian culture. In late March, Ms. Deravian invited me into her home for Nowruz, which signifies the beginning of the 13-day Persian New Year celebration. The holiday, with its menu of classic and symbolic Persian dishes, is an excellent lens through which to explore the rarefied cuisine.

An ancient Zoroastrian festival of the spring equinox, Nowruz has been celebrated continuously for at least 3,000 years, more than a thousand years before the region’s Muslim conquest. It predates most of the holidays Americans celebrate today yet shares many of the same traditions.

This is particularly the case with Easter and Passover, which fall around the same time in early spring. During Nowruz, a celebration of rebirth and renewal, people color eggs, scrub their houses from top to bottom and eat copious amounts of fresh herbs.

Unlike Easter and Passover, though, Nowruz is not a religious holiday. Persian Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians — in the global diaspora and in Iran — all celebrate it.

Pouria Abbassi, a board member of Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, which has sponsored Nowruz celebrations on Capitol Hill, said that the ancient customs of Nowruz are an important link to Persian heritage.

“Since it is a nonreligious, nonpolitical celebration, it is the single most important event that brings all Iranians together with great pride,” he said. “In our culture, Nowruz is the only powerful common denominator.”


Nilou Motamed, the editor of Food & Wine magazine, who is Iranian, described it as a time when families gather to feast and bond over an overabundant meal.

“Nowruz is like Thanksgiving in that everyone celebrates it, and everyone cooks the same foods, though with their own family spin on it,” she said.

The traditions and meaning of Nowruz run deep in the Iranian psyche, Ms. Motamed added.

“Iran has had a complicated political relationship with the West for the last 40 years,” she said. “For us émigrés, Nowruz is a great way for us to share some of the richness of our culture through food.”

Like Thanksgiving, having too much food at a Nowruz meal is part of the deal.

“We are a culture that likes to overfeed,” she said. “We would never have just one main course. Excess is essential to our DNA, it provides a sense of welcoming bounty and joy.”

Evidence of such excess was certainly found in Ms. Deravian’s kitchen. There were the symbolic dishes crucial for any Nowruz dinner. There was the sabzi polo mahi, an herbed rice with smoked fish that represents life (fish), renewal and rebirth (fresh green herbs), and prosperity (rice). There was the kuku sabzi, a brilliant green, herb-stuffed frittata meant to represent fertility (eggs).

Fresh spring herbs, which can also represent the earth, made another appearance with feta and a homemade paneer cheese, along with juicy radishes from the farmers’ market, and tart, fuzzy-skinned fresh green almonds that Ms. Deravian picked up at a Persian shop on Westwood Avenue the day before.

And for dessert, there was toot, rose-water-flavored almond paste representing a life full of sweetness and a heart full of love. Ms. Deravian’s daughters, Luna, 9, and Soleil, 6, formed the almond paste into both the traditional white mulberry shapes and into cute little bunnies.

“Persians are always looking for meaning in everything we eat,” Ms. Deravian said. “It’s never just food. There’s mythology and tradition that goes back thousands of years behind every bite.”

She turned her attention back to the herbed rice, which was ready to serve. First, she scooped the green-flecked grains onto a platter. Next, she mixed saffron butter into a portion of the rice to stain it bright orange.

Then, the moment of truth. It was time to lift the tahdig — that crispy bottom crust — out of the pan. (If it were a rice tahdig, they might have turned it out, but with a lavash tahdig, lifting is easier.) If it burned or stuck, not only would all the guests be disappointed, but it could also cast a symbolic pall over the year to come, whereas a perfect tahdig indicates good things ahead.

Ms. Deravian nudged it nervously with her spoon to loosen it, then let out a whoop. The guests cheered as the burnished crust of tahdig slipped out of the pan and onto the rice; it was a perfect golden disk.

“There’s an art to making tahdig,” Ms. Deravian said as she and her father hooked arms to do a little dance of joy. “But there’s also a little bit of magic.”

Recipes: Fresh Herb Kuku | Persian Tamarind Fish | Persian Herbed Rice