One of the most common refrains I hear whenever the food in a particular country is uninteresting is, "Ah, but the best of our cuisine is only found in private homes, not in restaurants." Almost invariably, this is a poor alibi for dull food. One country where there is a certain truth in this assertion, though, is Iran.
Perhaps part of the reason is that the style of the cuisine is best suited to feast-like meals, which are too complicated and unwieldy to present at a table for two. Whatever the cause, it means Iran’s cuisine, which has to be one of the most sophisticated and subtle anywhere, is less well-known outside its home country than many of its neighbors’.
The irony is that Persian food has probably had a greater influence than any Eastern cuisine other than Chinese. The Moroccan tagine is directly descended from the Persian khoresht stew, and India has taken both Persia’s dishes and their names into its culture; Indian staples such as tandoori, nan bread, tikka, kebab, pilaf and biriani are all Persian words.
Persian influences are also to be found on dishes from the Caucasus and southern Russia. Closer to home, saffron and pomegranates all originally came from ancient Persia, while the lemon was taken up by the Persians and then spread throughout the ancient world.
One step toward breaking down this culinary ignorance is the recent publication of "Saraban: A chef’s journey through Persia," by Lucy and Greg Malouf.
As executive chef at MoMo in Melbourne, he is Australia’s leading proponent of Middle Eastern cuisine, while Lucy, his former wife, has collaborated with him on this and several other titles on Ottoman, North African and Middle Eastern food.
For their latest book, they travelled throughout Iran on two separate, lengthy trips at different times of the year in order to observe seasonal variations.
Lucy Malouf was especially keen to add this book to their existing titles because, she says, "a lot of culinary roads lead back to Persia. Even Herodotus mentioned Persian food in his Histories and there has been a very sophisticated court cuisine in Persia since the third or fourth centuries AD."
Both Mr. and Ms. Malouf maintain that the best Persian food is to be found in private homes.
"The main problem is that restaurant menus are so terribly limited. It’s not that chelow kebab [kebab and rice] can’t be extremely well executed, it’s more the fact that there is a relentless sameness about the offerings," Ms. Malouf says.
Recently, Mr. Malouf cooked a number of demonstration Persian meals at various locations in London, ranging from Dock Kitchen in West London to Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly. The obvious noticeable thing about Persian cuisine is its reliance on a wide variety of herbs and the subtle and interesting ways in which rice is prepared and presented.
The first course at these cooking demonstrations was invariably sabzi khordan , or soft herb salad. This is simplicity itself—a bowl of unadorned fresh mint, coriander, flat leaf parsley, dill, tarragon and basil, for example, along with some feta-like crumbly white cheese and warm flat bread.
It is difficult to convey how stimulating it is to crunch through such a kaleidoscope of flavors, tempered by a neutral mass of bread and cheese. Naturally, the mixture of herbs depends on availability and can also include radishes, spring onions and chives. But whatever the combination, it was a revelation to have such a fresh and simple start to a meal.
This is by no means the only way herbs are used in Persian cuisine. As Mr. Malouf explained, while cooking at the Dock Kitchen, "As the meal progresses, they use herbs in long slow braises, and literally handfuls of herbs are thrown on to the braising dish and cooked for an hour or more. They break down and create layers of flavors.
We are so used to throwing in herbs at the end of a long slow braise but they reverse that and the herbs give texture to a dish.