The Caspian Chef

Spreading love and awareness by teaching Persian cuisine classes and bridging cultural gaps one bite at a time.

Eshgh (love) عشق

Persian meatloaf with fresh herbs and barberries

Dast peech-e gusht

دست پیچ گوشت

You thought only your grandmother made the best meatloaf? Well, who knew, Persians make meatloaf too and they are not shy about stuffing lots of flavors into their meatloaves. The main component that remains consistent is the signature Persian flavor profile; a touch of sweet that is balanced with sour and the refreshing company of fresh herbs.

Disclaimer: my grandmother did not make us meatloaves!

These styles of meatloaves are quite popular and highly adaptive to regional tastes, preferences and traditions associated with each region.

I made mine with beef, a mix of fresh herbs, carrot and pear. Also in this version, like a game of hide and seek, I hid 3 hard-boiled eggs that are revealed only after slicing the meatloaf. There are no wrong combinations here, you can mix and match your favorite flavors and vegetables to create a meatloaf that is truly personalized to your taste preferences and palate.

Prefer lamb to meat, no problem. Want less red meat and prefer turkey, also not a problem. Want to swap the pear with an apple? That works! Carrots in meatloaves won’t work for you? Well, swap it out with parsnips or butternut squash or celeriac or sweet potato or rutabaga or turnip or… You get my point!

Evolution!

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Hearty beans and rice stew with beef and herbs

Aash-e Sholeh Ghalamkar

آش شله قلمکار

What looks like a soup or a stew, but is neither? It is Aash!

Aash is a slow-cooked Persian dish that combines a variety of beans, grains, sometimes noodles, herbs, spices and meat. Its texture most resembles a thick soup.

Aash is quite versatile and has many variations. It can be a comfort food, but it can also be served “majlesie style” – meaning the kind of meal you’d serve at a fancy dinner party. It can be the main course, or be served in small quantities as part of a family-style spread. Aash has its roots in traditional Iranian holidays such as Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

This version of Aash is quite hearty, and a favorite amongst Iranians. As with most such dishes, it is garnished with caramelized onions and topped with a flavor-packed mint and garlic sauce. Aash is often served with a piece of Persian flatbread, which makes it both satisfying and complete.

While the recipe that follows uses an immersion blender, it is traditional in Iran to use a “Gusht Koob”, which is a wooden implement something like a cross between a potato masher and a meat tenderizer.

To make matters even more interesting, it is also quite common to have a hot bowl of Aash for breakfast!

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Spinach, parsley and mint sauté with poached eggs

Nargesi

نرگسی

A peasant food, at its core! And let’s face it, I’d eat like a peasant any day when the dish tastes this rich and yummy, and is yet very simple, quick and inexpensive!

Nargesi’s origin is back in the Caspian Sea region of Iran, where produce and vegetables are abundant. Spinach is a cherished and prized leafy green that is not only eaten raw in salads, but also cooked in various stews. It is a common belief in Iran that spinach adds flavor and more importantly a certain level of viscosity to stews.

However, it is also believed that spinach adds a certain level of grittiness or chalkiness. Not to worry, though: Iranians have a remedy for that too! Spinach is almost exclusively added to dishes in the company of fresh herbs (sabzi). Herbs not only reduce spinach’s chalkiness, but also make it more appetizing and aromatic.

In this dish, spinach is combined with parsley and mint to achieve a flavorful balance and a pleasant mouth experience.

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Chicken and saffron stew with carrots and oranges

Khoresht-e Porteghal

خورشت پرتقال

This stew is a great representation of a dish in a culture that loves its fruits with their tart and sweet flavors! The chicken is cooked slowly with Persian spices (advieh), layered with carrots and saffron, and finished off with fresh orange segments before serving.

Orange is readily available year round in every corner of the world. Citrus fruits are particularly popular in the northern part of Iran, by the Caspian Sea. In addition to lemons, limes, tangerines and oranges, a wider variety of citrus fruits have found their way into Persian agriculture and consequently the Persian table. Bitter oranges, Seville oranges and citron are just a few.

The significance of fruits goes beyond their culinary use and extends to a deeper part of the Iranian culture based on rituals and traditions. It’s important to always have a variety of fresh fruits on hand, just in case guests (mehmoon) arrive; when they do you greet them with a platter full of fresh fruits, nuts and seeds and – of course – brewed tea in a samovar.

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Chicken in yogurt sauce with almonds, raisins and barberries

Khoresht-e Maast

خورشت ماست

This one is a must try!

I have had several appetizing and delicious Indian chicken dishes that either marinate or cook the chicken in a yogurt sauce. But until recently I hadn’t tried this traditional chicken dish with Persian techniques, ingredients and spices.

The chicken is lightly browned with onions and celery and then cooked in a tangy yogurt sauce. That by itself is plenty tasty and delicious! But then almonds and raisins are added, along with ginger and spices that are pureed in the yogurt sauce. Finally, the dish is topped with golden toasted almonds and lightly sweetened barberries!

This dish really highlights some of the basic elements of Persian cuisine: once again there is a balance of sweet and sour, coming together to make a dish that is well composed and rich in nature and flavor.

Adventurousness!

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Chefs Without Borders

Each year, Seattle-Isfahan Sister City Advocacy (SISCA) organizes Chefs Without Borders: Tasting Isfahan and Tasting Seattle. This bilateral event features two dinners on opposite sides of the world that share and celebrate the emblematic cuisine of each other’s city. The goal is to create better awareness of, appreciation for, and connection between cultures through the common language of food.

This year’s dinner in Iran was held on August 28 at the Cheraghan Restaurant in Tehran, and featured Pacific Northwest recipes created by The Carlile Room Executive Chef Dezi Bonow. A “homegrown” Seattle chef, Chef Dezi was born and raised one block away from the Fremont Bridge, and began working in the culinary world while still in high school. Persian cuisine holds a special place in his home and his heart because his wife, Leyla, is Iranian-American.

The Persian recipes for the Seattle dinner On November 15 were curated by Chef Najmieh Batmanglij, Iranian-American cookbook author, and Chef Abbas Moradi of the Cheraghan Restaurant in Tehran. In my role as SISCA Board Member, I was honored to help with translation and conversion of the recipes, and to introduce the principles of Persian food at the dinner itself. The Seattle menu was:

Beef Kebab Wrapped in Eggplant
Butternut Squash and Kashk Spread
Green Herb Platter
Spicy Sweet and Sour Salmon Rice Bowl
Split Pea Stew Over Rice
Gem Lettuce With Herbs
Paradise Custard
Isfahani Nougat
Najmieh’s Tea

Butternut squash and walnut kuku patties

Kuku kadu halva-ee

کوکو کدو حلوائی

With the arrival of fall, not only come Halloween, Thanksgiving (and my birthday), but also glorious squashes! I don’t know too many people who would pass on a well-prepared butternut squash dish.

Versatile in so many ways: you can eat squashes raw by shredding them into salads, fry them up, batter them like Tempura, roast them in the oven, or puree them and mash them like potatoes.

Butternut squashes are a prized vegetable in Persian cuisine. They are often pan-fried and added to a variety of stews, ranging from tangy to sweet. They can be accompanied by anything from yellow split peas to Persian golden plums, and of course, lamb, beef or chicken.

If you can put it in a stew, you can make a kuku out of it too!

In this dish, the butternut squash is cooked gently and various warming spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cumin are added. Eggs and caramelized onion are then added to create a soft batter-like consistency that is then bound by rice flour. The result: naturally sweet and creamy savory kuku pieces that are sure to be a winner at any table, and more specifically at Thanksgiving dinners!

Gratitude!

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Cardamom and rose water rice cake

Cayk-e sheer berenji

کیک شیر برنجی

It’ll be no surprise that rice dishes are cherished and consumed in Persian cuisine. Rice found its way to Iran from China via the silk road, and took root in the Caspian Sea region, where the climate and landscape are very hospitable to rice production.

Recently I’ve been reading about the wide variety of rice that exists in Iran, and have been reminded of the distinctive characteristics of the rice we encountered when we traveled north to the Caspian Sea. I’ve been quite homesick for those familiar scents and flavors! Here in the US, the Basmati rice that I purchase at the Persian grocery store is the closest I’ve found to the rice I remember eating as a child in Tehran, with its signature flavor and texture.

Not only is rice consumed more or less daily as an accompaniment to the myriad of Persian stews, it’s also served in the form of desserts and offerings for a variety of both religious and secular celebrations.

There’s Sholeh Zard, a characteristically golden-yellow rice pudding which is the product of cooking rice slowly with water, cardamom, rosewater and saffron, then garnished with streaks of cinnamon and pieces of pistachio and almond. There’s also Sheer Berenji, another product of cooking soaked rice in milk, cardamom and rosewater.

This recipe, which I’m calling Cayk-e Sheer Berenji, is a bit of an improvised dessert that I came up with. I found that cooking the rice alone won’t give it the structure it needs to have it be served as a cake. So I reached into my pantry and grabbed my weapon of choice: agar agar, which is a jelly-like substance derived from seaweed. It’s often used instead of gelatin in vegan desserts. Disclaimer: neither agar agar nor gelatin are traditionally used in Persian desserts!

After doing some research, I found a version of this cake and its roots and traditions in the North eastern part of Iran, near the city of Mashhad.

I decorated my cake with shapes from the well-known Paisley design. The Paisley pattern originated in Persia, and spread to the rest of the world via India and Scotland!

Freedom of choice!

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Barberry and saffron lamb stew

Khoresht-e zereshk

خورشت زرشک

What are these bright red, tart, sharp, tangy, mouth puckering berries? Well – they’re Iran’s very own barberries!

When I try to describe these berries to my students, I am always asked what familiar fruit are they most like? “Are they like raisins, or goji berries, or cherries? Oh, I know, are they like cranberries?!”

The answer of course is: none of the above, and there are NO substitutions for these little gems. Barberries grow in the pleasant and mild climate of north eastern Iran near the city of Mashhad, which coincidentally is Iran’s biggest saffron producing area.

Saving me a trip to Mashhad, these days I can purchase my barberries from a local eastern Washington State farmer, Cryus Saffron, who sells his barberries and saffron at Seattle’s famous Pike Place market.

I have been to Mashhad twice, once as a child and then again as a teenager. My first trip was with my mom, aunt and cousins in an overnight train from Tehran – my one and only train ride in Iran!

Barberries and saffron go hand in hand like a well-composed symphony. Sometimes barberries are sweetened to create an invigorating sweet and tart flavor, and sometimes they are used on their own as a souring agent in stews or kuku dishes (egg frittata style dishes).

This stew showcases the prized barberries, which are sweetened with grape molasses and paired with lamb that is cooked in a seasoned tomato sauce until the meat falls off the bone. To make this more of a visual feast, it is then topped with lightly sauteed slivered almonds and pistachios and rose petals.

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Chickpea and lamb meatballs in an aromatic and spicy tomato-mint sauce

Khoresht-e Nokhodchie

خورشت نخودچی

I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about Isfahan these days. So I started searching online and paging through cookbooks for inspiration to see what intriguing and tasty dish I could come up with to share.

This is a simple Isfahani stew that once again has familiar elements such as lamb, chickpeas (in this case in the form of flour), tomatoes and spices, that are combined in a unique and surprising manner to create an extraordinary flavor profile and texture.

More about Isfahan:

Isfahan is a city in central Iran, known for its classical Persian architecture, traditions, gastronomy and a unique accent. In the center of the city is the huge Naqsh-e Jahan Square which houses the 17th-century Shah Mosque, whose dome and minarets are covered with mosaic tiles and calligraphy. Naghsh-e Jahan Square is one of the largest city squares in the world, and has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Isfahan is Iran’s 3rd largest city with a population of nearly 2 million, and is home to numerous mosques with eye catching minarets, 16th century bridges, bustling bazaars, churches and cathedrals, museums and tombs. A must see for every Iranian and visitor to Iran!

I visited Isfahan only once, long ago. I must have been about 10 years of age, so my first-hand memories are a bit on the fuzzy side. I do remember the grandness of the town square and the beautiful and vibrant colors of blue, green, turquoise and red, all surrounding a vast reflecting pool with fountains. My most vivid recollection is the narrow stair climb up the minarets, much like the climb up Notre Dame Cathedral’s towers, for those who know Paris.

These days Isfahan, still so far away, is in my daily life. I serve as a board member of a brilliant organization called Seattle-Isfahan Sister City Advocacy (SISCA), whose primary purpose is to normalize the human relationships between these two great cities. In our effort to narrow the gap and bring more awareness of Persian culture, every year we host two events in Seattle: one featuring Persian food (food diplomacy that we call Chefs Without Borders), and another celebrating the traditions and rituals of the Persian New Year.

I am SISCA’s food guy!

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