The Caspian Chef

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

Eshgh (love) عشق

Chefs Without Borders

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

The dinner in Iran was held on August 28, 2019, at the Cheraghan Restaurant in Tehran and featured Pacific Northwest recipes created by Carlile Room Chef Dezi Bonow.

Tonight’s Persian recipes were curated by Chef Najmieh Batmanglij, Iranian-American cookbook author, and by Chef Abbas Moradi of the Cheraghan Restaurant in Tehran, with translations and assistance from Culinary Instructor and SISCA Board Member Omid Roustaei.

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

Overseeing the Persian dinner in Seattle is Chef Desmond “Dezi”
Bonow of Tom Douglas’ Carlile Room. A “homegrown” Seattle chef, he 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 Chef Dezi’s home and heart because his wife, Leyla, is Iranian American.

This year’s Chefs Without Borders dinner in Iran was held in the elegant Cheraghan restaurant in Tehran. Owner Mohammadreza Fardamin, Chef Moradi, and the entire Cheraghan team enthusiastically joined in the effort. Dinner guests were thrilled with the Pacific Northwest menu and with the screened video

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 با بره

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 ba Bar-reh

خورشت نخودچی با بره

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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Stuffed onions with beef, rice and herbs

Dolmeh-ye piaz

دلمه پیاز


Caution: you must be an onion lover to proceed!

Name a culture, and you will quickly realize how many dishes start with some member of the onion family. Onions and all of their relatives are cherished and celebrated in Iranian culture. The onion family includes red, white and yellow onions, green onions, garlic, leeks, garlic chives and shallots. And in Iran, you also have Museer, which is an Iranian variety of shallot that most closely resembles elephant garlic, as well as Tarreh, which is a cross between American leeks and green onions. In the US these ingredients are available dried at Persian markets.

Just about every dish in Iran starts with and includes some member of the onion family. It is customary to have fried or caramelized onions prepared ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator to start off the dishes. Still more dishes are finished off with gently fried garlic, mixed with herbs, as a finishing garnish.

This dish celebrates the art of stuffing vegetables, which in Farsi we refer to as Dolmeh. Thinking of stuffed grape leaves? Yup, that; as well as stuffed peppers, eggplants, potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes and so on!

In this dish, the onions are stuffed with rice, herbs and either beef or lamb, and slowly cooked in a rich broth to create a tenderized and sweet perfection.

A coming together of ingredients in creative ways to improve the overall experience of the dish.

Unity!

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Lamb stew in tomato saffron sauce with caramelized quince

Khoresht-e Gheymeh ba Beh

خورشت قیمه با به

Quince is an ancient fruit that finds its origin in the Mediterranean and Middle East region, which offers the perfect climate for the tree to flourish. Quince is quite tart, dense and aromatic, and is typically not eaten raw; it is rather cooked in stews or baked in desserts or jams.

The fruit is typically harvested in mid to late autumn before the first frost. Iranians particularly love this fruit because of its delicate rose scent as well as its tart flavor. As with most things tart in the Persian cuisine, quince are celebrated and brought into balance with the addition of some sweetener.

For some, pumpkins mark the arrival of the fall season, while for me it has always been the first sighting of quince and pomegranate.

Celebration!

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Eggplant stew with chicken in tangy tomato sauce

Khoresht-e bademjan ba morgh

خورشت بادمجان با مرغ

Eggplant, otherwise known as the potato of Iran, is used in variety of stews, kukus (egg based dishes), and layered rice dishes.

This stew is a well known, popular and respected dish that finds itself served frequently and proudly on a Persian table. The very special and unique ingredient in this dish is “ghooreh”, which showcases Iranians’ love of all things sour. Ghooreh is the Farsi name for unripe sour grapes. Once harvested, they are then juiced, frozen or dried into a powder. These elememts are used anywhere acidity is called for.

Pride!

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Rosewater and raisin cookies

Naan-e Keshmeshi

نان کشمشی

Sometimes simplicity is the best approach, and these rosewater and raisin cookies are just that: simple. Cream the butter, add eggs and then the rest, and you’ll have these lightly rose-flavored buttery raisin cookies.

These raisin cookies are very common in Iran, much like chocolate chip cookies in the United States. Though I don’t think you will find Iranians fussing over finding the greatest raisin cookie recipes and there are no references to chunky, crispy, soft, flat, raised, etc.

A word on texture. Though I do call these treats “cookies”, the texture is quite soft, buttery and sponge-like.

Contentment!

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Rice pilaf layered with saffron carrots and candied orange peel.

Havij polo ba gusht

هویج پلو با گوشت

Havij polo is not just another Persian rice dish. It’s rather an experience and a destination, much like getting a stamp in your passport at the end of an exotic journey!

Though there’s quite variety of rice pilaf dishes in Persian cuisine, there are probably 15 that most Iranians would be able to list without even thinking. Havij polo is in my top 5.

What makes this dish so distinctive is its simplicity and the delicate combination of ingredients that lend themselves to creating a highly flavorful, mildly sweet and aromatic dish. Each region of course will make its own variation on this dish by introducing more aromatics such as cinnamon, rose petals or rose water.

This is a good example of a Persian dish that can be easily adjusted to suit your palate and taste preferences. For example, I can’t seem to get enough of the aromatics, so I tend to put saffron, cinnamon and rose water in mine. I also like mine on the sweeter side.

Freedom of choice!

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