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.
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!
In the West, we have the burger with all its glorious variations. In Iran, we have the Shami with many regional influences. Shami resembles a donut, with a hole in its center.
In the North of Iran, there is the green Shami, in which the beef patty is packed with fresh herbs and creamy walnuts. This variety, however, integrates spices into the meat, which is then mixed with cooked yellow split peas and processed in a food processor to create a smooth and creamy texture. Finally, it’s fried to golden perfection!
Fear not, though! While herbs are not integrated into this patty, all Persian food is accompanied with a platter of fresh herbs to bring a refreshing lightness and a life force to the table.
This is another gem in the Persian yogurt series. Yogurt plays such a significant role in the cuisine, and is always there to accompany a flavorful layered rice or well-seasoned stew.
The star of this yogurt dish is Museer, a Persian shallot. Museer is best described as a mix between an elephant garlic and a shallot, and is packed with flavor, aroma and pungency.
This variety finds its roots in the the south eastern region of Iran, in the foothills of the Zagros mountain range. However, its popularity has spread throughout Iran and it has become another staple on the Persian table.
I mostly associate eating this yogurt with trips north to the Caspian Sea region. Whether this belief has actual merits or not, it has always been said that you can eat more garlic and not feel awkward about your breath when you are by the Caspian Sea, where the weather is tropical, humid and delightfully warm!
I made this yogurt today in Seattle’s mid 70’s degree Fahrenheit weather under partially cloudy skies and with very little humidity in sight! Far, far away from the magical power of the Caspian Sea to shield me from the consequences of eating so much Museer and garlic!
Yogurt is no stranger to Persian cuisine, and is frankly a mandatory side item on the table. Each region of Iran offers its own unique version of a yogurt dish to accompany a Persian meal.
In the North by the Caspian Sea, the specialty is a garlic and shallot yogurt, which has an intoxicating quantity of Persian shallots mixed into thick and creamy yogurt.
The variety in this recipe, which is more common throughout Iran, blends yogurt with grated cucumbers and dried mint, which are packed with flavors and aroma. To this then we add garlic, salt, pepper and rose petals to make sure that you fall completely in love!
Yogurt, whether plain or mixed, is typically served with a variety of Persian stews or rice dishes. Though, to make matters more interesting, it’s not considered compatible with every such dish!
Unlike the popular sugary and starch-thickened fat-free yogurt in the US, yogurt in Iran is full-fat, tangy, and flavored with salt and spices. And if we want to incorporate elements of sweetness, we simply reach for a few raisins!
Iran is the world’s largest producer of pistachios, so it’s no wonder that pistachios are mandatory at any Persian table for celebrations and offerings to guests.
Pistachios are roasted, salted, and typically flavored with various acidic ingredients that are a signature of the Iranian palate for sourness. They are often colored with saffron, another of Iran’s precious offerings to the world.
We’ve all had baklava made from one or another region of the world. Persian versions use a variety of different nuts, and my absolute favorite baklava is made with pistachios, rose water and cardamom.
This soup is very simple in composition but is flavorful and satisfying, showcasing and celebrating pistachios! Top the soup with pomegranate seeds when in season, or with barberries, and see how the rich and creamy flavors brighten and become even more inviting!
Here is another dish in the kuku series. But this kuku is quite special, as it highlights a vegetable that has been called the potato of Iran: none other than eggplant. Eggplant is such a unique vegetable, and – as my beloved cooking teacher would say – eggplant is a prima donna ingredient, and I could not agree more!
Eggplant tends to bring out strong opinions in people, whether you love to love them or love to….not love them! As a child, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat this vegetable. When you grow up in a culture that celebrates eggplants the way ours does, you have to get creative and find a way to eat around the eggplants in stews or kuku that mom would make.
Many people have an issue with the texture, and then there are the flavor and the taste. Some believe that eggplants are so bitter that you have to resort to all kinds of previous treatments. And, if I may be so bold as to say, many don’t know how to cook this vegetable until you accept and accommodate its prima donna qualities!
Eggplants need special attention and focus: they need to be at the front and center of the stage, and to be cooked all on their own. In other words, don’t cook the eggplant in the same pan with carrots or potatoes or broccoli or any other vegetable. Eggplants need to be blended and mixed into the dish after they’ve been cooked on their own: that is really the only way to treat them to ensure good texture and flavor.
Also, eggplants are not a diet food! They are cooked to perfection only with an amount of oil that will have some people rolling their eyes! So, when I crave this vegetable and cook it appropriately, I have to accept that I will be skipping ice cream or baklava after my eggplant dish!
I am cuckoo for kuku! Come to think of it, all Iranians are cuckoo for kuku! So what exactly is kuku that has gotten a whole nation and an entire race of people to fall madly in love?
Well, you say frittata, and I say kuku; you say (Spanish) tortilla, I say kuku . . . and we are saying the same thing – almost! Kuku is an Iranian egg-based dish that has a combination of different vegetables and/or meat mixed into the egg mixture and is baked or pan-fried to create a light and fluffy savory delight.
Here are some of the more popular kuku dishes:
Kuku seeb-zamini: potato kuku
kuku sabzi: fresh herbs kuku with barberries and walnuts
Persian cucumbers have ruined it for me! When you grow up eating cucumbers in the way that Americans eat apples and oranges, you are in for a disappointment the first time you cross paths with an ordinary cucumber. Persian cucumbers are delicate, high on cucumber flavor, and low on the chalky/bitterness factor. Their skins are sweet and soft, though frequently peeled and sprinkled with salt and pepper, allowing the cucumber to be eaten as you would eat a banana.
When it comes to selecting cucumbers, I always choose this tender and flavorful variety if I can. When I don’t have access to the Persian variety, my go-to is the English cucumber. I feel quite cheated by the regular variety of cucumber as by the time I have peeled the tough and thick skin, I then have to deal with the big, pesky, watery seeds that deliver a good dose of bitterness.
Cucumber salads are very common in Iran, and of course there is the famous and tasty Salad-e Shirazi that has the cucumber mingling with ripe red tomatoes, spring onions, mint, freshly squeezed lime juice, and olive oil. Refreshing and delicious!
This is a slightly different variety in that it uses apples instead of tomatoes and the dressing is a little more complex.
When you think about it, just about every culture has its own version of an eggplant spread. Iran has no shortage of its own variety of eggplant dishes. As a matter of fact, it has been said that eggplants are the potatoes of Iran. Eggplants are so easy to love for their flavor, texture, and adaptability to the flavors you offer it – and for those exact reasons, it is also easy to dislike! Throughout my years of teaching cooking classes and engaging with students about eggplants, I have not come across any other vegetable that was so controversial!
As an adult, I have come to love eggplants, though it was not always a lovefest of a relationship. As a kid, eggplant was not a vegetable I wanted anything to do with, and when you grow up in a culture that has so many eggplant dishes you either have to learn the necessary skills required to convince your mother why you should be pitied and allowed to eat hotdogs on the days she made eggplant dish or simply accept your faith to go hungry or surrender!