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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This dish takes me way back to my childhood growing up in Tehran. I remember loving this dish for its flavor and simplicity, which clearly appealed to my teenage palate. A simple meatball dish with fried potatoes over steamed rice – how can you go wrong with that?
As I prepared this dish I found myself struggling to make the meatballs look uniform and be the right size. The term “kal-leh gonjishki” translates to “little bird’s head”, implying how small and delicate these meatballs should be.
Though I grew up in Iran, I have lived two thirds of my life in the US, where my exposure to meatballs has mainly been to those Italian ones that could practically be the size of a baseball! So, I found myself once again balancing the tension between my childhood memories and what has now become familiar to me. And as I became impatient, the meatballs gradually grew in size!
Looking back on my childhood, I never had to think about how much care went into preparing this dish. Making it now, I’m humbled to think of how much effort and dedication my mother gave as she lovingly prepared dishes that created a sense of continuity in my life. It’s a good reminder of how hard parents work behind the scenes, often unrecognized, to make life easier and to remove unnecessary burdens from their children.
Khoresht-e Gheymeh is a well-recognized and familiar dish to Iranians: a comforting meat and potato stew that has all the familiar flavors of Persian cuisine.
The stew is flavored with the Persian spice mixture called Advieh, containing warming spices such as cinnamon and cardamom, earthy cumin and coriander, and a gentle kiss of ground rose petals. But what truly puts a Persian stamp on this dish is the use of Persian dried limes, Limoo Omani.
Persian dried limes have a strong sour, citrus flavor and a deep, earthy fermented profile. This unique profile is the result of the preservation process, in which the limes are left out in the sun for a long period to dry out. The end result is simply just short of magic, with complex and rich multi-dimensional notes of sour and bitter accompanied by intoxicating aroma.
I love nothing more than to give a bag of dried Persian limes to someone who has never experienced them, and then sit back and watch the look on their face as they experience the unique smell. Limoo Omani is another treasured gift of Iran to the culinary world!
Multiple spices and dried limes: that is how we do meat and potato stew! I usually serve this stew with a side of salad shirazi or cucumber and mint yogurt.
Celery, oh celery! Let’s face it, celery probably isn’t the kind of vegetable that makes you jump up and down with excitement. So bear with me as I try to convince you that this dish is not your average celery stick dipped in ranch sauce, like an edible spoon. Celery has a unique flavor that seems like it’s always best paired with something else: ranch dressing, nut butter, hummus, or various dips. To make matters worse, celery seems to be an obligatory ingredient in those ever-so-popular smoothies, perhaps to compensate for the sugar content in your “healthy” smoothie!
Not only did I not like celery growing up, I never really enjoyed it much as an adult – until I went to cooking school! There we learned how to treat this vegetable properly and make it shine on its own or be a complementary ingredient in a dish. Add it to salads for a beautiful crunch, or cook it and transform it into a cream soup.
This Persian stew is a very popular dish and remarkably flavorful with very few ingredients. Celery is sauteed on its own to enhance its flavor, then combined with herbs, beef and broth to bring magic to this dish!
I can’t help but smile when I think of sour cherries! They are a highly prized fruit that has found its way into many parts of Persian cuisine, both as a savory and as a sweet ingredient. This dish is an another Caspian Sea regional specialty that integrates sour cherries into a stew in the company of small chicken meatballs, all in a gloriously beautiful and tasty saffron broth. In Farsi, small meatballs are called kal–lehgonjishki which literally translates to “little bird’s head”! So, be patient and make your meatballs the size of a little bird’s head. I suppose it makes a difference what bird we are talking about, so to be a little more precise, 1-2 tablespoons should do it.
My challenge has always been that even though I start with the right size meatballs to my surprise they seem to get progressively larger. Either which way, you will have yourself a yummy dish!
Caspian Sea tangy lemony herb sauce with carrots and fried eggs.
This is a perfect example of a simple and humble Caspian Sea dish in which large amounts of parsley, cilantro, mint, spinach and green onions are finely chopped and cooked down while brilliant and colorful slices of carrot gently soften in this tangy herb sauce. This dish is typically served with fried eggs or pieces of white fish on top and steamed basmati rice.