A Persian Feast

This article was published by the San Jose Mercury News and its affiliated newspapers on August 31, 2011.)

Fluffy, nutty rice studded with colorful bits of pistachio, tangy berries and slivers of candied citrus peel.  Plates of fresh, fragrant herbs waiting to be wrapped with creamy feta inside soft flatbread right out of the tandor oven.  Long-simmered stews with zingy undernotes of lime.  And, of course, the alluring, enveloping aromas of saffron and rose petals.  This tantalizing cuisine isn’t what many people expect from a part of the world best known for searing spices and political unrest.

Culturally, linguistically and racially different from their neighbors in the Middle East, Iranians don’t cook the same way, either.  “Persian food isn’t a bunch of different spices all at once,” says Faz Poursohi, owner of Faz’s restaurants in Sunnyvale, Danville, Pleasanton and soon in Oakland.  “It’s very clean, very balanced.   Yogurt and fresh herbs and feta cheese are staples.  A lot of people think hummus is a Persian food but we don’t even have hummus in Iran.” 

Part of the great Persian diaspora, Poursohi speaks with the juicy consonants of his native land, which are exotic, like its food. Rather than fiery chiles, Persian spices are aromatic: cinnamon, cardamom and fenugreek.  Patience is important in cooking this food, Poursohi explains. “You’ve gotta take your time, you’ve gotta marinade it right. Persian food is slow food.”  This is particularly true for khoresh — the savory stews that are a big part of the cuisine.

Fesenjoon is a complex, wonderful Persian stew served with rice.

One super-delicious khoresh is fesenjoon, an irresistible, sweet-sour stew made with pomegranate and ground walnuts that is like a Middle Eastern mole without the heat.  There are many versions of fesenjoon but Poursohi’s favorite includes quince. (See recipe in following post.)

Stews like fesenjoon are served with rice, which is another key element in Persian cuisine.  “The prominent feature of Persian rice compared to others is the saffron,” reports Parnian Kaboli of Menlo Park, who has taught Persian cooking classes in the West Bay.  “Iran is the only exporter other than Spain but Spanish saffron doesn’t have even one-tenth of the aroma or the flavor,” she insists.

A high point among many fragrant Persian rice dishes is the lovely “jeweled rice” often served at weddings.  Mounded on big platters and studded with colorful bits of fruit and nuts, this sweet rice dish “is supposed to bring sweetness to their lives,” she says. Persians include zereshk — tart berries also known as barberries — but dried cranberries can be substituted. “It makes the rice look like jewelry,” Kaboli says. (See recipe in following post.)

Shirin polo, or jeweled rice, is a princely dish served at weddings and other special occasions.

Persian rice should never be sticky or starchy, she says, so recipes include instructions for soaking and rinsing the grains.  Another mouth-pleasing aspect of Persian rice is tah dig, which refers to the crusty bottom layer that is achieved through adding extra oil and cooking longer.  This delicacy is served separately in crunchy, tasty chunks.

Saffron rice accompanies the kebobs that are so prevalent in restaurants in Iran — called chelo kebob — and throughout the Middle East, but the combination of this beguiling spice and grilled meat achieves a higher calling in a luscious summer quail recipe created by chef Mark Ainsworth, who co-owns Palo Alto’s Shokolaat with his Iranian-born wife, chef Shekoh Moossavi. “He likes the flavors of where I come from,” she explains about this simple, delectable preparation. (See recipe in following post.)

Although Moossavi also appreciates her native cuisine, she is one of several Iranian restaurateurs in the Bay Area whose menus point in a European direction instead.  When Mike Mashayekh first launched San Jose’s now Michelin-starred Le Papillon in 1977, “Persian food wasn’t known,” he recalls.  While his restaurant was making haute French recipes, Mashayekh cooked Persian dishes at home, where one member of the household was paying particular attention.

Mashayekh’s stepson, Scott Cooper, eventually became Le Papillon’s executive chef and has found occasional inspiration in the Persian cuisine of his childhood.  One of Cooper’s favorite Persian dishes is an eggplant stew — the vegetable has been called “the potato of Iran” — with sour, smoky dried lime, a popular flavoring. He reinvented this stew, now garnished with fresh Persian herbs, as an elegant cold soup that is at home on a modern French menu.  Although his patrons might not know it, this dish just “tastes Persian,” says Cooper. (See recipe in following post.)

The compatibility between French and Persian cuisines isn’t all that surprising given their mutual bent toward subtlety and balance.  As Mashayekh explains it: “You could say that Persian food is simple in its complexity.”

(To read the printed article: http://www.mercurynews.com/food-wine/ci_18781239?nclick_check=1

Where to Buy Persian Ingredients

There are quite a few sources in the Bay Area, which is home to thousands of Iranians.  Here are a few popular examples:

  • International Food Bazaar, 2052 Curtner Ave., San Jose, (408) 559-3397 –  Known for its wide assortment of Persian foods, including fresh-baked flatbreads, produce, halal meats and a variety of frozen and packaged items. Customers love specialties like rosewater-flavored ice cream sandwiches and Persian baklava.
  • Rose International Market, 1060 Castro St., Mountain View, (650) 960-1900 – Although this shop is a well-stocked Persian grocery store, throngs of Persians and non-Persians come to chow down on take-out Persian dishes and delicious kebobs grilled in back.
  • Damavand Market, 37013 Tower Way, Fremont, (510) 793-2607 – In addition to all the spices, halal meats, produce and other items, this market is known for its baked-onsite Barbari flatbread, crisp outside and soft inside.
  • Super Tehran, 1112 Meadow Lane, Concord, (925) 825-1500 – This small shop is nonetheless well-stocked with Persian ingredients and offers fresh, warm flatbreads as well as Persian goodies like mast o musir (shallot yogurt dip) to slather on the bread.
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