Is the more correct term “Persian cuisine” or “Iranian cuisine”?
It’s still a quandary. We go to Persian restaurants, not “Iranian” ones. People from Iran call themselves and most everything about them “Iranian.” There’s no place on a modern map marked “Persia.” Like its history, much about Persia, er, Iran, is fluid. (I’ll mostly reference Persia here.)
But there is no mistaking that Persia has given the globe both significant foodstuffs and their cooking. Going back 4,000 years, when scribes there recorded recipes on clay tablets in cuneiform, Persia has had a massive influence on all the cuisines of the Middle East and, through them (especially via Arab conquests) into all of Mediterranean Europe and, looking eastward, on the cuisines of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
Many of the foods that we associate with India—biryani, naan, garam masala, pilaf and kebab—are originally Persian. Persia gave the world of food saffron, the pomegranate, spinach and (get this, hundreds of years ago) almond milk. Almond milk! Rosewater and the edible parts of the rose (petals, rosehips and buds) originated in Persia and are commonly consumed there today.
In the days of the Great Silk Road, Persia acted as a sort of hub airport for the diffusion of the lemon, the orange and the eggplant. Of all foods for which it has been a conduit, rice (from China of course) is the most significant in its own contemporary cooking.
The Iranian ways with rice are legion, but of two general sorts, as “chelow” or plain rice and as “polow” or rice cooked with (it appears, from many recipes) anything else edible. The three-stage way of cooking all rice dishes—rinsing and soaking, then boiling, then steaming—assures rice that is cooked like flavored air, light and dry.
A crowning achievement for any cook is the golden crust often formed at the bottom of a skillet or pan of rice called tahdig (tah-DEEG). I have heard from an Iranian friend that, while to be sure some food may be left uneaten at a particular but always-lavish Persian feast or celebration, he has never left a table and observed a piece of leftover tahdig.
Another signature of Persian cooking is the use of an unholy amount of herbs. (In the recipes given here, the measurements in “cups” are not a misprint.) The profligacy of dill, parsley, cilantro, basil, tarragon, marjoram or oregano and other herbs make for heavily scented but lightly treading foods.
In truth, nearly every meal in Iran is accompanied by a platter of such fresh herbs as the centerpiece, along with radishes and scallions, with any number of flatbreads made of wheat and likely a dip centered in yogurt, another Persian mainstay (and, it is claimed, another gift to the culinary world).
Whether Persia gave the globe yogurt is too difficult to ascertain, this being the simplest of “prepared” foods (yogurt is likely the most ancient of kitchen accidents for it is no more than spoiled milk). Persia should be happiest that it gave us almond milk. What would today’s eater do without almond milk?
Herbed Frittata with Walnuts (Kuku Sabzi)
Adapted from Louisa Shafia, “The New Persian Kitchen” (10 Speed Press) and Samin Nosrat, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat” (Simon & Schuster). From the Shafia recipe, I omit the ingredient of rose petals which are difficult to come by for the regular cook. However, a very light hand-sprinkling of rosewater on each serving and its plate will add at least some of the scent. Makes 1; serves 6-8.
- 3 tablespoons grapeseed oil
- 2 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
- 1/2 cup finely ground walnuts
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 2 cups loosely packed fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, finely chopped
- 1 cup loosely packed fresh dill fronds and tender stems, finely chopped
- 1 medium leek, white and light green parts only, rinsed and finely chopped
- 1 bunch scallions, green and white parts, finely chopped
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 9 eggs, whisked
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Heat a 12-inch ovenproof non-stick skillet (for example, well-seasoned cast iron) over medium heat. Add the oil and ghee, followed by the walnuts and garlic and cook for a few minutes until the ingredients start to release their fragrance. Add the herbs and scallions and cook for about 2 minutes, until wilted. Turn off the heat and season with salt and pepper. Let the pan cool for a few minutes, then gently stir in the eggs.
- Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake for 15-18 minutes, until the center of the frittata springs back when lightly pressed. To unmold, loosen the edge with a butter knife and invert onto a serving platter. Serve hot or cold.
Yogurt and Cucumber Soup
Adapted from Najmieh Batmanglij, “The Food of Life,” 25th anniversary edition 2021 (Mage Publishers). I omit the ingredient of rose petals which are difficult to come by for the regular cook. However, a very light hand-sprinkling of rosewater atop each serving will add at least some of the scent. Serves 4-6.
- 1 long, seedless cucumber, peeled and diced
- 1/2 cup green raisins
- 3 cups plain whole-milk Greek-style yogurt
- 1 cup water
- 2-3 ice cubes
- 1/4 cup chopped spring onions
- 2 tablespoons each, chopped: fresh dill, fresh oregano, fresh tarragon
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and grated
- 1/4 cup shelled walnuts, chopped
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- For garnish: 1/4 teaspoon dried mint, 1 tablespoon green raisins, toasted lavosh or pita bread broken into 1-inch pieces, as croutons
- In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except the salt and pepper and garnishes and stir thoroughly. Season with the salt and pepper, remembering that this soup will be served cold so it may require additional salt, to taste.
- Cover and refrigerate for at least 10 minutes before serving. Garnish servings (in pre-chilled bowls) with the dried mint, raisins and flatbread croutons.