Saffron, pistachios, apricots, pomegranates, angelica seeds… When my inspiration for scent pairings starts to wane, I flip through my favorite Iranian books and think of the vibrant combinations of Persian cuisine. It’s one of the world’s most sophisticated, with complementary and contrasting flavors used in a single dish. There are rice pilafs steamed until every grain is separate and glossy and then embellished with saffron scented butter and rosewater. Poultry is cooked with fruit and sweet and sour sauces. Meat is grilled in a variety of ways and vegetables star in everything, from soups to jams. Even something as simple as a yogurt cucumber salad is served topped with a flourish of golden raisins, walnuts and herbs. Every mouthful is an adventure. Every taste is a surprise. It’s a cuisine custom-made for perfume lovers.
If your perspective on Iran comes from the news, then you’re likely to associate it with the brutal events of the 1979 Islamic revolution, religious intolerance and reprehensible treatment of women. Persia, on the other hand, may connote the orientalist visions of roses and nightingales. As Greg and Lucy Malouf note in their marvelous book on Persian cuisine, Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia, “there is an element of truth and exaggeration in each version, but they are, of course, one and the same place… This duality, these contrasts, the opaqueness–once we arrived in Iran, we realised that they all contribute to a very real sense of mystery, and of reward.”
For a reader, the reward is obvious. Saraban is the third book in the Middle Eastern trilogy by Malouf, a Lebanese-Australian chef, and his partner Lucy. As in their other books, they offer a collection of traditional and modern recipes, alongside a travelogue. I love curling up in an armchair with a pile of cookbooks, but Saraban is especially enjoyable, and with every chapter I looked forward to the continuation of Maloufs’ adventures. Will they finally visit Shiraz? What impression will Yazd make on them, a city described by Marco Polo in 1272? Or Tehran, the Iranian chaotic, polluted capital city? The chapters are accompanied by stunning photos of the country and equally gorgeous images of food.
The best part, of course, is cooking from Saraban. Malouf has a flair for flavors, masterfully combining diverse ingredients and creating memorable tastes. For instance, his trout with orange and sumac is a revelation, but it’s simple to put together. Other dishes like lamb with jeweled-rice stuffing may force you to flex your chef muscles, but the book offers so much inspiration that I often rely on it for my own creations. You need to have access to a grocery store that stocks ingredients like barberries, rosewater, and spices, but for all of its flavorful complexity, Persian cuisine doesn’t require particularly obscure ingredients.
As Malouf comments, the book is more about his vision of Persian cuisine, rather than “authentic” recipes. The latter is not a concern of mine–for how much authenticity can a Ukrainian cooking Iranian food in Belgium strive? More important is that Malouf’s recipes are respectful of their heritage. This is not a book in which rose petals and pistachio nuts are scattered over everything in sight, without regard to the context and the traditional role of ingredients. Experimenting with Saraban, you learn how cumin is used to tone down the pungency of lamb or fish and how saffron can add a jolt of aroma and color to rice and lentils. You will use some ingredients in an unexpected way, but you’ll still be paying homage to a venerable food culture.
If Saraban peaks your interest for more Persian flavors, then I highly recommend Najmieh Batmanglij’s Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies. Batmanglij is a doyenne of Persian cuisine, and she has recently updated and reissued her 1986 tome. Another book of note is Margaret Shaida’s The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. Persian Cuisine: Traditional, Regional, And Modern Foods by M. R. Ghanoonparvar isn’t a glossy production, but if I’m cooking for Iranians, his recipes never fail to elicit a “tastes just like at home” compliment. Finally, I like Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond for interesting ideas and modern (read, simplified) recipes. Her eggplant salad with saffron yogurt is a gem.
To leave you with a taste of Persian cuisine, I would like to share Saraban’s recipe for spiced hazelnuts. Malouf uses a mixture of different nuts and seeds, while I like to focus on a single variety. It’s a terrific nibble served with tea, coffee or a glass of wine.
The original recipe makes 1kg, and while this quantity isn’t unreasonable, I scaled the formula to a sample portion. You’ll certainly find that 2 cups vanish quickly, but the next time you might adjust the proportion of spices and experiment with other nuts. For instance, I use much more cayenne than a mere dash, and I’m usually tempted to up the amount of cardamom, a spice I adore. You can use almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts or pistachios instead of hazelnuts. I also discovered that adding a bit of egg white helps the spice paste adhere better and form flavor packed pellets.
250g (2 cups) shelled, unsalted hazelnuts
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon ground cardamom (from 3 pods)
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
a dash of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon egg white (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425F/220C and line a baking tray with paper. Reduce the heat to 320F/160C. Remove some of the skin from hazelnuts by roasting them for 10 minutes and then rubbing nuts vigorously with a towel. Shake off the loose skins and let the nuts cool while you prepare the spice mixture. (This step can be omitted for almonds, cashews, pistachios and peanuts).
Whip egg white till frothy. Combine with ground spices in a bowl and toss with nuts. Add olive oil and stir thoroughly. Spread on the baking tray and place in the oven. Roast for 20 minutes, or until the nuts are golden and the spice paste is dry. Shake the tray from time to time. Set aside to cool and store in an airtight container.
Images from the book; hazelnut photograph is my own.