persian flavors: 8 posts

Gifts From The Silk Road

One of my favorite stores in Brussels isn’t a chocolate shop. It’s not even a fabulous perfume treasure trove called Senteurs d’Ailleurs. It’s a supermarket at Rue de l’Escadron 35 called FreshMed. Technically, it’s not even in Brussels proper, but in Etterbeek, one of the 19 communes that make up the metropolis. It’s a store offering a vast selection of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods, with a smattering of Baltic and Polish products.

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FreshMed isn’t a fancy store; it’s a place where the aesthetics are provided by the towering pyramids of fresh vegetables and fruits, not an overly creative interior design. I like this simple and unpretentious approach. Here you can find fresh tarragon and pomegranates, stock up on Greek retsina and Lebanese arak, and then load up your cart with homemade foods: tiny Syrian pies, Turkish-style pizza, hummus, tzaziki, olives and 10 kinds of feta. Then there are shelves of Iranian floral waters, Cretan dark honeys and Moroccan amber scented soaps. It’s a journey down the Silk Road within the space of a few supermarket aisles.

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Saraban : Persian Spiced Hazelnuts

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.

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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.”

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Rhubarb Rose Sherbet

Let it be spring! Nowruz, or “new day” in Persian, falls on the spring equinox and is celebrated for the thirteen following days. This year it fell on March 20th, and now we’re in the Persian year of 1393. While Nowruz is a major festival in Iran, the holiday is also celebrated in other countries, where ancient Persian culture left its mark, such as Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Albania, India, and Turkey. The festivities came into our family with my Azeri stepmother, and along with Easter, Nowruz is one of my favorite holidays for its rich symbolism of renewal and hope. It’s also a reminder that winter’s grasp is weakening and that warm days are around the corner.

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In every home, the centerpiece of Nowruz celebrations would be a table decorated with seven items, haftseen or the seven S’s. Seven is considered a lucky number, and each item on the table beginning with the letter seen (s) in Persian has its unique meaning. For instance, seeb (apple) represents beauty, seer (garlic)–good health, serkeh (vinegar)–patience, and sekeh (coins)–prosperity. The arrangement is ornate and colorful, and people make rounds admiring each other’s haftseen tables, sharing good wishes and delicious food.

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