I am very fortunate to have friends from many countries around the world who are willing to help me with the niceties of research. One to-die-for perk of writing is research. If, like me, you can’t get enough of new knowledge, this profession is for you. Scrounging about for tidbits is all-consuming, lose yourself stuff.
While I should have been editing and revising Reconciliation (which is scheduled for release this month), I seized the opportunity to question my friends, Gisa and Kamran, about food from their homeland, Iran. Although Reconciliation isn’t set in any particular Middle Eastern country – especially since the borders have changed in the past twelve hundred years or so – I wanted to add some depth to Rizah’s talent for making bread.
I’m partial to Middle Eastern food in any case so having the opportunity to write about it is a double blessing. One year, we were very fortunate to have a Syrian friend prepare all the food for our Christmas party. Abir was five months pregnant at the time and made enough food for our 70 guests. This was truly a generous gift and I will be forever grateful to her. We dined on Syrian fare for a week.
My first taste of Middle Eastern food was very early in my life. We lived then in a cosmopolitan city with a strong sense of community. Every year, the neighborhood council held a pot luck dinner. Every possible dish was there to be tasted. As a 10-year old, I had no inhibitions regarding food – still don’t! (Ever tasted deep fried grasshoppers?) Later, while I was in college, the snack shacks dotted around campus offered a plethora of ethnic foods. I learned to love falafel, pita and tabouli.
More recently, we were introduced to Ethiopian food – fermented bread is divine!
Now then, Persian fare is, from Kamran’s perspective, also divine. Give a man an opportunity to talk about food or football… After just twenty minutes, he was in a state of abject starvation. Every dish he described brought delightful memories of deliciousness. Gisa, on the other hand, being the cook, was more clinical. This was this and that was that. And they have given me another great gift – their time and their traditions.
When Kamran described tareh to me, I thought it was something like okre or green onions. I wasn’t far off. In the recipes I’ve found, onions may be substituted for this vegetable. As you can see in the photo, it appears to be in the leek family (very Welsh, you know!)* but the way Kamran described it was somewhat far from the actuality. Obviously a consumer, not the chef!
While we talked about Perisan dishes, Gisa told me the Anglicized Farsi spelling and Kamran described how wonderful they were. From my experience, Syrian and Persian food are among the most pleasurable for all who enjoy the culinary arts. Here is one of the recipes similar to one that Gisa and Kamran described to me.
Ghormeh Sabzi (Iranian Vegetable Stew)
1 bunch fresh spinach
1/2 bunch fresh dill
1 bunch fresh parsley
1 bunch fresh cilantro
1 bunch scallions (green stems only)
1 fresh tareh (leek)
1 bunch fresh chives
1 lb. stew meat (beef, lamb, veal, etc), cubed
4 lemons, dried or 1 tablespoon lemon, dried
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric
3 tbsp cooking oil
1 tbsp lemon juice (optional)
1 cup beans pre-soaked or canned (drained)
sprinkle of salt, pepper and red peppers
Wash and cubed the meat, drain. Remove root end of tareh and scallions, wash thoroughly along with the rest of the vegetables (except onions) and drain. Chop all vegetables fine, place in pot, heat setting on heat and stir until all water is evaporated. Add 2 tbsps of oil and stirfry until vegetables turn a reddish color (about 15 minutes), add more oil if necessary. Take off heat and put aside.
In a separate pot, add 1 tbsp oil and cook chopped onions until golden brown. Add meat, add salt, pepper, turmeric and let the meat fry with onions for a few minutes. Add pre-soaked dry beans. Poke a hole in the dried lemons and add to meat mixture or use powdered lemon). Add about 16 fl. ozs of water, place lid on pot and boil for about 15 minutes.
Add the fried vegetables, turn down heat to medium-low and let cook, about an hour. Half way through this period, if using canned beans, add them now. When meat falls apart when poked with a fork, the stew is ready. Serve over rice.
(From Authentic Middle Eastern Cookbook, Alicia Clark.)
Ghormeh Sabzi is a dish Rizah would have known and prepared for her family. I’m certain Gilles de Maides would have relished every morsel.
I’m heading for the nearest Ethiopian restaurant (or to Gisa & Kamran’s home if they’ll have me). Enjoy!
*Leeks have been a staple of Welsh cuisine for centuries. During the middle ages, soldiers in the armies of the Welsh fighting the English kings wore a leek on their uniform and ate the vegetable raw. Today, on St. David’s Day (March 1st), many Welsh choose to wear a leek rather than the daffodil (a Victorian affectation a la Charlotte Guest) to show their support for Welsh independence.