Ethnic Eating 101: Persian, Part 1
|erwinb @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0|
Persian cuisine has so influenced the world's foodways that it's hard to imagine what life would be like had the conquering heroes simply stayed home and tended their flocks. If you've ever eaten Punjabi kheema, Sicilian blood orange granita, or Caribbean pelau, you have the Persians to thank, at least in part. Ancient Persia sat atop every single major land-based trade route; they adopted things that did well in their climate, transmuted them, and sent them westward.
Before we delve into the food, it's not possible to discuss this cuisine without some judgment being made about one's political beliefs. If one calls it Persian, one could be a sympathizer with the deposed Shah; if one calls it Iranian, one could be a sympathizer with the current government. I use the word Persian because the rich tapestry of cuisine predates both Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The cuisine is Persian; the country is Iran. The cuisine has little to do with the party in power. Please don't write me about this, because I'm not interested in a debate.
|babairan @ flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0|
Modern-day kebabs, still cooked on sword analogues over open fire, can be divided into two categories: barg and koobideh. These names, incidentally, are Farsi; when you change to Arabic to talk about other Middle Eastern cuisines that feature grilled meat, the names change too. This is useful because while restaurants will often self-identify as "Middle Eastern" or "Mediterranean", the names they give kebabs give away their origins, which permits you to ask for specialities of that culture that may be off the menu.
Barg refers to pieces of meat that have been cut up, marinated, threaded onto skewers and grilled. Finding out how to marinate chicken Persian-style was one of the seminal moments of my learning to cook. Onions--huge amounts of onions--are grated so that they are reduced almost to juice, then mixed with salt, pepper and chopped garlic. Leave the meat in this marinade overnight, then the next morning thread it on skewers and, using a brush, brush olive oil on and any remaining onions off. Grill over high, direct heat. Somehow, this results in the meat being unbelievably juicy; I've never made barg kebab any other way.
|darcym @ flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0|
It should go without saying, given the dietary restrictions of the region, that the meats in question are lamb, beef, chicken and sometimes fish. If you ever see pork kebab in Southern California, you are almost certainly standing in an Armenian restaurant--Armenians are principally Christian. If you see shish kebab on a menu, the word shish means "skewer" in several of the Middle Eastern languages. Finally, if you see kebab soltani (or soltani kebab) on a menu, this means a mixed plate, with one skewer of barg and one skewer of koobideh.
Traditional accompaniments to kebab are pretty simple: rice or bread, lemon, and sumac, the dark-red ground berries of a perennial bush native to Iran that impart a slightly citrus-y, slightly smoky flavor, a bit like lemon-scented paprika.
We'll cover the various Persian breads in the next edition of Ethnic Eating 101, but for right now let's just say that nan-e kebab means "bread and kebab", and in that case it generally means lavash, a soft flatbread baked in squares, a bit like a more interesting-tasting and softer matzoh. You're meant to use the bread to remove the kebab from its skewer, then dress it as you like and eat it.