Ethnic Eating 101: Persian, Part 1

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erwinb @ flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
My love for Persian food was kindled before I had ever tasted it, thanks to my voracious childhood appetite for books. I read of rosewater, of scented rices, of pistachios and skewered meat and rich stews, of honey and of pastry and of fruit ices long before I ever tasted them for the first time. When I made friends with someone who'd moved from Iran and ate dinner at his house, I was transported by the scents and then by the bright flavors; Persian food, more than most cuisines, teases you with a huge array of appetizing fragrances. His parents were the gracious hosts I'd read about, and at the tender age of twelve I felt very sophisticated sitting on a plush divan, sipping mint-flavored tea around a sugar cube held discreetly in my mouth and talking while plates of snacks appeared.

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.

Kebab

kebab1.jpg
babairan @ flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0
Kebabs, spelled in any number of ways, are probably not new to anyone reading this, but they are the first food people think of when Persian cuisine in mentioned, and is part of the national dish of Iran. Legend has it (as is its wont) that kebabs started when soldiers threaded meat on their swords and cooked them over an open fire.

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.

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darcym @ flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0
Koobideh is minced meat mixed with finely-chopped onions, parsley and spices; it is actually packed onto flat skewers (random trivia: while you can grill barg on most kinds of skewers, you cannot grill koobideh on round skewers because it will not find purchase and will fall off into the fire) and grilled over the same heat. Koobideh is generally lamb, but chicken is an extremely common variation, especially in Southern California.

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.
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