The diversity of the Persian table

Persian culture has always been a source of mystery, intrigue and discovery. Walking amid the hustle and bustle of Iran’s many labyrinthine bazaars, one experiences complex melanges of aroma from saffron to cardamom, rose water to beedeh meshk to orange blossom, and vibrant colours from zardchobeh (turmeric) to sumac and zereshk (barberry) to pomegranate.

While many people are familiar with the history, literature, philosophy and spiritual characteristics of Persia, the cuisine has not been well known in the West until recently. For the curious observer who knows Iran as one of the oldest wine-producing countries, it is intriguing to know how culinary activities have developed, what the types and peculiarities of cooking are, and how this rich and complex culture is reflected in its food.

The impact of geography and history

Under different dynasties over the past three millennia, Persia was one of the oldest and greatest empires. It has also been subjected to repeated invasion, which has led to the creation of a diverse culture comprising different tribes, traditions and behaviours. This has been reflected in the diversity of the cuisine, in terms of both ingredients and methods of cooking.

Iran’s varied climate and topographical particularities from lush and mountainous terrain to flat and arid desert, has led to a wide variety of agricultural produce. No matter where you are in Iran, the combination of herbs and spices with main ingredients creates multiple layers of taste and aroma, delicately balanced so that none is dominant over the others and allowing flavours and textures to complement one another.

There are distinct regional variations of tastes and subtlety of flavours. The north, with its high rainfall and temperate climate, is lush with herbs and orchards. Historically straddling the route of the Silk Road, northern cuisine has been influenced by the other countries it passes through, such as China. The resultant dishes are predominantly rich in herbs and are often sweet-and-sour in taste. Dried and fresh fruits and nuts are an essential part of cooking here; herbs like mint, tarragon and parsley play a dominant role.

The culinary tradition further south, which is a drier climate, is influenced by aromatic and hot spices, due to the important spice trade with India. The resultant sauces are rich in tamarind juice, curry spices and the dominant herbs coriander (cilantro) and fenugreek.

Distinctive features of Persian cuisine

Despite the enormous diversity of dishes and methods of cooking, the basic features of Persian cuisine are the same all over the country. All regions, from north to south, east and west, cook aash, khoresh, khorak and rice, the key dishes that are particular to the Persian culinary tradition. These are usually served with yogurt dishes and other accompaniments and the meal is finished with shirini, literally sweet things.

The aim of my research was to highlight the variety and diversity of Persian recipes, from sweet-and-sour in the north to spicy and aromatic in the south. But my primary concern was not where each particular dish came from. A good recipe moves around very quickly; it is passed from one person to another, across the country, regardless of its regional origin. It should also be remembered that each family has its own unique way of cooking a dish, which could therefore be very different from the same dish cooked in another family. Coming from a family that has roots in both the south and the north I have been lucky enough to be able to choose recipes that I first tasted either in my paternal grandfather’s house in the north or in my southern maternal home. I have replaced some of the ingredients with ones more readily available in the West and have made them as compatible as possible with the time constraints of modern cooking and with modern cooking equipment.

Fish and dill dami rice. Lakh lakh

The name of this dish apparently comes from an Arabic word meaning fragrant. It is a wonderfully aromatic rice steamed with dill, coriander, garlic and fish. In Bushehr, on the Persian Gulf, lakh lakh is especially popular with the poor, because the ingredients are cheap and readily available. It is a delicious and nutritious dish with a good balance of protein, carbohydrate and fresh herbs.

Serves 4
500 g/1 lb 2 oz chunky fish fillets (e.g. haddock or cod) 500 g/1 lb 2 oz basmati rice 2 large onions 100 g/3½ oz fresh dill 100 g/3½ oz fresh coriander 1 teaspoon turmeric 6 cloves of garlic 1–2 hot chillies 1 teaspoon dried lime powder 1 teaspoon chilli flakes 6 tablespoons vegetable oil 30 g/1 oz butter 1½ litres/2½ pints water salt and pepper
Preparation about 15–20 minutes plus soaking
Cooking about 1 hour

Wash the rice and soak it in cold salted water for a couple of hours (see standard recipe). Wash the dill and the coriander, discard any tough stems and dry with paper kitchen towel or in a salad crisper. With a sharp wide-bladed knife chop them finely. Peel and chop the onions and the garlic. Chop the chillies. Wash the fish fillets and cut them into 3–4 cm/1½ inch cubes; sprinkle the pieces with salt and pepper, set to one side.

In a large heavy-based saucepan, heat 4 tablespoons of the oil and fry the onions until golden brown, add ½ teaspoon of turmeric, the garlic and the chillies and stir-fry for a couple of minutes. With a slotted spoon remove half of the fried mix and set to one side. Add the rice, dill, coriander and 1 teaspoon of turmeric to the same pan. Stir to mix the rice with the other ingredients.

Pour the water into the pan, add 1 dessert spoon of salt and boil gently on a medium heat until the water has been absorbed. Wrap the lid in a tea towel and jam it firmly onto the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes. Then add the fish to the pan, stir gently with a large spoon to mix with the rice, add the butter and the rest of the oil. Replace the lid and cook for a further 20 minutes.

Dip the bottom of the pan in cold water before serving to separate any crust. Serve in a flat dish, pour the saved fried onions on the top, sprinkle with chilli flakes and the dried lime powder.

Lakh lakh is delicious with garlic pickle and a mixed salad of red onions, lettuce and cherry tomatoes dressed with olive oil and lemon.

Text by Jila Dana-Haeri

Jila Dana-Haeri is an expert in Persian cuisine. A medical doctor with a specialty in clinical pharmacology, she has a particular interest in nutrition, which is reflected in her recipes. Jila grew up in Iran where she honed cooking skills in her family kitchen, and now lives in the English countryside where she entertains family and friends with her Persian dishes. Her book From a Persian Kitchen: Fresh Discoveries in Iranian Cooking was published in 2014 by I.B.Tauris.

Simone Bunegar collaborated with Jila Dana-Haeri in illustrating her research on Persian cuisine.
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