The origins of Persian cuisine date back to the sixth century B.C.E., when Cyrus the Great led his Pars tribe (the Persians) in conquering a vast territory stretching from India to Greece. As both the Silk Road and the spice route passed through Persia, the people were introduced to new flavorings (black pepper, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, fenugreek, saffron, sumac, and turmeric) as well as new foods (citrus fruits, eggplant, rice). Similarities between Persian and Indian cuisine are still evident to this day. For example, the Indian sweet and spicy seasoning Garam Masala is related to Persian Advieh, an aromatic blend of cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and crushed dried rose petals. Both are often used in marinades and in grilling seasoned kabobs, a hallmark of Persian cooking.
The use of fresh herbs such as basil, chives, dill, parsley, mint, tarragon, and marjoram add to an abundance of flavors in Persian cuisine. Onions are very popular too in all forms, including scallion and leeks. Garlic, however, was not used in ancient Persian cooking, though modern-day recipes will call for it.
Exploring some of Toronto’s ethnic eateries while attending the 2009 Biennial, it was my good fortune to meet Samira Mohyeddin, who established Banu Restaurant after she and her brother fled to Canada from Iran after the 1979 revolution. Samira points out, in a Q&A on the back of Banu’s menu, that the revolution brought “fascist theocrats” to power who restricted Iranians’ lives and outlawed the production and consumption of all alcohol, including the Shiraz region’s famous wine. Banu’s menu reflects the flavors and fragrances of Samira’s homeland which she loves and misses dearly.
Enjoy these Persian recipes—one right out of Samira’s kitchen—and eat in good health!
Persian Zeitun Parvardeh
Initially, I thought this flavorful dish from Banu Restaurant would be easy to recreate because the ingredients were listed on the menu. However, it wasn’t so easy to find green Calamata olives and golpar/angelica! Even if you too can’t find all of the traditional ingredients (which my research uncovered) for the treat, the combination of garlic, walnuts and sweet/tart pomegranate molasses with the slightly acidic olives will push this dish to the forefront of your cocktail table.
2 cups pitted, unstuffed green olives, rinsed and drained (olives with pits may be used)
1⁄2 cup walnuts, toasted (or 2 Tablespoons walnuts and 2 Tablespoons almond butter)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 Tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1⁄2 teaspoon golpar (angelica), in the parsley family but sweeter, available in Middle Eastern markets (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon water or olive oil, if needed
- Place the olives in a 11⁄2-quart bowl.
- Rinse the original olive jar.
- Process the toasted walnuts in a small processor workbowl until they’re chopped almost to the consistency of a paste. Add to the olives.
- Mix in the remaining ingredients and, using a rubber spatula, combine thoroughly. If the mixture appears too thick, add water or olive oil.
- Place the olives and the sauce in the reserved jar. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, preferably overnight. Shake the jar occasionally to distribute the sauce. Serve.
Yield: 12–15 servings.
- When making a sauce that includes finely ground nuts in small quantities, you can often substitute nut butter for 1⁄4 of the volume of ground nuts (an option in this recipe).
- 1⁄2 cup walnuts yields 1⁄3 cup firmly packed ground walnuts
Persian Nan o Paneer [Bread with Cheese]
A Persian cheese plate is a perfect starter for a hot summer meal. Persian Lighvan cheese made from sheep’s milk is traditionally used in this dish, but as it’s hard to find, feta cheese—especially Bulgarian feta—is a good substitute. The fresh herbs, eaten as a main component in this dish, beautifully complement the cheese.
8 ounces Bulgarian or other fine feta cheese
1⁄2 cup large walnut pieces or halves
1⁄4 cup fresh basil leaves
1⁄4 cup fresh mint
1⁄4 cup fresh tarragon
1⁄3 cup imported sour cherry preserves
Small watermelon wedges or cucumber slices
1–2 sheets sesame Barbari bread, pita bread, or soft flour tortillas
- Rinse and drain the feta cheese. Place on a 12-inch serving platter.
- Toast the walnuts in a 350°F oven for 5–6 minutes or until the nuts begin to smell fragrant. Place on the platter near the cheese.
- Rinse the herbs, pat dry, and remove the leaves from the stems. Place the leaves in little mounds on the platter.
- Add 1⁄3 cup of sour cherry preserves on the platter along with small watermelon wedges or cucumber slices.
- Set out another plate or basket for bread.
- To eat, place a small piece of cheese in the center of a portion of the bread, top the cheese with walnuts and a big pinch of one or more of the fresh herbs, and finish with a small teaspoonful of the cherry preserves. The fruit or cucumber may be added to the “sandwich” or eaten separately.
- Never let nuts get too golden in the oven. They will continue to “fry” in their own oils even after being removed from the heat source.
- When purchasing nuts, double their weight to estimate the volume. For example, 8 ounces of nuts will measure 2 cups or double the weight by volume.
Persian Mast o Khiar-Cucumber Yogurt Salad
While Greek tsatsiki offers up a blend of refreshing cucumber, yogurt, and dill, the Persian version features the elegant and elaborate use of fresh herbs and fruits. And thinning this mixture with about 1 cup of water will give you an incredibly delicious cold soup!
1 cup thick Greek yogurt—whole or 2%
1⁄4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped
1⁄4 cup golden or dark raisins, coarsely chopped
1⁄2 of 1 large cucumber, peeled and cut into 1⁄4-inch dice (approximately 3⁄4 cup)
2 Tablespoons fresh mint, finely minced
2 Tablespoons fresh dill, finely minced
2 Tablespoons fresh chives, finely minced
2 Tablespoons fresh basil, finely minced
2 Tablespoons dried rose petals, crushed or minced (available at Middle Eastern markets)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Additional whole dried rose petals for garnish (optional)
1 Tablespoon finely ground walnuts for garnish (optional)
- Place the yogurt in a 2-quart bowl and stir until it’s smooth.
- Add the remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Wipe the bowl edges as needed or pour the mixture into a serving bowl.
- Refrigerate for at least 1 hour, and preferably overnight, to allow the flavors to blend.
- Just before serving, sprinkle on additional rose petals and ground walnuts if desired.
- Serve with soft Middle Eastern bread.
- Greek yogurt or Middle Eastern Labne is much thicker in consistency than American varieties of yogurt. When a recipe requires a thick yogurt base and Greek yogurt is not available, you can substitute sour cream.
- Seeding a cucumber creates a less watery finished product. In this recipe, since you are working with thick Greek yogurt, removing the seeds is optional.
Persian Advieh (Spice Mix)
Israel’s multiethnic environment has introduced us to many examples of Baharat (spice blends used in cooking throughout the Middle East and North Africa). While the base ingredients in this Persian mix are ubiquitous in all Baharat, only Persian cuisine includes dried rose petals, which impart a light, sweet, floral accent to any grilled meat or fish.
2 Tablespoons cinnamon
2 Tablespoons ground cardamom
2 Tablespoons dried rose petals (from a Middle Eastern market or online)
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
- Grind the ingredients in a coffee grinder or spice mill until almost all the roses are finely ground.
- Place the ground spices in an airtight jar in your refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or freeze indefinitely in an airtight container until ready to use.
- Add 1 Tablespoon of this mixture to 1 pound of ground beef or ground bison to make grilled kabobs or burgers. Alternatively, mix 1 Tablespoon advieh to 1 Tablespoon olive oil and rub on the outside of fish fillets before grilling.
- When using dried spices as a rub on poultry, fish, or meat, always lightly salt your food first and then combine the spice with a little oil. The rub will then adhere to the food, flavoring it well.
Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, is the author of the new URJ Press book, Entree to Judaism. She also teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S.