Pomegranates and roses
Iran or Persia? This question reminds me of a passage from Anne Tyler’s novel Digging to America. A group of friends of Iranian descent are discussing the reaction of the American hostess at a party. The guest has answered ‘Iran’ as the answer to the question ‘Where are you from?’.
‘Oh! Persia!’ (says the hostess)
‘No’ I said ‘Iran. Persia is only a British invention. From the start it was always Iran.’
‘Well I prefer Persia,’ she told me. ‘Persia sounds much more beautiful.’
Sami, one of the main characters, advises “What you should have told her is, ‘Oh then! In that case! Please don’t let a mere twenty-five hundred years of history stand in your way, madam.’”
Do we all view everything that’s good about this country, everything mysterious, romantic, interesting, progressive, enriching and cultural, as something in the distant past to be labelled ‘Persia’ and all that is new and/or negative as ‘Iran’?
The difficulties of being able to travel to Iran means that most of us receive our information via the media (which is usually fear, suspicion and bad news). The U.A.E.’s proximity to Iran means that there is a large expatriate population here. Radio Shoma broadcasts in Farsi to over 600,000 Farsi speakers and Iranian restaurants abound. There is one way to get to know more about a country and its people – through its food culture.
This was one of chef Ariana Bundy’s motivations for writing a cook book about Iranian food. She hopes that people will read her book, make some of the recipes at home as a way of getting closer to the Iranian people. When I met Ariana at her light, airy home in Dubai, I shamefacedly confessed that until I moved to the Middle East I assumed that Arabic was the language of Iran and that I still knew very little about Iranian cuisine. I had a hunch that I was not alone. Over the next half an hour I received an amazing beginner’s guide and crash course, departing with my mind full of images, my imagination full of flavours and clutching a bag full of barberries.
Firstly Ariana showed me a copy of her book Pomegranates and roses – unsurprisingly (after all I’ve just said) subtitled My Persian family recipes. It is an exquisitely beautiful book which would justify its purchase if it never left your coffee table. Ariana worked on the styling of the book with her Mother, a Parisian fashion designer, who brought textiles and cooking pots, fabrics and cutlery from Iran, even matching cloth from a certain region to the relevant dish of origin. Another reason Ariana cites for writing the book was to produce a collection of recipes in a more modern way – the pages are edged with intricate motifs, text overlaid with Persian script and beautiful photography of the food and ingredients. It’s more than just a recipe book however giving a background of the evolution of the cuisine, sources of ingredients and the important principles in putting a dish together.
Ariana threw information at me, each nugget interesting or even astonishing. Iran is the biggest producer and exporter of caviar in the world. And of stone fruit, saffron and pistachios, demonstrating how richly fertile this country is, combined with an ancient aqueduct system which means that even remote areas can be irrigated, “the California of the Middle East”. Top-quality produce, in season is the basis of taste.
The key to understanding how to cook these recipes and what makes Iranian cuisine rather unique, lies near the beginning of the book. The sardi (cold) garmi (hot) system of classifying foods and temperaments. Ariana explained it as the Yin and Yang of Iran. Apparently all Mothers discover which camp their child falls into from an early age; this system of classification is called Unani and derived from the teachings of Greek physician Hippocrates, and Roman physician Galen. All main foods are divided into sardi or garmi and balanced within a dish to complement or off-set each other. In some cases the use of sharp ingredients such as verjuice, lemon or dried limes is also contrasted with other elements to achieve a sweet and sour balance. The seasons are also consulted; walnuts and garlic, which are garmi, would not be used during the heat of the summer, instead there would be sardi foods like cucumber and yoghurt. Whether a guest is old, young, sick, healthy etc. will also be taken into consideration. This counterbalancing of ingredients and view of the whole meal may explain why Iranian dishes have such interest and appeal. Ariana says that children absolutely love it as it is different but comforting. She’s found that when she cooks Iranian meals, her son eats and eats.
That Ariana hasn’t always cooked the food she grew up eating at her Grandparents’ table is another strength of the book. She grew up in the West (Switzerland, New York, London) and made a career change from international business and marketing to train in patisserie at the acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu school in Paris. After several years catering for the stars in Los Angeles, she decided to spend more time with her family and wrote a cookery book called the Sweet Alternative about desserts which are free of gluten, soy and dairy that was inspired by her and her family’s dietary intolerances. For this next book she brought her chef’s discipline to the process in recording the recipes passed down through her family and learning how to make them herself. She wanted precise instructions so she could re-create the authentic recipes and said it was a real challenge to get them as her relatives would say ‘a handful of this, a handful of that’. “I took my digital scales and I’d turn my back for one minute and something else would go in! But I was determined to record it properly, that’s why there are two whole pages dedicated to cooking rice.”
By now I was positively stroking the book and every time I turned the pages something else caught my eye. Elegant cold yogurt soup called Mas o Khiar and Asheh Reshteh, a soup with a drizzled garnish of Farsi script. Nowruz, which marks the Iranian New year is on March 21st and it’s traditional to eat noodle soup (and some people also leap over bonfires). The noodles represent the different paths one takes in life. With KP in mind I spotted a recipe for meatballs called Koofteh Sabzi which are normally served with bread and Torshi which is a Persian pickle.
When discussing the combination of fruit and meat for which Persian cuisine is famed, I confessed that I had never tasted barberries so Ariana fetched some. Used commonly in recipes during Elizabethan and Victorian times in Britain, it’s a shame that these sharp fruit fell from fashion (to be replaced by the imported cranberry I fear). In true Middle East traditions of hospitality, Ariana kindly bagged up some barberries for me to take home. A few copies of her book will be available at her talk during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, ahead of it’s UK release; I’ll be at the front of the queue. If you want to meet Ariana, hear more about her journey to learn about her native food culture and the secrets of Iranian cooking, including Zereshk Polo ba Morgh – chicken with barberries served with rice, her session is at 13.30 Friday 9th March
To read more about Ariana there is a great article by Emily Shardlow in The National. You can also see her on Thursday night on Studio One, Dubai One TVdemonstrating the dish above. After the Lit Fest, Pomegranates and Roses will be in Dubai book shops in April (otherwise order from Amazon).
To my eternal regret I missed going on a trip to Iran with some friends a couple of years ago. I hope there will be a little piece of Persia (or Iran!) in my kitchen when I get the book home and liberate the barberries from the fridge.