Growing up, i always believed Persian food was either what you ate at other people's houses or what you ate in a restaurant. The reason behind this was largely due to the fact that my Mother (bless her) is no culinary whizz, and although she is the person who single-handedly fuelled my passion for cookery... it was more through her lack of capability, rather than the usual "Mother-teaches-Daughter" cooking tradition, that i learned to cook. My Grandmother, being the glamorous lady-of-leisure that she was, also wasn't exactly the old fashioned hearty-food-preparing domestic type either. She was (and still is to this very day) immaculately groomed with coiffured hair and perfectly painted red nails... so getting messy in the kitchen was never high on the list of priorities for her. But my Grandmother usually spent the whole day cooking, one Sunday of every month, making several different dishes which would be sent straight to the freezer for future use. Funnily enough, i remember helping her make jars of various different pickles too, which considering she wasnt such a willing cook, was quite a feat, even by today's standards.
Perhaps as a result of my childhood memories, i have always been a little apprehensive when it comes to making Persian food. My memory of it was always of how incredibly labour-intensive and lengthy the process was. Chopping of herbs, peeling of broad beans, stemming of cherries and barberries.... I was always roped in to do the menial tasks, from as young as 6 or 7 years old. I was my Grandma's Commis Chef, doing all the boring but necessary tasks... and funnily enough i remember coming home from school on several occasions with different friends and Grandma even wouldn't hesitate to put them to work! Child labour of the unpaid variety! I think my friends were all so scared of her, that they just got on with the task at hand, without question. Looking back, perhaps i now understand why some of them never came back to the house! How the memories of my childhood have stoked the flames of nostalgia... I guess i never realised just how much my experiences have moulded me into the confident cook that i am today. Its so funny because reflecting on those times, i was expertly handling herbs, spices, pickles, meat and so much more, starting from the tender age of just 6!
I guess we don't really have a national dish, so to speak, but if i had to choose one... it would definitely be "Chelo Kebab" which literally means rice and kebab. Not the kind of grease-laden, gritty flab that some kebab houses try to pass off as meat. The Persian kebab, is a very sophisticated affair by comparison and a completely different breed and class entirely! Quality meat, marinated with minced onion and sometimes Saffron, which ensures that you will find it shockingly devoid of that repellent fatty lamb smell that puts so many people off eating lamb. My mother hates lamb for that precise reason, but loves our kebab. Traditionally it is served with basmati rice, which is cooked to perfection, nestling in a heap of beautifully single grains., accompanied by a whole flame grilled tomato. Superb. Sumak seasoning is liberally sprinkled over the dish (some people sprinkle it on to the kebab & some directly onto the meat - your preference should be personal to you) and you can opt to have a small pat of butter to bury into your rice, along with some raw onion which i cannot survive without. Heaven. It is to Iranians, what Sunday roast is to the British.
Whilst popular, this is not the most popular dish of Iran. In fact, there is one dish that has acquired a global cult status and even has many Facebook groups devoted to its worship and that is a stew called 'Ghormeh Sabzi'. So famous is this dish, that we even have a saying in Persian that makes reference to it. Personally i am completely and utterly addicted to it and only a few years ago did i vow to learn how to make it and to this day i still use a cheat-sheet as an 'aide-memoire'. Simply put, it is a stew made of a base of chopped herbs (Parsley, chives, coriander and fenugreek) often, although not always, with the addition of spinach ... with diced lamb, onions, turmeric and some dried 'Omani' limes, which when pricked, release a smoky lime flavour that is a classic characteristic of this stew. The final ingredients are kidney beans, but across Iran, this will always cause a great debate, because the variety of bean you use very much depends on which part of Iran you are from and also what your family traditions are. We use red kidney beans, but my Dad's family also used black eyed beans or borlotti beans. I love them all, but my family always used kidney beans, so thats what i always use.
The process is incredibly laborious, especially as i defy all the shortcuts and choose to use fresh herbs and hand chop them all the way. Given the choice, most Iranians will ALWAYS take the easy options and either use freeze dried herbs, frozen ready chopped herbs or fresh herbs blizted in a processer. Being the purist that i am, i choose the long way round of painstakingly hand chopping the herbs, which i feel create a more rustic and real texture which resembles the dish before the convenience of gadgetry and frozen foods were introduced.
The finished dish is a deep forest-green stew, dotted with slow cooked tender chunks of lamb and studded with kidney beans that glisten like ruby gemstones in a sea of green. The aroma is very unique... dominated by the wonderfully pungent fenugreek with background notes of other herbs. Served with basmati rice, it really is such an incredibly special pleasure that i very much regard as the "Creme de la creme" of Persian cuisine. Its simplicity, adaptability and complexity are what make it so revered in my culture. To conclude, there really is only one way to enjoy this dish and that is.... IN VERY LARGE QUANTITIES!!! Just make sure that whatever you wear when eating this dish, has an elasticated waistband, cause god knows you will need it!