Monday, 12 May 2008

Margat sharab al-rumman: Chicken fesenjan, Iraqi style

Chicken fesenjan (and variants fesenjaan, fesenjoon and faisinjan) was, if I remember rightly, the very first authentic Persian dish I ever made. It is one of those dishes whose tart and heady flavour is so beguiling that you are amazed when you realize you actually made it yourself.

The stew's key ingredients, walnut and pomegranate, are a combination that appears in various guises throughout the Middle East, for instance in this Turkish dip. There it was bold and sassy, but in this Iraqi rendition of fesenjan, or fasanjoun as it appears to be called in Iraq, it is altogether more subtle. In fact, this is really more comfort food, with very mild spicing and a lovely thick sauce enriched with ground walnuts and pomegranate paste. It is rather different from the fesenjan of my memory (but it has been a few years), but a lovely alternative anyway.

Since I had always associated fesenjan with Iran, it was a surprise to find a recipe in Delights from the Garden of Eden: A Cookbook & a History of the Iraqi Cuisine (more on the book in a minute). But according to the author, Nawal Nasrallah, fasanjoun is one of the few non-Iraqi stews that have found a permanent place in the the Iraqi culinary canon.

Her version has different spicing and less onions, walnuts and pomegranate paste than my original attempt, and the other recipes I have (by Najmieh Batmanglij & Claudia Roden) for this dish. It is lovely just the same.

As for the book, my first impression was wow!! Coming in at 644 pages, this is a weighty tome in more than one sense. The recipes look, to the uninitiated (i.e. me), to be almost encyclopedic; but the book is so much more than that. It has the low-down on the cuisine right back into antiquity, and all sorts of personal recollections, literary and historical quotes, and anecdotes aplenty. In short, you couldn't want for a better book on all things to do with the Iraqi kitchen.

Garden seems to have been self-published, and I think it is a very great shame that the author, for whom it must have been the labour of very many years, did not or could not find a major publisher befitting her book's place as the classic work that it is. I was also moved to tears by her apology at the beginning of the book.

Considering the hardships that Iraq has been going through for more than a decade, some might think that this is not the right time to write about food. But as a wife, a mother, a woman, and a human being, I find in food and in the memories of food my refuge, my comfort and consolation when things are not looking good...

I absolutely agree and no apology is needed. It is precisely in times of strife (if that is the word; I don't want to get political here...) that food becomes important. I'm sure that Ms. Nasrallah's work will serve Iraqis who end up settling outside their homeland a beloved scent and taste of home, while also giving the rest of us who might seek to know the culture better, an unbiased, non-political entry point. I highly recommend it and rank it alongside Claudia's Book of Jewish Food and Najmieh's New Food of Life.

Margat sharab al-rumman: Pomegranate and walnut stew with chicken (Iraqi style fesenjan)

For 4

3 skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
2 tbsp oil
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp flour
1 cup toasted walnuts, pulverized in a food processor until oily

2 cups water
1/4 cup pomegranate syrup
(or substitute with juice of 1 lime or lemon, 2 tbsp brown sugar and 1/2 cup tomato juice)
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp each black pepper, cumin and cinnamon
2 cups diced vegetables [S: I used zucchini; but the author suggests potatoes or sliced, fried eggplants]
1/4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds [S: If available], and chopped parsley or dried mint to garnish

1 In a medium pot, heat half the oil and brown the chicken on all sides.

2 Add onion and turmeric, and fold until onion is transparent, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle flour and walnut on the onion, and fold for a few more minutes.

3 Add remaining ingredients except for garnish, and stir carefully. Bring to a quick boil, then reduce heat and let simmer gently for about 40 minutes, or until the meat and vegetables are tender, and the sauce nicely thickened.

4 Garnish with chopped parsley and pomegranate seeds, and serve with white rice.

As I was writing this, I though about looking up the recipe for my first fesenjan on the Net. Unfortunately, it seems its poster has since passed away and we can no longer access the Persian recipes he had on his professional web site. I still have the print out, so here it is. Although I never knew agha-ye Mokhtarian, this recipe made a big impression, and helped stoke the engines of at least one culinary quest that I know of. You can try both recipes and see how things change when a dish crosses borders. It's something I find quite fascinating.

The original recipe gives measurements in "glasses" and "spoons". I have taken these to mean 200 ml cups and 15 ml tablespoons.

Khoresht fesenjaan: Iranian chicken in walnut and pomegranate sauce

For 6

1-1.5 kg chicken pieces
500 g ground walnuts
3-4 onions
4-5 tbsp pomegranate paste
2-3 tbsp sugar
1/2 cup oil [S: I probably used less than that]

Peel onions and slice thinly. Fry in oil until slightly golden. Wash chicken pieces and fry in onions until color changes. Add 3 cups of hot water and bring to the boil Turn heat down and let boil slowly for about 30 minutes, adding more hot water if needed.

Add salt, ground walnuts, pomegranate paste and 2 more cups of hot water and bring to slow boil. If pomegranate paste is sour, add some sugar to the khoresht.

Care should be taken to cook the khorest long enough so that the oil in the walnuts comes out and the mix becomes quite thick. Khoresht fesenjan should be served with white rice.


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