Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Persian cooking class: Kashk-e bademjan, gheliye mahi, chelo and saffron-scented almond brittle

This month's Persian cooking class was another beauty! The theme was the food of the Persian Gulf (Khalij-e Fars). Unlike the food of other parts of Iran, the food of the Gulf area is spicy, with detectable Indian and Arab influences. Our instructor, Reza Rahbar, is from this part of Iran, and I was super-excited to take this class for a couple of reasons: 1. The food of this area is not so well known, even to this avid Persian cookbook collector, and 2. we were going to make the absolutely mouth-watering stew of fish with herbs, chillies and tamarind (yes, all in one dish!!) that Reza demonstrated on NHK's Asia Crossroads program back in April. Also on the menu were kashk-e bademjan, a starter of fried eggplants topped with a yogurt and feta sauce; chelo steamed rice and sahan asali, an almond brittle perfumed with saffron.

I arrived early and, after having rosewater poured into my palm to refresh my face and hands, enjoyed a nice chat with Reza and his charming wife, who keeps the dialogue going during our lessons when Reza is busy at the stove. A photographer and designer in her own right, she designed the recipe sheet for this month's lesson, and was kind enough to say that my not-so-secret love of the colour orange was an inspiration for the design!

The eggplant starter was a bit of a revelation. There are many eggplant dips in the canon of Middle Eastern cookery, but here was one where the eggplants were pan-fried in oil, rather than grilled over a direct flame. You don't get the smokiness of, say, a mutabbal (baba gnanouj), but with the garlicky-dairy topping, drizzle of hot olive oil and a garish of mint, you certainly don't miss it. The kashk of the recipe name refers to a salty paste of whey, which is a bit of an acquired taste. It's not so easy to get here in Japan, and may not be to the taste of a most Japanese, so creating a similar flavour profile with yogurt and feta cheese was a good option. (Also helpful for those without a Persian grocer's nearby).

I was intrigued by the name of the fish dish, "ghalieh mahi". Mahi is fish in Persian, but what about ghalieh? I asked my dear Iranian friend Hw, who hails from the mountains in the north of Iran. He'd never heard of the word, so I flipped around my Persian-English dictionary till I came up with "qalieh," which was defined as "dish like a fricassee" (don't you hate it when a bilingual dictionary defines a word with another from a third language!). Stew, in other words. Later, I read in my latest Persian cookbook acquisition, A Treasury of Persian Cuisine, that Persian stews were called gholyeh for several centuries under the Arab influence, but the indigenous term, khoresh has once again become the standard term used in most parts of the country, "except for those nearer to the Persian Gulf..." I am now pretty sure that ghalieh, qalieh and gholyeh, are variant spellings of the same word, which translates as stew in English.

If you've had Iranian food before, you will know that there are one or two dishes that are so chock-full of fresh and dried herbs that they take on a worrying dark green tinge. I'm here to tell you that should certainly try any dish like that that you come across, as the odds are that it will be one of Iran's most fabulous dishes, like this one!

Reza's Ghelieh mahi was brimming with fresh coriander and parsley and dried fenugreek leaves. You are not likely to come across fresh fenugreek leaves just anywhere, but it's good to know that Persian and Indian grocers usually have the dried. Ask for shanbalileh if you're getting it from a Persian grocers or kasoori methi from an Indian one. The leaves need to be soaked in water for 10 min, then stir-fried for another 5. To me this seems to defeat the purpose of the soaking, but I am assured that this step does make a difference to the taste in the end.

Although there are many, many fabulous rice dishes in the Persian kitchen, Reza made plain steamed chelo to serve with the ghelieh mahi, which has enough flavour going on not to need a fancy accompaniment. The lovely Afghani (I believe) pottery dish that he served the rice in (photo above) gave the table a festive touch.

As we were all ooh-ing and ah-ing over the unusualness of this dish at the table, I mentioned that the word tamarind in English and Japanese comes from the Arabic for "Indian date". It's a slightly different word in Persian, so our host didn't know this, either, but serendipitously, he had some fresh dates for us as our take-home gift of the day!

Later we had cardamom tea (with a splash of rose water in my case), the almond brittle (which our hosts had made in advance) and a Persian snack of grains scented with what seemed to me to be violet and rose. Delicious! I was so into the food by this time that I forgot to take a picture, but you won't be far off the mark if you let your mind conjure up something from The Arabian Nights (g).


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