Khoresh is a genre of Persian food that is not merely a staple but also a quintessential pillar of Persian cooking. Widely translated as “stew”, Khoresh is certainly stew-like or stew-ish, but it is more elaborate, deliberate, and dare I say dignified than stew. Let’s put it this way: if Bill Clinton were khoresh, then his brother (Roger Clinton) would be stew! Same family, close relation, many things in common, but… big difference.
There are so very many different types of khoresh that initially Maman and I were flummoxed fixing on which one to choose as Fig & Quince‘s inaugural khoresh post.
Then we recalled that rhubarb is in season and it is so pretty …
… and that despite its antagonistic-sounding name of “rue” and “barb”, rhubarb is an appealing vegetable (or fruit, if you ask the U.S. Customs Court) full of tart-flavored lure…
…and that a “Khoresh rivas” or rhubarb stew is not good. It is amazing. Pieces of succulent rhubarb and tender meat in an aromatic herb-infused pool of tart and savory flavors. Delicious, sophisticated, inviting.
So … that’s we fixed on making:
Khoresh is always served with rice but due to technical difficulties, we lost the mouthwatering rice-and-khoresh pictures, so we’ll have to implore you to use your imagination and conjure this: a bed of fluffy rice, steaming fragrant with saffron and a hint of butter. Lean in close and take a good inhale. Why not, it’s nice! Now take a generous ladle or two of the rhubarb stew and pour over the rice. Make sure you get a good bit of juice and a few good pieces of rhubarb and meat. Now mix your rice and khoresh, and take a spoonful to eat. Pause mid-way in anticipation of that first (always best) taste. Linger over this mental image and enjoy.
This (tormenting) exercise reminds me of a saying in Farsi which goes: “vasf ol aish, nesf ol aish” which roughly translates to “talk of a pleasure is half of the pleasure.” I don’t know if I agree with the sentiment, and here’s the recipe so that you can savor all (instead of half) the pleasure of the incomparable Persian rhubarb stew.
Click here for the recipe!
Greetings friends! Spring has sprung in full bloom here – the “golden waterfall” and “wisteria” and myriad other flora are blooming in earnest all over Tehran – providing beauty and pollen and allergens. I never enjoyed any allergies whilst on the coast of East, but here in the Eastern world, I am totally prone to itchiness and sniffles. Oh joie!
This is tahchin, or upside down Persian rice. Tahchin is made with half-cooked rice that’s mixed with yogurt, saffron, and egg; layered with chicken or lamb; packed and molded (nice and snug) into a casserole dish; cooked in the oven; inverted into a serving dish; and garnished with barberries. Maybe also with slivered pistachios if available. Because: why not!
Tahchin is pretty yummy. One of my favorite Persian rice dishes. It used to be the treat I asked for on my birthdays.
Laya made tahchin for me when I was in Los Angeles. (Recipe: All the way at the end!)
This is my lovely friend Laya. In her kitchen. In the City of Angels. (Vicinity of Tehrangeles.) California. United States of America. Planet Earth. Universe. (What comes after the Universe?)
NOTE: The tahchin inverted in the serving dish.
NOTE: The plate of sabzi khordan – an eclectic mixture of radishes and herbs which is the ever faithful sidekick of all Persian meals.
NOTE: The green sticky tape over the camera on ye ol’ faithful laptop of mine. (Yup, still there!)
This is a closer look at the tahchin, and the aforementioned sabzi khordan (aka plate of fresh herbs and radishes.)
You know how you always find bottles of ketchup and mustard in a diner in the U.S.? Well, you would be hard pressed to find a mealtime Persian table without sabzi khordan. My father, for example, would not even conceive of such a travesty!
THIS: Is an up close and personal shot of my plate of tahchin in action.
THIS: Makes my mouth drool every time I look at it.
THIS: Is torture! TORTURE!
Note the pool of yogurt to the side. As is the wont of most Iranians (and certainly the wont of yours truly) yogurt is nearly always served and enjoyed alongside with most types of Persian food. Like a sauce. It brightens and crackle pops all the flavors & textures.
Note: This post was originally a print and online publication for Brownbook, and is reprinted here with their permission.♣
Give me a sun, I care not how hot, and sherbet, I care not how cool, and my Heaven is as easily made as your Persian’s. — Lord Byron ,1813
That Lord Byron! What a Romantic! And he sure seems to have liked sipping sharbat. And who can blame him? But for the uninitiated, let’s first review what sharbat means.
Persians make and bottle various types of sweet, fragrant, colorful syrups by cooking fruits or flowers or herbs in dissolved-sugar water. When ready to serve, a bit of the syrup is diluted and stirred with ice cold water and one ends up with a pretty and refreshing drink that is a popular Persian beverage generically known as sharbat. In Iran, offering guests a tall glass of some type of sharbat (with ice cubes) to ward off the heat of the summer is a standard of good housekeeping and an expected trademark of up-to-par hospitality. At least amongst the old-school Iranians.
But sharbat comes in many more wonderful flavors: quince, pomegranate, lemon, rhubarb, strawberry, mulberry, blackberry, raspberry or even key lime are each enchanting in their own particular way. One can also savour sharbats made with mint, rosewater, saffron, chicory, musk willow, sweet briars, palm pods, citron and orange blossom – ingredients that reflect the poetic nature of Persian cuisine. Whatever the flavor, sharbat hits the spot during the dog days of summer, reviving the body and soul, and in some instances even offering some type of medicinal benefit.
What is the work of the thirsty one?
To circle forever ’round the well,
‘Round the stream and the Water and the sound of the Water,
Like a pilgrim circling the Kaa’ba of Truth
God’s wrath is His vinegar, mercy His honey.
These two are the basis of every oxymel.
If vinegar overpowers honey, a remedy is spoiled.
The people of the earth poured vinegar on Noah;
the Ocean of Divine Bounty poured sugar.
The Ocean replenished his sugar,
and overpowered the vinegar of the whole world.
Our featured Persian beverage, Sharbat ‘e sekanjabin, is perhaps the oldest type of Persian sharbat, tracing its roots at least as far back as the 10th century, as noted and praised in the canons of medicine written by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) the Persian polymath.
The name ‘sekanjabin’ is an Arabized version of the original Persian term, ‘serkangabin’, a combination of the Persian words ‘serkeh’ (vinegar) and ‘angebin’ (syrup, sweetness), literally meaning ‘honeyed vinegar’. True to its name, sekanjabin is made with vinegar and honey.
Sweet and sour and infused with the heady scent and flavor of fresh mint, this sharbat was not only popular with the Persians, but also copied and favored by the ancient Greeks and Romans who knew it as oxymel.
The recipe is satisfyingly simple: after boiling honey and water, vinegar is added and the mixture is left to simmer. Fresh mint leaves are then added and the syrup is left to cool for at least an hour, or up to 24 hours for a stronger minty flavor. Sekanjabin, like all types of sharbat, is shelf-stable for a good year if stored in a cool, dark place.
Like all types of sharbats, sekanjabin is served diluted with ice water in a glass or pitcher — as a perfect sweet and sour palette tickling summer cooler cordial. (For a modern twist, sparkling water can substitute flat water.)
‘Kahoo ‘va Sekanjabin’ | Crispy Lettuce with a Sekanjabin Dip
A distinct feature of sharbat ‘e sekanjabin — rendering it unique amongst all the other types of sharbat — is that it can also be served undiluted as a dip and eaten with crisp fresh romaine lettuce leaves. This combo of crunchy lettuce and minty sweet and sour sekanjabin — known as “kahoo va sekanjabin” — is a delicious and healthy snack perfectly suited for hot weather. The very embodiment of summer for most Persians.
To make this, undiluted sekanjabin syrup is poured into a dipping bowl and lettuce leaves are arranged, petal by petal, around it. To eat, dip the lettuce into the sharbat – just as you would dunk a cookie in coffee.
Try it! But beware: Heads of lettuce will vanish fast!
“The one who tastes, knows. The one who tastes not, knows not. Don’t speak of a heavenly beverage; offer it at your banquets and say nothing. Those who like it will ask for more; those who don’t aren’t fit to drink it. Close the shop of debate and mystery. Open the teahouse of experience.”
Thankfully, the tradition of making sharbat (while perhaps somewhat old-fashioned) survives and even thrives in Iran, at homes and in cafes. And many families continue to gather and enjoy the summertime pleasure of munching and crunching on Kahoo ‘va sekanjabin.
For the Iranians in diaspora, making and enjoying sekanjabin, the most ancient of Persian sharbats, to sip as or with lettuce as a dip, could be a delicious way to pay homage to and assuage their nostalgia for their ancient heritage. For everyone else, it’s just a sensible thing to experience as one of the fun pleasures of summer.
You may recall that Khoresh is the quintessential pillar of Persian cooking – a genre of food that encompasses an eclectic variety of tastes and flavors. More elaborate and sophisticated than a typical stew, khoresh is a slow-fusion combination of meat (or poultry or fish) cooked with fresh or dried fragrant herbs and vegetables, or fresh or dried fruits, grains, or legumes.
This recipe is for a type of khoresh known as aloo esfenaj – although some call it the other way around: esfenaj ‘o aloo. It is made with lots of esfenaj (spinach) and also plenty of aloo (plums.) Typically, the type of plums used for the khoresh aloo esefenaj are dried yellow ones known as aloo bokhara , but prunes (dried black plums) are a common substitution, specially outside of Iran where aloo bokhara are not easily found.
My mother reports that my grandmother used to often make khoresh aloo esfenaj — and it is one of my mom’s favorites. It is one of my favorites types of khoresh as well. There’s something undeniably luscious about the combination of cooked prunes, spinach and meat — with that signature flavor profile of Iranian food of being harmoniously savoury, tart and sweet all at once.
As notoriously complicated as Persian rice is to make, Persian stews make up for it by being quite forgiving and easy going, and this delicious khoresh is no exception. In the spirit of keeping things short and sweet, let’s click our heels and head straight over to the recipe.
Noosheh jaan (sometimes spelled nusheh jaan) literally means: “may it be sweet for your soul”,”may it be a pleasure to your being”. That sounds quite florid, but in common parlance, the utterance simply signifies: bon appetit, good appetite! It is what we say to everyone at the table before we commence to stuff our faces with delicious, delicious, ridiculously delicious Persian food.
Is it too late to take stock of 2013 and reminisce about the past year? Are we over the newness of this year already? Please tell me it isn’t so — 2014 is only a hint over two weeks old, still shiny and filled with promise and potential and hope, and surely not in need of some botox yet — what, with 349 whole days left till 2015. (Although actually, while that sounds like a lot of time, let’s face it, it may go poof and vanish just like a dandelion caught in a gust of wind.)
Did you make any resolutions? Are you sticking to them? I don’t make New Year’s resolutions but I do have a few mottos I have adopted throughout life that I do my best to live by, and come a new year, I polish them up so that they burnish more brightly on the forefront mantlepiece of my mind. They serve me well, so I’ll share them with you:
Perfect is the enemy of Good. (Another variation of this motto is: Done is better than Perfect. Quilt artists are fond of this aphorism. Understanding this wisdom liberated me beyond measure. Ending a bout of years-long self-fulfillment paralysis. May it do the same for you. Whatever you want to do, just do it. Who cares whether it is perfect or not?)
Don’t drown in a cup of water. (I forget where I came across this. It is simple yet profound wisdom. I interpret it to mean: don’t freak out, don’t fret over little things, handle conflict and travails with grace, have faith.)
Be Bold. Whatever you do or dream you can, begin it. (Ghoethe said this and I’ve already waxed plenty poetic about it.)
Be kind. (Kindness is a gift to oneself as much as it is to others. I try to remind myself of this and practice it. Even on the subway!)
It is the sign of the times we live in that blogs also have occasion to review and take stock of their performance in the year past. WordPress sends out an “annual report” for all the blogs they host. A nicely designed and engineered report with a fun and festive fireworks animated GIF and interesting statistical analogies that among other things also identifies the 5 most popular posts of the year on one’s blog. A few cool bloggers shared their top 5 blog posts of 2013 list, and I thought I’d be a copy cat (MEOW!) and do the same.
Let the countdown to Fig & Quince’s top 5 posts of the year begin:
A yummy & truly simple vegetarian (can also be made vegan style) eggplant dish from the Northern (shomal) region of Iran. The story and recipe delightfully narrated by Yvonne joon, a most charming racounter, and the very first Fig & Quince guest blogger. I’m not surprised that out of the 60 odd posts on the blog last year, Yvonne joon penned one of the top five. She is witty, pretty, kind and oh so bright and her friendship I count as one of the great bonuses of having started this here blog.
Bearing some resemblance in looks (if not taste) to the Mexican mole, fesenjoon (also called fessenjan), is known as the king of khoresh. Made with a mixture of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup, fesenjoon’s flavor is tangy and sweet and rich and its texture is heaven: soft but granular and thick. It is almost unbearably delicious when served with rice. Trust!
Persian rice is a science and art to itself and the measure by which one gauges the true talent of an Iranian cook. This post, part 1 of a Rice 101 series, is an introduction to the rice (polo) and also to tadig (also spelled tahdig sometimes) or the bottom-of-the-pot crunchy crust of the rice that is the most coveted offering at any Iranian dinner table.
Oh, I get so happy looking at these pictures. They bring back fond and wholesome memories! They are from this past March when I sprouted lentils and sprouted wheat and watched them grow. Sprouting seeds, called “sabzeh sabz kardan” is one of the many very pretty customs of the secular and ancient celebration of the Persian New Year aka Norooz. I confess I’m still smiling looking at the photos – they are synonymous for me with spring! I may just rush spring and sprout some seeds right away just for the sheer pretty pleasure of it. ( A step by step guide to grow sabzeh at the full post.)
And, ta da, drum roll, the number 1 most viewed post:
Perhaps not surprisingly, yet another Persian Rice 101 post, this one a pictorial step by step guide to making the perfect Persian rice took the #1 most viewed post. All credit is due to Persian rice itself, which truly, is the best rice in the world. It just is! The directions may seem exhaustive, but give it a try or three, and once you get the hang of it and it becomes second nature, you can make a fluffy pillowy bed of fragrant and perfectly steamed rice with one arm behind your back and win friends and influence people. Promise!
So that was Fig & Quince’s highlights in 2013, according to Word Press. For 2014, I have some theme adjustments (that I hope you’ll like) and a few fun plans for Fig & Quince up my sleeve. One of the plans intersects with my personal life and it is major and so dear to me that just thinking about it makes my heart go: thump, thump, thump! I hope I can realize it. I pray it will happen. I will weep if it does (with joy.) I will weep if it doesn’t (with sadness. And I might just burst.) Hint: its realization involves getting on a plane! 😉 Please wish me luck!
And in conclusion and as I bid you adieu till we read again, I hope the new year has been treating you kindly thus far and that it will coddle and pamper you till the next one and I hope that you are either keeping up with your good resolutions or have the good sense not to beat yourself up if you have not.
Recently, the wonderful editors of Mashallah News — an online publication devoted to shaking up Middle Eastern stereotypes — asked me to contribute to their “food” theme series. I was only too glad to do so, and a nostalgia-filled rhapsody of the poetics of Persian food was thus born! I would be delighted if you would read it, so, begging your kind indulgence, it follows in its entirety below.
Eyes are the windows to the soul, per an old English proverb. In a similar vein, it can be proposed that a nation’s cuisine is the window to the heart and soul of its countrymen. Praise be, then, for much like its people, Iranian food is sensual and oft poetic.
That Iranians are sensual and romantic at heart may seem a preposterously incongruous claim at odds with the image of the country, mired as it is in polemics and controversy, but only if one overlooks the fact that the ancient and majestic tree of Iranian culture is branched out of thousands of years old roots that bear solid testament to a heritage of lyrical and aesthetic nourishment, accomplishment and sensibility. A sensibility reflected in everything from a proclivity to the arranging of beautiful, elaborate and symbolic celebratory tableaux vivants for weddings, Norooz (New Year) and the fete of Yalda (winter solstice); to an inordinate fondness for gardens and fountains and flowers and nightingales; to a talent for creating delicately charming ornate design in painting, carpets, textiles and architecture; to a coquettish flair for flirting; and to an unabashed affinity for and partiality to poetry.
In some cultures a love of poetry is the true sign of the dork, the nerd, the socially clueless and inept. But in Iran, appreciation of poetry—far from branding one as “uncool” and banishing one to social Siberia—is not only accepted but is even taken for granted and reciprocated amongst people of all ages and walks of life. It is not unusual to find groups of friends or family sitting around eating, drinking and making merry while chewing the fat or playing backgammon all while trading lines and verses of the poems of Hafiz and Sa’adi and Khayam and Rumi and Ferdowsi as the muse inspires and circumstances dictate. A cantankerous shopkeeper may quote a poem to site his ire; a grandparent may well call on one of the epic poets to drive home a moral lesson to a grandchild. After all, poetry is what saved the Persian language—the epic poem of Shahnameh, to be precise, is credited with this historical accomplishment—and that may explain why a love of poetry flows in the veins of most warm-blooded Iranians, whatever their walk of life, instead of being the rarefied passion of elite intellectuals and cultured intelligentsia as it is in most other places in the world.
People unfamiliar with Iranian food often assume it is hot and spicy, much like its politics or its perceived climate, but it is not. Iranian food—fragrant and pretty with its signature playful combination of sweet and tart and savoury—is downright poetic at heart.
After all, how many cuisines count rosewater, cardamom, pistachios, rose petals, dried mint and saffron as staple pantry provisions? How many have a dish called jewelled rice, so named because barberries, pistachio slivers, and candied orange peels peek out of a nestling pillow of aromatic saffron rice gleaming, much like the gems one would expect to find spilling out of a treasure chest if one perchance happened to abracadabra open the door of Ali Baba’s fabled cave?
How many cuisines have since the ancient times revelled in the glory of the pomegranate, a fruit that is a testament to a divine design, bearing a crown with a charming disarray of tendrils and jewel-like seeds. Pomegranate is a mainstay symbol of the Yalda celebration spread, in which a bowl of its seeded ruby arils, sprinkled with a touch of ground angelica or salt, forms a refreshment to offer guests, or else its nectar turned into a paste brooding with ground walnuts to make the chocolate-coloured stew of Fessenjan, which some call the khoresh of kings?
And, probably more than any other cuisine in the world, Persian food harvests flowers! Countless bushels of Mohamadi roses are every year distilled into aromatic rosewater; red and pink rose petals are dried so that they can be crushed and used as a pretty and aromatic sprinkled garnish for food. Vast fields of purple crocus are harvested for the long, fragile, burnt amber threads of saffron that turn an effervescently sunny golden shade when ground and touched by hot water, a drop of it turning a bed of steamed rice into a pretty sunset. A bevy of fragrant herbs and blossoms are distilled to make aragh—a refreshing and medicinal beverage—with mint, chicory, musk willow, sweet briar, palm pods, citrons and orange blossom. So many flowers, the very names of which are not merely mellifluous but also summon up an instantaneous sense of delight and pleasure.
Sometimes, the seductive charm of Iranian food is overt but guileless, like a yogurt and cucumber soup, garnished with inter-crossing paths of crushed rose petals and dried mint; or overt and artful like a dark amber halva infused with saffron, rosewater and cardamom, sprinkled with pistachio powder in a curlicue design.
Sometimes, it is covert, like a Salad Shirazi, a salad that is beautiful because it is stunning and is stunning because it is the epitome of simplicity—an edible haiku—nothing more than a choir of cucumbers and tomatoes and onions, singing with lemon juice and olive oil and crushed dried mint.
And sometimes, the disarming charm of Iranian food is downright lyrical, because if fluffy and fragrant saffron rice made moist with a stream of succulently savoury khoresh is not transcendental lyricism in a spoon—then, pray tell, what is?
Pictured here is what we call chaghal’eh badoom in Iran — known as fresh (or green or spring) almond here in the U.S., that is if you can find it. Nestled inside its fuzzy green hull lies the young skinless almond, sleeping the sleep of the just – not yet hardened and soft in texture.
Chaghal’eh badoom arrives on the scene in early spring in Iran for a mere few weeks — greeted virtually by delighted clapping of hands — just like its kindred spirit and friendly rival, the other favorite Persian bounty and symbolic synonym of spring: goje sabz.
You remember goje sabz, right? Unripe sour green plums: juicy, tart, crisp and crunchy. You snack on them raw, crunch munch munch crunch, sprinkled lightly with salt. How do you eat chaghal’eh badoom you ask? You eat it like so:
That’s right! You eat the whole kit and caboodle. Only the stem remains! Chaghal’eh badoom is crunchy with a soft center, tastes somewhat like a quite tartly-delicious apple, and makes for a very refreshing and nutritious (not to mention addictive) snack that is also wonderful in a salad or as a garnish to brighten up a meal.
I recently met someone who informed me that in Turkey it is customary to pile a plate high with spring almonds and eat them (sprinkled with salt) while drinking beer. Which actually makes perfect sense taste and texture wise — I can imagine that the accompaniment of sat and crunch and fresh burst of tangy flavor is a very pleasant chaser for beer. I predict that a hip NY or Brooklyn bar will get wind of this soon enough and offer these !
Edited on December 26, 2014 to add: This is the recipe that I used to make fesenjan for a New York Times Magazine article about Diverse Holiday Feasts From Five New York Families. I’m delighted to add that my fesenjan recipe then went on to make it on Sam Sifton’s Most Popular Recipes, 2014! Wowza! Akh joon, fesenjoon & thank you maman joon for passing on your wonderful recipe.
There is a popular khoresh made with ground walnuts & pomegranate syrup, called Khoresh ‘eh fesenjan — but you can call it fesenjoon when you are on a more khodemooni (that is “intimate”) footing. Fesenjoon is just too delicious for its own good: tangy, sweet, yummy; and the texture is heaven, soft but granular and thick. Not surprisingly, it is among the top tier of special foods coveted and served for Norooz — the Persian New Year, which is just around the corner.
It would be hard to find an Irooni (colloquial for Iranian in Farsi) who does not like Fesenjoon. Most likely, a typical reaction would be: “Fesenjoon? Ākh joon!” (Or: Woot! As we say in English.) And if you are a faranghi (that is, a non-Persian) odds are great that once you are properly introduced to fesenjoon, you’ll start pining for your next quality-time together.
If there’s any justice in the world, your khoresh ‘eh fesenjan should be served over a perfect bed of fluffy rice imbued with the fragrance of saffron. Should you be so lucky, inhale deeply, and eat a hearty serving, and take care to form just the correct proportion of rice and khoresh in every spoonful. Since you can’t very well bring measuring devices and rulers with you to the dining table, just eyeball it to gauge the optimum proportions. Don’t worry. Practice makes perfect.
Now, there are regional variations on the classic fesenjoon recipe, with some that opt to use meatballs, ducks, quince, eggplants or even fish in lieu of chicken; and some recipes that use pistachios, almond, or hazelnuts instead of walnuts. In addition to the regional variations, the classic fesenjoon khoresh itself is subject to distinct touches from one home cook to the next when it comes to the list of ingredients, method of preparation, and the favored ratio of sweet to savory to tartness.
This recipe is how my esteemed mother has been making her khorosh ‘e fesenjon for almost forty years. In our family, we think it’s the bee’s knees, it moves some of us to do a happy dance, and nearly all of us request it for our birthday dinners.
(Note: Every recipe for this blog is made from scratch and shot from every angle until it begs for mercy. Logistically, however, it was not possible to make fesenjoon in time for publishing this post. Please, then, accept these candid action-shots of fesenjoon, captured in its natural habitat – during a family dinner at last Norooz. Recycling is good for the environment in any event.)
But anyhow. Less words. More fesenjoon.