Author of The New Persian Kitchen, Louisa Shafia, joins us to talk about using seasonal ingredients in authentic Persian home cooking, and to share recipes for tahdig, traditional Persian rice, and lamb skewers.
Our guest on the Clever Cookstr today is Louisa Shafia, author of the cookbooks, Lucid Food: Cooking for An Eco-Conscious Life, and The New Persian Kitchen, a fresh take on the cooking traditions of Iran.
Clever Cookstr: Louisa, I know you’re really passionate about cooking with whole, healthy, and seasonal ingredients, and also about exploring traditional, reinterpreted Middle Eastern cuisine. Can you talk about the intersection between those two kinds of cooking?
Louisa Shafia: Sure! It may not seem that obvious at first, but I’m really into local and seasonal cooking, and then I’m wanting to work with ingredients like saffron and rose petals. One thing that really excited me about working with Persian food is that so many of their seasonal ingredients are the same ones that we have in season here. From sour cherries that come into season in June for a really short time, to rose petals in the spring--which is something we don’t use here that much, but we should use more of--to eggplants and tomatoes and quince and plums.
In Iran itself, they are not even trying to be local and seasonal, they just are that way, like many traditional societies. They have some processed food in Iran, but really barely any yet, and I was lucky enough to go there this spring for a month, from May to June. And it was just incredible in the bazaars--in the market places in every city, there were people selling fresh rose petals that they had picked that morning. In Iran, they dry rose petals and use them as a seasoning, and they also make rose water out of them. So there were also plums that were in season, cherries. It was the time of fresh grape leaves being in season, so we went to the market, my family and I, bought a stack of fresh grape leaves, then went home and made stuffed grape leaves with them. That’s about as local and seasonal as you can get! So it’s really exactly what I’m interested in.
CC: That sounds beautiful. It must have been an amazing trip. So, I feel like Persian cuisine hasn’t really gotten the spotlight on it yet, which I know your book is hoping to change. Can you talk about some of the basic principles, the flavor profiles, and, you’ve already talked about the ingredients, but some of the dishes that are really characteristic of that kind of food?
LS: One of the really unique things about Persian food is how they use fruit in the cooking. Because Iran is such an abundant, fertile place where so many native fruits and nuts have their origins, you will find fruits in pretty much any dish. Dishes like fesenjān, which is a stew made from pomegranate molasses and chicken. There is quince stew, which is quince and lamb. There’s a dish that’s chicken with peaches.
So unlike the West, where usually we use fruits in just kind of a limited way, usually with desserts, there you’ll find fruits in everything, from pickles to main dishes to desserts to just snacks. People literally eat sour cherries, sour plums, right of the tree. In my aunt’s courtyard of her apartment building, where I stayed in Tehran, their were mulberry trees, and we went out one afternoon, foraged for mulberries in the courtyard, washed them off, and ate them. So fruit is really really prevalent in Persian cooking.
Directly out of that is a love of sour and tart flavors. A lot of those native fruits are really tart and sour. Also some of those tart fruits help to preserve foods, like you can make a pickle with pomegranate molasses, and putting it into a stew helps it last longer. So you’ll find a lot of tart flavors.