My love for Persian food was kindled before I had ever tasted it, thanks to my voracious childhood appetite for books. I read of rosewater, of scented rices, of pistachios and skewered meat and rich stews, of honey and of pastry and of fruit ices long before I ever tasted them for the first time. When I made friends with someone who'd moved from Iran and ate dinner at his house, I was transported by the scents and then by the bright flavors; Persian food, more than most cuisines, teases you with a huge array of appetizing fragrances. His parents were the gracious hosts I'd read about, and at the tender age of twelve I felt very sophisticated sitting on a plush divan, sipping mint-flavored tea around a sugar cube held discreetly in my mouth and talking while plates of snacks appeared.
Persian cuisine has so influenced the world's foodways that it's hard to imagine what life would be like had the conquering heroes simply stayed home and tended their flocks. If you've ever eaten Punjabi kheema, Sicilian blood orange granita, or Caribbean pelau, you have the Persians to thank, at least in part. Ancient Persia sat atop every single major land-based trade route; they adopted things that did well in their climate, transmuted them, and sent them westward.
Before we delve into the food, it's not possible to discuss this cuisine without some judgment being made about one's political beliefs. If one calls it Persian, one could be a sympathizer with the deposed Shah; if one calls it Iranian, one could be a sympathizer with the current government. I use the word Persian because the rich tapestry of cuisine predates both Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The cuisine is Persian; the country is Iran. The cuisine has little to do with the party in power. Please don't write me about this, because I'm not interested in a debate.
Kebabs, spelled in any number of ways, are probably not new to anyone reading this, but they are the first food people think of when Persian cuisine in mentioned, and is part of the national dish of Iran. Legend has it (as is its wont) that kebabs started when soldiers threaded meat on their swords and cooked them over an open fire.
Modern-day kebabs, still cooked on sword analogues over open fire, can be divided into two categories: barg and koobideh. These names, incidentally, are Farsi; when you change to Arabic to talk about other Middle Eastern cuisines that feature grilled meat, the names change too. This is useful because while restaurants will often self-identify as "Middle Eastern" or "Mediterranean", the names they give kebabs give away their origins, which permits you to ask for specialities of that culture that may be off the menu.
Barg refers to pieces of meat that have been cut up, marinated, threaded onto skewers and grilled. Finding out how to marinate chicken Persian-style was one of the seminal moments of my learning to cook. Onions--huge amounts of onions--are grated so that they are reduced almost to juice, then mixed with salt, pepper and chopped garlic. Leave the meat in this marinade overnight, then the next morning thread it on skewers and, using a brush, brush olive oil on and any remaining onions off. Grill over high, direct heat. Somehow, this results in the meat being unbelievably juicy; I've never made barg kebab any other way.
Koobideh is minced meat mixed with finely-chopped onions, parsley and spices; it is actually packed onto flat skewers (random trivia: while you can grill barg on most kinds of skewers, you cannot grill koobideh on round skewers because it will not find purchase and will fall off into the fire) and grilled over the same heat. Koobideh is generally lamb, but chicken is an extremely common variation, especially in Southern California.
It should go without saying, given the dietary restrictions of the region, that the meats in question are lamb, beef, chicken and sometimes fish. If you ever see pork kebab in Southern California, you are almost certainly standing in an Armenian restaurant--Armenians are principally Christian. If you see shish kebab on a menu, the word shish means "skewer" in several of the Middle Eastern languages. Finally, if you see kebab soltani (or soltani kebab) on a menu, this means a mixed plate, with one skewer of barg and one skewer of koobideh.
Traditional accompaniments to kebab are pretty simple: rice or bread, lemon, and sumac, the dark-red ground berries of a perennial bush native to Iran that impart a slightly citrus-y, slightly smoky flavor, a bit like lemon-scented paprika.
We'll cover the various Persian breads in the next edition of Ethnic Eating 101, but for right now let's just say that nan-e kebab means "bread and kebab", and in that case it generally means lavash, a soft flatbread baked in squares, a bit like a more interesting-tasting and softer matzoh. You're meant to use the bread to remove the kebab from its skewer, then dress it as you like and eat it.
The national dish of Iran, chelo kebab, means "steamed rice and grilled meat" in Farsi. While I'm not going to make any friends amongst the East Asians by saying so, the Persians have created what is quite possibly the most delicious rice-based cuisine on the planet. Rice in China is a staple and is generally eaten steamed and unchanged (there are exceptions, of course); rice in Iran is turned into dozens of dishes.
The variety of rice most identified with Iran is called domsiah ("black end", due to a dark coloration on one side of the un-polished grain) and is one of the most fragrant rices on Earth. Its production is limited, however, and the vast majority of what is served in Persian restaurants is basmati (accent on the first syllable, by the way: BAHSS-mah-tee), an Indian and Pakistani variety.
Basmati rice is served in huge amounts in a plate of chelo kebab. You will often see a "cap" of yellow rice on top of your white rice; this is the same basmati rice, but cooked with saffron to give it a slight flavor and a bright color. Traditionally, the kebab is brought still sizzling from the grill, still on its skewer, to your table. A piece of flatbread is used to slide the kebab off onto your rice; if you do the sliding, the flatbread with its meat juice will be left for you; don't skip it! You'll also be given a fire-grilled tomato, which is there to provide its smoky juice.
Properly-cooked kebab will drip flavorful juices into the rice; you could be excused for mashing the meat around just to get as much of that action as possible. You may also receive a pat of butter; you can melt it into the rice or not. I never do, because it isn't really necessary. I have also had the staff offer to crack an egg yolk into the rice in order to produce a creamy consistency; I accepted once and have declined since then, because I love Persian rice for what it is.
If you want to make chelo at home, it's made by parboiling basmati rice, then pouring off the water and steaming the rice under a wet towel until it's fluffy. One of the by-products of making chelo is a thick crust that adheres to the bottom of the pot. Other cultures might throw this away as burnt; in Persian cuisine, however, it is a revered delicacy called tadig. To remove it from the pot, a little water is used to create steam, which dissolves the bond between rice and metal. The resulting beige, crunchy, buttery crust is knocked into shards and is divided amongst the attendees at the dinner, with the largest piece usually going to the guest of honor. At restaurants in this area, you'll normally be given a small piece of tadig when you order a stew (which we will cover next week).
If, after rinsing the rice, you layer it with any of about two dozen different combinations of ingredients before steaming, your chelo turns into dishes called polo, from whence we get the terms pilaf, plov and pelau. Polo rices are generally eaten alone or with fairly simply-cooked meats; braised chicken or lamb shanks, a simple skewer of kebab or a meatball stewed in tomatoes.
Adas polo is perhaps the simplest polo rice; lentils and rice, which make a nutritionally-complete and usually unbelievably cheap meal.
Albalu polo, one of my favorites, contains dried sour cherries and is normally eaten with lamb. The sourness of the cherries covers the slightly gamey funk of lamb. Be aware that albalu polo nearly always has a pit or two hidden away; chew carefully, lest you enrich your dentist.
Baghali polo is rice layered with chopped dill and broad beans (also called fava beans; lima beans are a common substitute) and is most often eaten with chicken.
Lubia polo contains green beans and ground beef (sometimes ground lamb), along with tomato purée and sometimes warm spices such as cinnamon or sumac. This is a much heartier dish than other polo rices.
Morasah polo (sometimes called shirin polo, which is a similar dish) means "jeweled rice" and is the most eye-opening rice dish in the Persian repertoire. It's a cousin to Indian biryani and contains slivered nuts (usually almonds, but sometimes pistachios), barberries, shredded orange peel, chicken, carrots and raisins or dried currants. It has a sweet taste but the orange peel permeates the entire dish and the nuts provide a textural contrast that isn't present in any of the other polo dishes.
Sabzi polo is any of several varieties of herbs, alone or in combination, tossed with the rice at the last possible second. Since the herbs vary, the meats vary as well, but the dish is likely to have a slightly grassy taste.
Zereshk polo contains tiny dried barberries, a slightly tarter cousin of the European currant, and is normally eaten with chicken as well. I have seen zereshk polo made with cranberries, but it really does not work very well. Barberries are tiny; you'll be able to tell the difference right up front.
There are other kinds of polo, but these seven are by far the most common rice dishes you'll find.
Where to get it
There is a huge number of Persian restaurants in West Los Angeles, centered on Westwood and Santa Monica Boulevards, so many that one of the nicknames for Westwood is "Tehrangeles". There are plenty of places to get your Persian on here in Orange County, however, and unusually for ethnic dining in OC, the better ones tend to be in South County, principally in Irvine.
House of Kabob (20651 Lake Forest, Lake Forest), whose chef we featured last week for On the Line, is a choice recommended by a lot of people, and Hatam (25800 Jeronimo, Mission Viejo) gets lots of love too.
North Countians will want to visit the possibly-unrelated restaurants called Darya (1611 Sunflower, Santa Ana; 1998 N. Tustin, Orange).
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In Central County there's Naan & Kabob (416 E. 1st, Tustin), which is Gustavo-approved. I haven't heard anything about Caspian (14100 Culver, Irvine) for a while, but it is still open.
Honestly, however, if you want to explore Persian cuisine and you're not hung up on atmosphere, the Persian food counter at the two Wholesome Choice markets (18040 Culver, Irvine; 5755 E. La Palma, Anaheim) are an excellent place to start. The one in Irvine previously had a reputation for rude service; this seems to have changed. The Anaheim location has always had excellent service.
Next week's Ethnic Eating 101 will cover amazing stews, soups and several kinds of bread; we will, in fact, cover the mystery of what you're supposed to do with that half a lemon and half an onion you get in the bag with the bread at Wholesome Choice. Stay tuned!