Welcome back to Ethnic Eating 101! Part 3 of our series on Persian food concentrates on the two ends of the dinner, appetizers and desserts
Like any other Middle Eastern culture, Persians have a long tradition of dips and appetizers called mazza (the forerunner of the Arabic word meze). While you may see hummus and babaghannouj on the menu at Persian restaurants, these are borrowed from their Arabic-speaking neighbors to the west and southwest.
As soon as you see the items below, though, you know you are in a Persian restaurant. For some reason, most of the Persian dips have not been borrowed by the Levantine Arabs.
Must-o-khiar is the best tzatziki analogue you'll ever have, a mix of salted, shredded cucumbers, thick yoghurt, garlic and chopped mint, which brings a slightly sweet taste to the dish.
While must-o-khiar is the most commonly-ordered yoghurt dip, must-o-musir may be the best. Deceptively simple, it's thick yoghurt mixed with shallots. Next time you want onion dip for your potato chips, stop at a Persian market and buy some must-o-musir.
Not to be outdone, borani esfanaj is Persian spinach dip, spinach that has been sautéed with garlic, olive oil and salt, then mixed with thick yoghurt. Borani esfanaj is nearly always served on top of (or next to) flatbread.
Kashk-e-bademjan is a rich, dairy cousin to babaghannouj, it starts with the same roast eggplant, but adds chopped mint, minced onion and kashk (the dairy whey that is similar to sour yoghurt) to reach a creamy consistency. It may be mixed with ground meat, in which case it will appear as haleem-e-bademjan on the menu.
Shirazi salad is a simple mixture of cubed tomatoes, onions and cucumbers in roughly equal proportion, dressed with good olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and chopped herbs (usually parsley, sometimes mint).
Olovieh (sometimes olivieh) has nothing to do with olives; it is a moist salad of chicken, eggs, vegetables such as carrots, potatoes and lemon juice.
Torshi are pickles, but not just cucumbers; torshi may include turnips, eggplants, green tomatoes, green beans, anything that is pickled. ("Torshi" is Farsi for "sour things"). These are nearly always on the table at full Persian meals; you may see them served with a few olives.
Persians have a great sweet tooth; they produce excellent honey, and the famed roses of Esfahan provide the rosewater so central to the flavoring of their desserts. Saffron, orange blossom water, mint, figs and pistachios are also common. Baklava (phyllo dough with nuts and honey) and halvah (sesame paste sweets) are extremely common, but they are not specifically Persian.
While ice cream is served the world over, Persian ice cream (called bastani) is like no other. It is usually simply (but strongly) flavored, with bits of frozen cream deliberately mixed into the ice cream to provide bursts of dairy that cut across traditional flavors like rosewater and saffron. Persian ice cream is traditionally served between two thin, pizzelle-like waffle cookies called zalabia, like a cross between an ice cream cone and an ice cream sandwich.
Faludeh is not technically ice cream; it is very fine-grained rosewater and lime ice that is mixed with short, thin white (rice or cornstarch) noodles and sometimes pistachios midway through freezing. You may see it served as a drink, in which case it will be lemon sherbet dropped into rosewater, with the noodles set on top. Finally, it's common to have faludeh be served as rosewater ice cream next to the noodles (called faludeh sev). In this case, you'll be given a shaker of fresh lemon juice to cut the perfume of the rosewater.
Zulbia is funnel cake, pure and simple. It's a slightly-sweet pâte à choux dough that is piped in circles into a fryer, then topped with honey and spices. If you form the dough before frying into a disc, it's called bamieh, but it's otherwise the same dessert.
It's amazing the word loans that happen. Kolaches are a Czech pastry filled with fruit filling; koluche are essentially Persian Fig Newtons™, sweet, slightly crumbly cookies with figs stuffed inside.
Assal Pastry (14130 Culver Dr. #H1, Irvine) and Palace Bakery (24751 Alicia Pkwy. #1, Laguna Hills) specialize in Persian desserts, but you can also get Persian desserts on occasion at Arabic and Armenian bakeries, such as Victory Bakery (630 S. Brookhurst St., Anaheim) and Sarkis Pastry (2424 W. Ball Rd., Anaheim). While we don't have the incomparable Mashti Malone's in Orange County, you can buy Persian ice creams at Wholesome Choice and at many Persian restaurants.
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Finally, it would be impossible to talk about Persian cuisine without mentioning doogh, a traditional drink with Persian food, made of yoghurt, a little bit of salt, and mint. The problem is that there is a lot of spectacularly bad doogh out there, with far too much salt; the stuff that comes in the bottle, while acceptable, is no match for a truly good homemade doogh. Try the house doogh at Naan & Kabob (416 E. 1st St., Tustin); it's one of the standouts.
Next week we travel nearly the whole way around the world, to Peru and its amazing food. Come join Ethnic Eating 101 as we explore what ceviche is truly supposed to taste like.