From Iran, with love

Culinary parallels: While savouring a typical Persian meal, Preeti Verma Lal learns about the influences of Middle Eastern flavours on Indian cuisine

From Iran, with love

Never before had I seen tennis balls being poached. Or so I thought when I stepped into the kitchen of Fairmont Resort, Jaipur. Executive Sous Chef Deepak Gurung was stirring the water simmering in a thick-bottomed brass pot in which, what I thought, tennis balls were floating.

I was so mistaken. In the pot, Tabrizi koftas (hard-boiled eggs wrapped with minced chicken meat) the size of tennis balls were being poached for the traditional Persian dish, which originated in the city of Tabrez. I looked around the kitchen — in a bowl lay pomegranate molasses, raw walnut paste, sautéed cashew paste, the dough of barbari naan rising with the yeast.

Everything in Zarin, the Indo-Persian restaurant, was so Persian — the jaalis (lattice work on the wall), the menu in green, the brass utensils, the 90 ml Irani chai, and the authentic Persian dishes: koresh feberjan (see recipe), Shirazi salad, asheh reshteh (spinach-based soup), mahi zameen doz (fresh fish in Persian spices), subz Irani (vegetable stew), Iranian haleem (pasty wheat porridge with meat). 

Before the opening of Zarin, Gurung travelled to Iran and the Middle East in search of authentic Persian recipes. He traced the history of Persian influence in Indian cuisine, which began with Muslim rulers with Turkic and Afghan origin who came to South Asia as conquerors and invaders. They brought along their own art, culture, language. And, of course, their chefs who greatly influenced the Indian cuisine. In India, we can date it back to the Delhi Sultanate from the 13th century and in the 16-17th century of the Mughal Empire.

Food, through the ages
Trace back the beginnings of biryani, pulao, naan, and it will lead thousands of miles back to Persia (modern-day Iran). Gurung ladled walnut paste into the pomegranate molasses and stirred the narrative to Indo-Persian food connect. Naan has its roots in Persian cuisine and was brought to India during the Mughal era. In Persian regions, it was spelt as nan (literally, bread); in Middle Persian regions, as n’n. 

Not just the dish, even the word ‘biryani’ is Persian in origin: from birinj (Persian for rice) or biryan or beriyan (Persian for fried or grilled). Nearly 4,000 years ago, people  in Central Asia started cooking goat or cow or buffalo meat with their rice and called it polow (pulao in Hindi, pilaf in English). Tehri, the rice and vegetable dish common in North India, was cooked as a vegetarian biryani option for the Hindu bookkeepers of the Mughal nawabs. 

Not just these, there are several other things borrowed from the Persian menu. Cumin seeds and black pepper, major spices in Indian cuisine, can be traced back to the Persian chefs. Saffron, of course, came from Persia. The use of garam masala in Indian cuisine borrows from the Persian advieh, a blend of five or more different spices.

The popular Indian nargisi kofta is a variant of Tabrizi kofta. While the Persians used minced chicken, in India, the nargisi kofta is primarily made of minced goat meat. The Kashmiri aab gosht is very similar to the Persian version, except for the use of kabuli chana (chickpeas) by Persians, but not by the Kashmiris. As early as 400 BC, falude (faluda) was invented in the ancient Persian city of Shiraz. Made of rose water and vermicelli, ice mixed with saffron, fruits and other flavours, falude was served to royalty in summertime.

While Chef Gurung threw the barbari naan into the clay tandoor, I sipped on traditional Irani chai which is brewed with a dash of dry fruits and served in a standard 90 ml size. On the table lay an authentic Persian meal — barbari naan, pulao with Tabrizi kofta, koresh fesenjan, Shirazi salad, chickpea chutney, and a tall glass of chilled mint drink. Before tasting the sesame on the naan, I remembered Persian poet Omar Khayyam who wrote: “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” That day in Fairmont Resort, I was happy for the moment. A Persian moment.

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