North Bay family shares recipes for aromatic Persian cuisine
Through the centuries, the art of Persian storytelling has been celebrated in poetry, visual art, music and films, many inspired by the fantastical folk tales collected in the epic “Arabian Nights.”
Only recently has the outside world begun to appreciate the equally magical and enchanting stories told by the cuisine of Iran, which separates the cold plains of Russia from the deserts of Arabia and connects the Middle East with the Far East. The food is so embedded in history, you can almost taste the past in its mouth-watering stews and buttery saffron rice.
As a result of its central location along the Silk Road, Persian cuisine has been infused with Greek and Indian, Turkish and Russian culture as well. It is a balanced blend of aromatic spices such as saffron and turmeric, sour fruits such as pomegranates and dried limes, nuts like walnuts and pistachios, various herbs and vegetables, flat breads and rice dishes featuring a crunchy “tahdig” crust anointed generously with butter and oil.
But its most popular dishes may be the complex, long-simmering stews served over the country’s staple grain of rice.
“The cuisine takes time,” said Natasha Fooman of San Rafael, who recently gave a cooking class with her mother, home cook Manizhe Fooman, at Ramekins in Sonoma. “You have to cook and simmer, and it’s always best the next day.”
The mother and daughter, both born in Iran, gather in their San Rafael home every weekend to cook a big Persian feast for their children and grandchildren. Manizhe first caught the attention of Ramekins cooking instructor Lisa Lavagetto after winning top awards three years in a row at the culinary contests of the Marin County Fair, which Lavagetto coordinates.
“Manizhe’s Persian food is so delicious and unique,” Lavagetto said. “Their class was different from any we have had before.”
Manizhe hails from the northern city of Rasht, the largest city on Iran’s Caspian Sea coast. She and her husband, Karim, both teachers, emigrated to the U.S. when Natasha was 4 in order to get better educations. Karim has a doctorate in English, and Manizhe took classes in psychology and sociology. Natasha went to law school, and her brother became a doctor. They all live in Marin County, where there are at least two Persian markets where they can shop for traditional ingredients.
During the class, Manizhe demonstrated some of the most famous dishes of her region: Fesenjoon (Chicken in Walnut Sauce with Pomegranate Molasses), Gormeh Sabzi (Beef with Spinach and Herbs), KuKu (Persian Frittatta of Chicken, Peas and Onion) and Persian Loobia Polo (Rice with Beef and Tomato Sauce).
“Our food is subtly spiced, delicate in flavor and appearance and not typically hot or spicy,” Natasha said. “Many recipes date back to ancient times.”
Some of the more exotic ingredients include fenugreek leaves, used in the Gormeh Sabzi stew; barberries, which taste like a sour raisin and are used in the KuKu frittata; and the Sadaf brand of pomegranate molasses, a key ingredient of the complex and pleasantly sour Fesenjoon.
For dessert, the women served a tea also produced by Sadaf - Iran is a country of avid tea drinkers - and a variety of store-bought sweets made from chickpeas, rosewater and pistachios.
Each spring, the family celebrates the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, a joyful holiday that welcomes the vernal equinox (March 19 this year in the U.S.). For the holiday, families share a symbolic meal and visit family and friends to exchange gifts.
Iranians around the world anticipate the holiday by cleaning their homes and shopping for special fruits, sweets, nuts and flowers to display on a holiday “haft sin” table. On the 13th day of the holidays, everyone goes outside to spend time in nature.
“For the feast, you put out the seven flavors, and they all begin with s,” Natasha explained. “My mother’s family would make eggs and color them and put them out. ... And on the thirteenth day, you throw a pot of grass into the water.”
Green herbs also play a big role at the holiday, including the parsley, cilantro, chives and fenugreek leaves that create the aromatic base of a Ghormeh Sabzi beef stew in the class.
“The herbs of the Ghormeh Sabzi have a distinct, beautiful odor,” Natasha said. “It’s my favorite dish.”
Class participant Pam Farrell of Tiburon, a retired cooking instructor, said the Persian class piqued her interest because it was so unusual.
“It’s hard to find classes in cultural cuisine,” she said. “The Persian people are so warm and hospitable, and their food is incredible.”
In the past 10 years, it’s been easier to find recipes from the ancient cuisine, however. Recent cookbooks on Persian cooking include Greg and Lucy Malouf’s “Saraban” (2010), Najmieh Batmangliz’s “Food of Life” (2011) and “Joon” (2015), Louisa Shafia’s “The New Persian Kitchen” (2013), Yasmin Khan’s “The Saffron Tales” (2016) and Naz Deravian’s “Bottom of the Pot” (2018).