It started with a research project for the novel I’m working on, but it’s quickly turning into an obsession: the culture of Persia. I became especially interested in the cuisine because my fictional main character has a culinary talent. Problem: I’d never actually tasted Persian food, and the more I read about it, the more I realized that the flavor profiles were unknown to me.
Last month I took a class from a local Persian chef who was born in Iran near the Caspian Sea. Omid now teaches aspiring home cooks about his culture through the most purely loving medium in existence: food. I may have been in a classroom inside a boutique Seattle grocery co-op with glass walls and shoppers streaming past, but what I felt in that class was anything but impersonal or academic. One of my favorite mantras is that “Food is love” (I’m Italian—this is our gospel), and I felt nurtured and befriended in Omid’s class. It was a kind of homecoming.
“If you love me, you will eat more!” Omid proclaimed as he described how Persians ply their guests with food. “If you love my mother, you will eat more!” As he made Sabzi Polo ba Mahi (herb and saffron rice pilaf with fish), he explained the centrality of rice to the Persian table. “It’s a production,” he said as he took us through the many steps involved in making rice the Persian way. As he mixed bright orange saffron threads into rosewater using a tiny golden mortar and pestle, he informed us that saffron is, ounce for ounce, worth more than gold.
We made Khoresh-e Seeb, a lamb, split pea, and apple stew with flavors of turmeric, cinnamon, rosewater, tomato, and the burnished butter flavor of ghee. We had Cayke-e Yazdi, a delicate cupcake made with yogurt, orange blossom, cardamom, and pistachios. We tasted Nazkhatun, an eggplant spread with pomegranate and mint served with flatbread.
I learned that Persian flavors are delicately balanced: savory and sweet, floral and sour, spice and herb. The dishes seem both lavish and comforting at the same time. It’s beautiful food, loving food.
Since our class I’ve been practicing the dishes we cooked and I purchased the Persian food Bible—Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies by Najmieh Batmanglij. At fifty dollars and over five pounds, owning the book makes me feel secretly inducted into a world of Farsi-speaking home-cooking matriarchs—though Omid informs me that the men’s vigorous opinions play an equally crucial role in the family kitchen.
Yesterday may have been the first day of spring, but for Persians it is also Nowruz, the Persian New Year. From what I can gather, there are elements of Easter, Halloween, and Christmas in Nowruz—like the mother of all holidays. Omid shared photos with me of his Haft-seen table for the holiday. I think this is a lovely tradition. The table is decorated with symbolic items to welcome the new year, all beginning with the Farsi equivalent of the letter S. There are:
sabzeh– sprouts, representing birth
samanu-sweet pudding, representing wealth
senjed-dried Persian olives, representing love
seer-garlic, representing health and medicine
seeb-apple, representing beauty
somaq-sumac seeds representing sunrise (and the tipping of the balance from darkness to light)
serkeh-vinegar, representing age and patience
Some tables also incorporate decorated eggs for fertility, hyacinth for spring, coins for wealth, goldfish for life, (all beginning with S in Farsi) and a mirror and candles for reflecting the future. Most place a holy book on the table too, the Quran, or poetry by Rumi or Hafez in secular households, or the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) by beloved Persian author and poet Ferdowsi.
In honor of Nowruz, I leave you with a dead-simple recipe for a dish that (it is my understanding) Persians serve as a complement to a meal, or as an appetizer on its own: Sabzi, which just means “herbs.” A large platter is filled with radishes, spring onions, cilantro, watercress, tarragon, mint, and basil. It’s served with flatbread and walnuts and feta-style cheese. The dish is meant to be nibbled, combined with other main and side dishes, and generally enjoyed freely and gladly.
Enjoyed freely and gladly. As all food should be that is prepared with great love.
J.M. RODDY is a Seattle-based freelance and fiction writer, a high school teacher, a mother of two, and a pursuer of whole-hearted living. Cooking is an art form she returns to again and again as a physical outlet and an expression of love.
About Omid: Omid Roustaei is a psychotherapist in private practice, adjunct faculty at Bastyr University and a trained chef. He was born and raised in Tehran and spent his early childhood by the Caspian Sea building sandcastles, flying kites and riding his banana-seat high-handlebar-bike. Omid is excited to return to PCC to share his love of the Persian culture and traditions as he takes you on a culinary journey to experience Iran’s unique and rich cuisine through storytelling and humorous anecdotes from his childhood.
If you would like to take a class with Omid in the Seattle area, here is a link to his spring courses.