Saffron, Roses and Rice
Learning the art of the Persian kitchen
Understanding the art of flavouring and traditional techniques of ethnic cuisines has been a priority at Prue Leith Chefs Academy since the introduction of our Pan African and Spice Route curricula a few years ago.
It was thus with great enthusiasm that four of the chefs recently set off to Magoebaskloof to be taught the secrets of Persian cuisine on Kuhestan Farm. Shahrzad Hone offers Persian cooking classes from her luscious farm where she also grows fruit, herbs and vegetables that she turns into Persian cordials and preserves.
Elements of Persian cooking can be identified in so many cuisines, with culinary influences originally spreading throughout the world via the Spice Route and Silk Road that passed through Persia, today Iran. Some local food historians even trace the origin of the characteristic meat and fruit combinations in Boerekos to Persia.
We had a vague idea of the types of dishes that we would be preparing on this course, but were pleasantly surprised by the flavours and new ingredients that we were introduced to. Barberries, dried limes and pomegranate molasses bring a wonderful sour complexity to dishes, while the enthusiastic use of cardamom, saffron, rose water and petals balanced the flavours with sweeter notes. The abundance of fresh herbs, especially coriander, parsley, dill, mint and tarragon (bold Russian tarragon, not the mild French cousin) was another fragrant surprise. Herbs were either used to flavour khoresh (casseroles), yohurt salads or served on its own as a salad served for lunch with kuku gole-kalam (cauliflower frittata).
The use of herbs and spices and spice blends seemed similar to Indian cuisine, but it was combined to produce a very aromatic cuisine that is not nearly as bold and hot as Indian food. And everything took its time. “Persian food is slow food” said Shahrzad. Lime stuffed chicken roasted for three hours, rice had to soak preferably overnight and the khoresh-eFesenjan (pomegranate and nut casserole) slowly bubbled for hours, until it had its distinctive dark colour.
The art of cooking the festive Persian polo’s with the traditional tah-dig was one of the skills we were hungry to acquire and we were not disappointed in the complexity of this rice cooking technique. The soaked basmati rice was boiled until just soft, then the tah-dig – a prized crust of potatoes or rice combined with eggs – was prepared and placed at the bottom of the pot. Once the crust has formed the rice was gently spooned ladle by ladle into a pyramid, while we added advieh polo (rice spice blend) and saffron in between the layers. The rice was gently steamed and a cloth placed over the lid to absorb any excess moisture. The result was perfectly cooked, light grains of rice with delicious crisp fried potatoes.
Our day of exploring Persian food through eleven different dishes ended with a festive buffet of our hard work. Three different polo’s, three meat dishes and yoghurt salads were complemented by Shahrzad’s home made pickled limes, cucumbers and aubergines as well as rose and raspberry and lime cordial. (We loved it so much that you will now find it on our wine list and in the Academy shop!) The grand finale was a creamy rose and cardamom scented rice pudding drizzled with rose syrup and pink damask rose petals. “Someone once said, when tasting this dessert, they are sure that this is what clouds taste like,” Shahrzad commented as she spooned in tasters. As far as we were concerned it was all heavenly.
*Kuhestan products will be available at the Prue Leith Chefs Academy shop and we will also stock some of the hard to find ingredients like barberries, dried limes and their amazing quality rose water (double concentrate) and dried damask rose petals.
The Academy will also be hosting our next Long Table with Sharhzad, so make sure you broaden your culinary horizons and book your seat at this Persian feast!