How I Finally Learned to Cook Iranian Food in Time for Persian New Year
Iranians celebrate New Year—Nowruz—on the day of the vernal equinox. Remembering the Persian dishes so loved by my Iranian dad (and spurned by my proudly Turkish Cypriot mum), I asked British Iranian cook Yasmin Khan to help me to prepare a Nowruz feast.
Main photo courtesy The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen/Matt Russell.
As we walk into British Iranian cook Yasmin Khan's East London home, she apologises for the sharp, acrid scent of dried lime that lingers in the air.
"I had friends over last night testing recipes for my new book," she explains.
I know this smell.
"It smells like ghormeh sabzi!" I comment, naming a famous Persian herb stew. Khan smiles, her short curly hair bouncing forward as she nods her assent.
"You do know about Iranian cooking!" she exclaims. But I don't, not really.
Growing up, ghormeh sabzi was the only Iranian meal my Turkish mother would cook for my Iranian dad. Mealtimes were always patriotically Turkish Cypriot affairs. "Cypriot food is peasant food!" my sisters and I would sneer as we squeezed fresh lemon juice over sigara böreği or my grandmother's hand-rolled dolmades.
Iranian food was classy. Even the rice—saffron yellow and barberry-flecked, with an oily-rich burnt crust of tahdig—seemed more attuned to my 14-year-old palate, sophisticate that I was, than my mother's overcooked basmati. And the culture clash between these two cuisines was a paradigm of a bigger war going on in my house.
See, Turks and Iranians hate each other! I mean, they have literally tried to kill each other for centuries. At my parents' (shotgun—sorry Mum) wedding, the guests refused to mix. Trays of Turkish baklava sat alongside Iranian shirinee (my name, Sirin, translates as "sweet" in Farsi.) Guests plated up and then returned to their respective tables.
And my parents' animosity towards each other's respective cuisines—which later devolved more straightforwardly into hatred of each other—continues apace. For example: I recently texted my dad asking which restaurant I should book for dinner. His response? "Don't mind as long as it's not Turkish."
I've asked Khan, the 35-year-old author of acclaimed Iranian cookbook The Saffron Tales: Recipes from the Persian Kitchen, to teach me how to cook a traditional Nowruz meal. We meet outside famed Iranian food store Persepolis in Peckham Rye. Inside, owner Sally Butcher—a diminutive figure with pomegranate-red hair—cuts through the store as sharply as pickle juice in a shirazi salad.
A Nowruz feast, Khan explains as we pass shelves of homemade zabzi mix, is typically full of fresh greens to symbolise new beginnings. It's fitting that we've come here to buy the ingredients for kuku-ye sabzi, an herb omelette traditionally eaten at Nowruz. Because it's here that Khan staged her own personal renewal—moving into the food world after a decade spent working for international NGOs on Middle Eastern issues.
"Persepolis is where I filmed my Kickstarter to do The Saffron Tales," Khan remembers. Khan met her funding target within days and began multiple research trips to Iran, and The Saffron Tales was born. But Khan's mission was always greater than just helping people to create delicious Persian meals.
"People always have opinions on Iran," Khan explains. "Being of Iranian descent, I'd always get really fed up of people saying, 'Do you wear the burkha?' or 'Do you eat hummus?' or 'Do you speak Arabic?'"
I laugh in sympathy—at some point, I've heard variants of all three.
"The Middle East isn't one homogenous place," she goes on. "I wanted to show people that."
Inside, Persepolis is hot. Iranians bustle in and out of the store, buying the sabzeh (sprouted wheatgrass, to symbolise renewal) that traditionally furnishes the Nowruz altar. Into the basket we pile dried barberries, turmeric, fenugreek, flatbreads, hard white cheese specially brought from Iran, pickled cucumbers, and, of course, the wheatgrass for our altar. Guiltily, I throw in a selection of sweet, syrupy shirinee for me.
Khan has been shopping at Persepolis for 15 years, and Butcher nods her recognition. I take the opportunity to pull the legendary London storekeeper aside for a brief chat.
"It's the busiest time of the year for us," Butcher explains, "and it's very important for the Iranian community. Nowruz is so ingrained in Persian culture—it predates Christianity, Islam, all the established religions." Most people, Butcher explains, come to Persepolis for the sweets, which are imported from Iran. "You're meant to greet the New Year with something sweet in your mouth."
Butcher's favourite Nowruz dish?
"I love all the dishes with noodles in. Noodles are meant to represent all the different strands of your life, coming together at Nowruz. So there's asheh reshteh, which is a Persian noodle soup, or reshteh polow, rice cooked with noodles."
At the till, Butcher's husband, Jamshid Ebrahimi, rings through our purchases. He points out how the packets are stamped with the precise moment of the vernal equinox: the moment at which winter passes into spring and Nowruz is celebrated. Households across Iran will count down the seconds until the equinox, just like we ring in the New Year in the West. At Khan's family home in Birmingham, she tells me, they watch the countdown on Iranian cable TV.
"What time is it this year?" Ebrahimi quizzes us jovially. Khan's ten minutes out (it's at 10.28 AM), and she seems annoyed with herself as we leave.
En route back to Khan's house, we stop off at Turkish-owned Green Larder in Stoke Newington to buy armfuls of fresh herbs: parsley, spinach, coriander, dill, and chives. At the till, the owner pulls out her phone and, swiping through it, shows Khan pictures of her new hairdo (she's a regular). I pick up a mango and Khan crumples her nose and, with a frown, suggests I swap it for a better one.
Back in Khan's kitchen, I hack greedy chunks out of a dish of homemade coconut baklava while she bustles around the kitchen clearing away non-existent mess.
"I'm not interested in showing people how to perfectly chop an onion," she says, rinsing the herbs. As she talks I flick through The Saffron Tales, as much a guidebook to Iran and love letter to the Iranian people—Khan spent months travelling through the country and collecting dishes—as it is a cookery book.
"I want to show people the reality of lives in the Middle East, because at the end of the day Iranians are always depicted as terrorists or victims."
Surreptitiously, I steal another slice of baklava.
"You ask the average person what they think of Iran and it's all nukes, bombs, and angry mobs, but there's so much more to the country than that."
In Khan's eyes, decades of demonisation have led directly to Trump's odious—and illegal—Muslim ban, which specifically targets Iranians. But travelling across Iran, Khan asked everyone she met one thing: What would you like to tell the world about Iranian people? The answer was always the same: "We're not terrorists."
Khan fries two chopped garlic cloves in olive oil, while I finely chop abundant quantities of spinach, parsley, dill, coriander, and chives. We dump the greens and garlic into a bowl and mix them with four eggs, a tablespoon of flour, a teaspoon of salt, turmeric, and fenugreek, and half a teaspoon of baking powder. In a regular herb omelette, the herbs are a decorative flourish—a Planned Parenthood ribbon on an Oscars dress. In kuku-ye sabzi, the herbs shout their presence as boldly as an actress in an "End Forced Motherhood" tee.
As the kuku-ye sabzi fries in a heavy-bottom frying pan over the stove, Khan sautés dried barberries in olive oil and a spoonful of brown sugar until plump. We set the table with bowls of soft, salty goat cheese so delicious it makes regular feta taste like a taco dish in a Trump hotel, sliced cucumbers, and piquant pickled cucumbers. Flipping the kuku-ye sabzi—which has been fried on both sides to a verdant dark crisp—onto a plate, she sprinkles the barberries on top. It looks like a quiche—only unlike a quiche, it isn't disgusting.
I'm as pumped as an alt-right fake news hack at my first White House press briefing as we sit down to eat. We slice the kuku-ye sabzi into triangles and fold it in flatbreads. Inside the wrap, we add fresh cucumber slices, whole pickled cucumbers, and cheese. The still-warm kuku-ye sabzi melts the cheese slightly and the pickled cucumber adds a welcome sharpness. Even though my mother barely cooked Iranian food when I was a child, the scent of fenugreek is familiar.
All at once, I'm a snotty-nosed teenager proclaiming the superiority of Iranian food to all other cuisines as my dad laughs approvingly and my mum simmers with rage. As I take another bite, I wonder if my 15-year-old self might just have been right.