The Art of Persian Cooking
by Forough-es-Saltaneh Hekmat
Intricate, creative menus and old cookbooks rank among my top poems (I usually prefer prose). My literary gourmandisme has been pickled and plum pleased by these Persian recipes, but the book itself transcends that state, achieving the subtle, rare taste of the truly gourmet - fresh truth of a higher life (not plumped with glut, grease or cheap tricks).
Written in the 60s by a middle-aged woman reflecting on childhood traditions in a country more traditional and culturally homogenous than the US, this delightful cookbook evokes well-bred purity (please rinse those terms of any bitter political connotations). Just out of frame is the whirpool of postmodernity. In the first pages, Hekmat says, "Increased communications and extensive travel from one country to another have made a pygmy of our world to the point where all men are neighbors. Today there is more need than ever before for all people to work together toward a mutual understanding of the customs, manners, and morals of other lands and cultures." The intervening years have done less to build mutual understanding than they have to eradicate difference, smoothing it over with international chain supermarkets and chemicoagricultural monoliths, linguistic and cultural castration and consolidation.
Due to its sanctioned, isolated government, the Iran of today might be less influenced by modernity than it would be under different leadership. But it has certainly lost access to some of the rarified beauty that Hekmat describes for that same reason, according to my friend Buna Alkhas in his book Bunanameh: “Cocaine, crack, crystal meth, pills, pills, pills, everything. Syringes and pill packets litter the sidewalks. I heard a young girl brag in a corner store, ‘My baba doesn’t need to take sleeping pills to sleep.’ A taxi driver asked me what differences I saw in Iran after being away for 25 years. I said, ‘I’m really sorry to say so, but it seems to me that everyone is a little bit crazy.’ To which he replied, ‘Only a little bit! How kind of you!’”
I do not presume to write about how or why Iran has changed. Buna says that the "ropes of passion" still pull him out of the "sewers of daily existence." The slice of pre-revolutionary Iranian culture and custom that Hekmat describes is clear and bright. It does not rely on passion for its beauty, the adjectives that could describe it come before and above passion's earthly and meaty connotations (for better or for worse, depending on mood, mode, moon and meal). The brief descriptions of the society which cultivated such food, and the modes of enjoying it speak to the importance of time and a peaceful mind for proper preparation and enjoyment. My test subjects considered my first effort from the book (sweet polou with added dried fruit and nuts, celery khoreshe with lamb, and spinach borani, served with radishes, lime slices, raw onion, and pickles) our best meal of the year so far, not due to any especial skill of mine but to the meal's variety, the subtle but lasting flavors, the complimentary textures and colors, and the general sense of nourishment from healthful ingredients and delicate preparation, as necessitated by the tone and style of the recipes.
Instead of such banal generalities, I will leave some quotes from Hekmat on Persian attitudes towards nutrition and advise you to buy the book if you share my tastes.
"A healthful diet of vegetables, fruits, fish, fowl, and certain delicacies composed of mixed petals and blossoms of roses was believed to have unusual powers that could transform man into a gentile and noble creature.
Many flowers are gathered, dried, and sold in shops as medicines for strengthening the nerves, heart, brain, and eyes. Popular ones are the flowers of the camomile the violet, and the hollyhock. Another is a purple flower with large leaves shaped like a cow's tongue called cow tongue, which grows in abundance everywhere in Persia. The dried petals, steamed like tea in a pot, make a beverage drunk daily, sweetened with rock candy. And in many old fashioned families all these flowers are kept on hand fro such emergencies as fainting caused by shock, overwork, heart attack, and other illnesses.
The distilled water of citrus peels, especially of citron, also the extracts from anise and fennel are all popularly believed to relieve colic pains and other disturbances of the digestive tract.
Pussy-willow water is believed to have a strengthening effect on the heart. The distilled aromatic water of this flower must be drunk about two hours after breakfast or two hours before lunch. It is frequently sweetened with sugar and served iced.
Another, and perhaps the most important food fact which the Persians have known for centuries, and which is today certainly more fact than fiction, is that an excess of fat in the diet causes liver and heart ailments and produces hardening of the arteries. Ancient Persian physicians... believed that eating the sour juices and vinegars or fruits with their foods would neutralize the fat. As a result all sorts of sour juices are used in Persian dishes, and innumerable varieties of sour pickles are placed on the table to be enjoyed with every meal.
By substituting walnuts for red meat a person is made gentle and kind; plenty of dried red grapes before breakfast improves memory; lots of pistachios enrich the blood; and citron peel preserve is a cure for anemia.
Saffron-flower tea, served plain or flavored with dried lime, is believed helpful to heart and nerves, having such strong relaxing effects on the nervous system that the drinker can no longer control his laughter when he drinks too much!
Throughout the ages the answer to the question of longer-lasting youth and vital health has been yogurt, and many of the earliest records of ancient Persia abound with references to this important milk food. Mixed with a good quantity of finely chopped fresh garlic, yogurt is one of the oldest cures for malaria.
'Eat naught but regal food,
If you would develop
both the body and the soul.'"