Yasmin Khan is a London-based writer and cook who loves to share people's stories through food. She runs cookery classes and pop-up supper clubs, and consults on Iran-related artistic projects. Outside the kitchen, Yasmin has worked as a social justice campaigner for over a decade, with a special focus on the Middle East. To celebrate the publication of her new book, The Saffron Tales, from April 8th for two weeks, the Foyles cafe at Charing Cross Road will be serving three recipes from the book:
Sour cherry and dark chocolate cookie
Fragrant mixed herb and flat bread salad
Chocolate and pistachio torte
Below, you can read an extract from Yasmin's book and find a recipe for Fragrant Mixed Herb and Flatbread Salad.
Meanwhile, we have another cafe takeover in our Bristol branch at Cabot Circus. Starting Friday 8th April until 22nd April, our cafe will be featuring food from Elly Pear's new healthy cookery book Fast Days and Feast Days.
Author photo © Matt Russell
A Taste of Iran by Yasmin Khan
Persian cuisine weaves together a myriad delicate spices and elegant flavours gathered from Iran’s position at the heart of the old Silk Road. Those unfamiliar with the food often come to the sofreh (the patterned tablecloth on which dishes are served) expecting spicy, fiery flavours, perhaps more befitting the country’s climate and politics, and are often surprised to find that the cuisine is gentle and soothing – a poetic balance of subtle flavours such as dried limes, saffron and orange blossom.
Slow-cooked stews known as khoresht and elaborate rice dishes layered with herbs, vegetables, legumes, meat, nuts and fruit are the bedrocks of Persian cuisine, creating a dazzling mosaic of scents, textures and colours at the dining sofreh. There are innumerable different types of khoresht,
with regional and seasonal specialities, but each will be sure to have a sour and sweet balance – Iran’s most dominant taste.
Outside the home, kebabs are king and on every street corner you will find succulent cuts of meat or fish, often marinated with yoghurt and spices, threaded onto skewers and barbecued over hot coals. Kebabs are served sprinkled with sumac (a tart red spice made from the dried berries of the sumac bush) and are either piled high on white rice or tucked into large flatbreads, and are always accompanied by some grilled tomatoes, fresh herbs and crunchy pickles.
Iranians adore fresh fruit, which accompanies breakfast, lunch and dinner, and those in-between times when you might want to take a break from eating. The moment you walk into an Iranian’s house you will be presented with tea, sweets and a large platter of assorted fruit, and failure to eat at least three different varieties risks causing serious offence to your host. The country’s fertile soil and diverse climate nurtures peaches, apricots, grapes, persimmons, melons, kiwis, figs, cherries, quinces and, of course, the mighty pomegranate – Iran’s national fruit, shrouded in mythology and celebrated through the ages in Persian art and poetry.
Using fruit to flavour savoury dishes is another defining feature of Persian food. Pomegranates, plums, greengages, sour cherries and apricots are salted, dried and pounded into flat fruit leathers or cooked down into pastes or molasses to be added to savoury dishes such as khoresht and soups. When no one is looking, I’ve been known to sneak a teaspoon of homemade pomegranate molasses from my grandmother’s fridge, relishing its pucker-your-lips sharpness. Lemon juice, pomegranate
molasses and verjuice are all used to sharpen dishes, along with the bitter and piquant juice of Seville oranges (narenj).
Iran is a vast country and the regional differences are striking, not only in culture, language and climate but also in cuisine. Depending on which part of the country you are in, the dishes that are found on the sofreh will vary. Meatballs stuffed with prunes and walnuts might feature in the Turkish-influenced north-east of the country. Garlicky aubergine dips might appear by the Caspian Sea. Sweet rice dishes, layered with fruit and nuts, abound in central Iran; with perhaps some spicy fried squid in the south. In each region, the sofreh celebrates the best local and seasonal produce, in dishes that have been perfected over centuries to suit the local climate – but there are also some nationwide commonalities.
Fragrant mixed herb and flatbread salad (domaaj)
I first sampled this fragrant salad at a small party at the home of Azadeh Sadeghzadeh, a vivacious young fashion designer from Tehran, and it is now one of my staple dishes whenever I am entertaining. I simply place a big bowl of it in the middle of the table and then let my guests help themselves to bowlfuls as we have a few rounds of drinks. It goes down a treat every time.
The salad works best with strips of Persian flatbread (page 60), but if you don’t have time to make your own, and can’t find any in the shops, then plain tortillas work just as well. The addition of golpar (see page 24), with its citrusy aroma, really lifts this dish, accentuating the sweetness of the pomegranates and adding a wonderful depth of flavour, so try and track some down if you can.
100g Persian flatbread (or toasted tortillas or pitta bread)
50g walnuts, roughly chopped
100g feta, crumbled
25g bunch mint, roughly chopped
25g bunch basil, roughly chopped
25g bunch tarragon, roughly chopped
3 tbsp pomegranate seeds, to garnish
For the dressing:
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
¼ tsp golpar (optional)
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper
Using a pair of scissors, cut the flatbread into small jagged pieces and place them in a large bowl.
Toast the walnuts in a small pan over a medium heat for 2 minutes. Add them to the bowl, along with the crumbled cheese and chopped herbs.
To make the dressing, whisk the balsamic vinegar, olive oil and golpar (if you are using it) with the salt and pepper. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and then get your hands in there, giving the whole thing a good stir to evenly distribute it.
Leave the salad for 10 minutes for the flavours to soak into the bread, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with a generous sprinkling of pomegranate seeds just before serving.
Serves 4 as a starter