In writing The Saffron Tales - published on 7th April - British-Iranian cook Yasmin Khan travelled throughout Iran in search of the country's most delicious recipes. In this exclusive interview Yasmin shares her top tips for cooking Persian dishes, her favourite ingredient and the roles of food and culture.
What are your top tips for people cooking Persian food for the first time?
Season your food well! And don’t forget to taste your food at the end of the cooking process and make any adjustments. No two sets of ingredients will ever behave the same in the kitchen, so you have to be confident to make tweaks. Sometimes all that is needed is just an extra pinch of salt, a small squeeze of lemon or a drizzle of olive oil to elevate an average dish into an extraordinary one.
Don't forget to taste your food - no two sets of ingredients will ever behave the same in the kitchen
Persian ingredients are diverse and exciting. What are your store cupboard favourites and why?
I love the delicate fragrances of Iranian cooking, nothing is bold or over-powering but rather subtle and enticing. I have a real sweet tooth so I love date syrup, it has such a rich, treacle like flavour and I use it in everything from marinades to stir fries to porridge.
What is your favourite Persian dish/meal and why?
Fesenjoon, a rich and creamy, sweet and sour stew, made from ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. You can add chicken, aubergine or tempeh to it but the sauce is the real star of the show. It is a firm family favourite and we always make it for guests or for special occasions.
I have a real sweet tooth so I love date syrup, it has such a rich, treacle like flavour
Can you explain briefly the defining characteristics of Persian cuisine?
Persian food is delicate and fragrant, using lots of fresh herbs and always balancing a subtle sweet and sour flavour. The cornerstones of the cuisine are a wide array of slow-cooked stews, flavoured with spices such as dried limes, saffron and cinnamon and adorned with dried fruits and nuts. It is also known for its succulent juicy grilled meat kebabs and elaborate herb and vegetable layered rice dishes.
What role does food play in Persian culture?
Sharing food is an incredibly important custom in Iran and eating a home cooked meal together with families is one of the most important parts of the day. Sharing food with friends and guests is also revered. As soon as a guest arrives into someone’s home they are immediately showered with offerings of fresh fruits, sweet pastries, tea, dried fruit and nuts. That’s before they’ve often had the chance to even sit down! Sharing food is an important custom and a key part of Iranian culture’s inbuilt hospitality.
Why do you think Persian cuisine is gaining popularity in the West?
I think Iranian ingredients have become more accessible to buy and also people are interested in fresh, light, healthy, flavours of which Iranian food has plenty of.
Sharing food is an important custom and a key part of Iranian culture’s inbuilt hospitality.
Are there any Persian dishes that are only made at certain times of the year? (equivalent to the West’s roast turkey with all the trimmings in the winter holiday season perhaps)
Iran’s main festival is Nowruz, the Iranian New Year that takes place on the Spring Equinox and marks the end of winter and beginning of spring. All over the country, the first meal of Nowruz is traditionally a mixed herb rice dish, layered with fresh dill, coriander, chives and parsley and served with grilled or fried fish. We always eat lots of greens on the first meal of the New Year as they symbolise rebirth and renewal.
Did you know that saffron is also known as 'vegetable gold' or 'red gold', and is priced higher than some metals!