Small dishes

Small dishes

Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
19 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Mark Roper

Long before we travel to Iran i am entranced by the name, by the very idea of yazd. For a start, the map shows it to be sited, rather pleasingly, slap-bang in the middle of the country, at the meeting point of its two vast deserts, the Dasht-e Kavir and Dasht-e Lut. Secondly, I know that this ancient town is home to Iran’s largest community of Zoroastrians, followers of a rather mysterious faith that predates Islam by a thousand years or more. And thirdly, Yazd is famous all around Iran – and farther afield, too – for its silks and confectionery.

Marco Polo visited Yazd in 1272, describing it in his travel journals as, ‘a very fine and splendid city and a centre of commerce’. In those days, most of this commerce revolved around a thriving cotton and silk trade. Mulberry trees grew in profusion around the city and Yazdi silk was spun with gold and silver threads into fine brocades that were exported across the Islamic world.

Seven-and-a-half centuries after Marco Polo’s visit, the silk trade has largely vanished. But we have been invited to watch a different kind of silk being spun in a local confectionery workshop. We are visiting Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar’s famous sweet emporium to see how pashmak – Persian fairy floss – is made. The business has been run by a partnership of three families for nearly a hundred years, and their sweets are considered to be some of the best in Iran.

As we wait in the factory office, nibbling on small lozenges of pistachio paste, Ali gives me a lesson in Persian names. ‘Agha’ and ‘Khanum’ I am already familiar with, being roughly the equivalent of ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. ‘Haj’ is the honorific given to those Muslims, both men and women, who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ali now explains to us that ‘khalifeh’ denotes a great master or expert. So, in his day, we surmise, Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar was both a devout Muslim and a master confectioner.

It is close to lunchtime, and by the time we are ushered into the workshop the morning shift is nearly over. There is an air of frantic energy and we watch a row of burly men with massively muscled forearms (and asbestos fingers) wrangle thick ropes of burnished amber toffee onto a long marble bench. To one side, another man stirs melted sheep’s butter into flour to form a crumbly dough. We watch, transfixed, as the heavy toffee ropes are slapped and twisted on the marble. As they cool, the amber translucency gives way to an opaque, silvery-gold sheen. Next, the toffee is hoisted onto circular trays beneath the mechanical spider legs of a giant stretching machine. Two men stand at every station, throwing handfuls of buttery dough into the toffee as it is worked and stretched into ever-thinner strands.

‘Is it hard work?’, Greg asks. ‘Ya Ali! We make around nine hundred kilos of pashmak a day and we used to do it by hand,’ laughs one muscle-man. ‘This is like playing.’

The toffee has been transformed by some strange alchemy into fluffy skeins of sugar silk and the two men gather up great armfuls of the stuff and drop it onto a large bench to be sprinkled with fragrant cardamom and packed into pretty pink boxes.

But now a loud siren sounds and within minutes the room empties. It’s the signal for us all to leave for lunch.

Outside a small bakery we watch an old lady bend stiffly to pick up a piece of bread from the dusty ground. She brushes it off carefully and places it, almost reverently, on a nearby ledge. We are intrigued.

‘This is some kind of tradition – or perhaps it is better to say superstition,’ Ebi explains. ‘Many older people believe that bread is sacred and should not be allowed to fall to the ground and wasted. So they pick it up and save it.’

‘But for what?’, he snorts disparagingly. ‘In my country there are many kinds of pointless tradition like this.’

The next morning we wake early and wander through a twisting maze of sun-baked alleyways in the old town close to our hotel. We soon find ourselves standing beneath the lofty arched entrance of the Jameh Mosque. Jameh means ‘Friday’, and this is where Muslims congregate for the important weekly prayer service. The towering archway is topped by two slender minarets, and at nearly fifty metres it is the tallest portal in Iran. The entire façade is decorated in a dazzling pattern of blue and yellow tiles, and the early morning light washes it with a warm golden sheen.

We make our way up to the roof and gaze out at the old brown city stretched beneath us. From this vantage point it is easy to make out the distinctive wind-towers or badgirs that sprout from the skyline, cooling the city as they have for centuries. The caretaker has followed us, and he now produces a key from his trouser pocket and unlocks a small door at the base of one of the slender minarets. We troop in after him, feeling our way carefully up the cramped spiral interior. As we climb ever higher, I feel something crunching beneath my shoes on the rough stone steps, and when we emerge into a cramped chamber at the top I see that both steps and floor are strewn with crushed walnut shells. In the dim light we can also make out cushions propped around the walls. On a dusty rug a Koran lies open next to a few crumpled chadors and there are more scattered walnut shells. It seems a little sad, a little lonely.

‘I think this is more superstition,’ Ebi whispers in my ear.

The caretaker now adopts a serious expression. ‘This is a special room only for young women,’ he explains carefully. ‘They come here on Fridays to pray for a husband. You must understand that these are girls who think they have no hope. Perhaps their families are poor or do not know any suitable boys.’ He pauses awkwardly, ‘... or maybe they are not so pretty. So they come here and they scatter walnuts on the stairs. They break them open with their feet, and they pray that this will release good luck for them. Then they weep and they pray some more.’

It’s not surprising that Iranian girls share the same preoccupations as young women the world over. They want security, they want family, they want love. They want a husband. But here in Iran there are no bars or pubs or clubs. In rural and remote areas and in conservative cities like Yazd, young men and women have few opportunities to socialise. For some, it is nigh on impossible to meet a mate. For some, it seems, the best they can do is to walk on walnuts.

Here in yazd, summer temperatures soar into the high forties, and the city has an annual rainfall of only six centimetres. Even with modernday urban comforts, this is a tough place to live.

Perhaps the fierce desert climate breeds a certain kind of fierce devoutness. As well as being traditionalists, we learn that the good citizens of Yazd are a religious lot, and dotted around the city we stumble across several takieh, ceremonial buildings used during Ashura, the important Shia anniversary of the 680 AD martyrdom of Imam Hossein. The grandest of these is the three-tiered Amir Chakhmaq complex, out the front of which stands a curious wooden contraption, a little like the frame of a massive pointed drum. Ali tells us that this is a nakhl, and is unique to this central desert region. Representing Hossein’s coffin, the nakhl is carried through the streets during Ashura in an outpouring of public penitence and grief. It’s the kind of ceremony, with its beating of breasts, thwacking of heads and lifting of heavy objects, that sends you spinning back to the Middle Ages.

But Yazd was also a capital of pre-Islamic Persia and is famous for its fire temples and its Towers of Silence – fascinating round buildings that sit on lonely hills beyond the city walls, where vultures once picked at the bones of the Zoroastrian dead, a neat way of dealing with decay and preventing disease. We visit Ateshkadeh, the most important of the fire temples, late in the afternoon, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere in the grounds. Above the entrance to the temple is an imposing bas-relief of Fravahar, the winged disc – half eagle, half man – that symbolises the soul’s journey towards union with Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian supreme being.

When we enter the temple itself, I understand why it is so quiet outside. The dark interior is crowded with people pressing up against a glass window to catch a glimpse of the fire burning beyond. The central teaching of Zoroaster was of the eternal battle between forces of good and evil. In the crush a large man treads heavily on my foot, and I experience a brief internal battle between my own Vohu Mano (good mind) and Ahem Nan (bad mind). But thankfully good humour prevails, and we eventually reach the glass and gaze into the eternal flames.

But by now we’ve all just about had enough religion for one day.

Iran’s vast central desert plateau covers many thousands of square kilometres and is one of the hottest and driest places on earth. It’s not a landscape to enter lightly. And yet the fragile network of ancient tracks that criss-cross the barren expanse tells us that travellers have been braving it for many thousands of years. Aryan tribes first entered these lands in the second millennium BC, skirting a cautious route along the northern fringe of the Dasht-e Kavir desert. Next came merchants, carting goods to and from Asia in their caravan convoys. Today there are few signs of the ancient routes that made up the Silk Road, just the occasional crumbling caravanserai. But larger settlements gradually sprang up alongside the inhospitable desert, tucked in beneath the mountains that reach sheltering arms around the northern and western edges.

Iran’s desert villages and cities appear strikingly similar, because the climate shapes not just the landscape, but also the architecture. From the beginning, these communities had to learn how to deal with extremes of temperature, aridity, salinity and wind. Above all, the people who lived here had to find shade, cool air and water. And so the buildings are low and squat, the walls made of thick mud bricks; the skyline is punctuated by wind-towers channelling cooling currents through the buildings; yakchal – ice houses – store blocks of ice brought from the mountains in the winter, and, most crucial of all, there are qanats, an underground system of pipes that deliver life-giving water from subterranean water sources in the foothills of the mountains to fields and villages.

There are only a few roads through the desert these days, carrying sparse traffic between Kerman, Yazd and Na’in and the distant pilgrim city of Mashhad. We seem to be the only car heading north-east towards Mashhad, although the occasional battered old truck comes from the other direction. Around us the stony ground seems to stretch to the edge of the world and the only other signs of life are little groups of dusty grey camels.

About an hour into our journey we stop at Kharanaq, a crumbling oasis village that is famous for its ‘shaking’ minaret. Much of the village is ruined, and we wander in and out of the higgledy-piggledy houses, built one on top of another up a hillside. When we reach the base of the minaret we gaze down onto a timeless rural scene. In the distance is an arid rocky expanse, back further a row of jagged brown mountains stabs the sky. But beneath our feet spreads a patchwork of vivid green, the first we have seen in this part of Iran, and it makes us laugh in delight. There are fields of cotton and sunflowers, tomatoes and eggplants, as well as small walled orchards of pomegranates. It is the qanat system in action!

Javar rose long before dawn to make the dough for our breakfast bread. Her son, yet another Ali, has been fuelling the fire for several hours and now we are summoned to watch. We gather sleepily around the old clay oven in the garden of the Moonlight House guesthouse, where we are staying. We are mesmerised by the tongues of orange fire that lick the rim hungrily, and then, before our eyes, the flames slowly retreat into the dark depths of the oven and vanish, leaving in their wake the required glowing embers.

Between the two of them, Javar and Ali have already prepared a tray of neat round balls of dough. Now Javar plunges her hands into a bag of flour, then she twists, turns and flattens each dough ball into a large oval. One by one she stretches them over a heavy padded cloth, then thrusts her hand into the hellishly hot depths of the oven. Moving briskly, she slaps the loaves against the wall and they bubble and blister before our eyes. Next, it’s Ali’s turn. He reaches in with a wooden paddle and peels the loaves away, holding them up triumphantly for our approval

By now the sun is rising. The air is dense with wood smoke and the fragrant scent of warm bread, and we are silent in anticipation. Javar smiles at us kindly, gathers up the steaming flaps of bread and we follow her indoors for breakfast.

Finally we have left the desert and we are in the Khorasan region in the north-east of Iran. When the Arabs brought Islam into Persia in the seventh century they knew of no lands beyond it so they named it ‘the land of the rising sun’.

It’s a gentler climate and terrain, with pretty valleys and hills and obvious signs of cultivation. Here we meet Sami, who owns a fine orchard of zereshk trees. Since arriving in Iran we’ve been enjoying sour–sweet zereshk – barberries – in all kinds of rice dishes, and we’re delighted to discover that it is harvest time. Yesterday we picked a basketful of the flame-red berries from his trees, narrowly avoiding injury via the long spiky thorns.

But now we are sitting round a table drinking chai with Sami’s uncle. He’s a water controller, a mirab, responsible for allocating this precious resource around the village. It’s an important job, especially at this time of year as saffron is being planted and the fields need to be flooded several times over the next few weeks.

Saffron is the real reason for our visit to Khorasan. That morning we watched the gnarled crocus bulbs being tucked into the rich brown soil. We are desperate to see the flowers themselves, but it seems that we are a month early. Saffron bulbs need cold weather in which to bloom, and although it is autumn, in this part of Khorasan the sun still holds too much heat. But Sami and his uncle tell us that we will almost certainly see the start of the harvest on our journey north to Mashhad. They have heard that the bulbs were planted several weeks ago and, of course, it is cooler there.

And so the saffron hunt begins in earnest. We drive steadily north, stopping at village after village to inspect the fields. Our hopes are briefly raised when we see a faint flash of green shimmer across the surface of one small plot, but there are still no flowers.

We drive for hours and eventually stop in Torbate Hedariyeh to buy some of the melons for which Mashhad is so famous. We slice them open greedily while Ali interrogates the stallholder about the saffron harvest. He directs us off the highway to a small village near by. And here, across a field, beneath an apple tree, next to a small stream, we find the very first fragile flowers of the season. Only a couple, mind, but for the moment, it’s enough.

There is more than enough saffron in Mashhad to make up for any disappointment with the harvest. We spot saffron cakes, cookies and candy and glittery saffron-hued sugar swizzle sticks. There’s saffron ice-cream, saffron rice, saffron tea – and then there are shops selling a wide range of different forms, vintages and qualities of the spice itself. We are drawn to a mound of deep maroon-red strands secured beneath a heavy glass dome; when the shopkeeper lifts the lid, a complex acrid scent floods the air. Saffron is expensive even here, despite the fact that Iran is the largest producer in the world, accounting for around ninety percent of the total harvest. But when you consider that each delicate bloom contains only three fine stigmas, and that it takes seventy-five thousand flowers – that’s about a hundred kilos – to make one kilogram of saffron, the cost somehow seems worth it.

Other than saffron, the first thing one notices in Mashhad is that the streets are swarming with pilgrims. Around twenty million of them flock here every year, from all corners of the Shia world, to gather at the holy shrine of Imam Reza, a ninth-century martyr. Imam Reza was the eighth of the Twelver Shiite Imams, and to this day many Iranians believe that he was killed, on the order of the Caliph, by poisoned grapes. His mausoleum in Mashhad is one of the two key pilgrimage sites in Iran, and regular visits here are a crucial religious observation. We are quickly caught up in the crowd, which pulls us inexorably towards the entrance gates.

The shrine dominates the city. It is a vast, ever-expanding complex of courtyards and buildings and we are quite unprepared for the scale of the place. I am a little anxious when I realise that men and women must enter separately. I know that non-Muslims are not allowed inside the holiest inner buildings and I am worried about losing my way and straying off course. Ebi will walk through with Greg and he is determined to find someone to guide me. He explains my predicament to a young woman who is visiting the shrine with her mother. They smile at me sweetly and the older woman helps me adjust my chador, showing me how to tuck the cumbersome fabric under my arm and hold it tight with one hand. ‘You welcome ... you guest,’ stutters the daughter.

Once inside, my new friends take me tenderly by the elbow and guide me through the crowds. Within minutes I have lost my bearings as we pass through large carpeted courtyards and small quadrangles, beneath archways and portals, in and out of shadow and light. I feel as if I am walking through a jewellery box. One chamber flashes turquoise tiles, another is lined with pure gold. Yet another is a kaleidoscope of tiny mirror mosaics: it’s like being inside a diamond.

And now they lead me into another hall and we are suddenly swamped by a deafening roar of sound. I am in a sea of women chanting prayers, rocking and sobbing. In a great wailing wave the crowd moves forward, arms reaching out to touch the gilded cage of the tomb that rises up in the centre of the room. On the other side of the barrier an ocean of roaring men surges towards us. My friends urge me ever onwards. But I am overcome by the sudden sense that I have come too far and I let go of their hands and drop back. I watch for a moment as they are sucked into the crowd and vanish, then I turn and walk quietly away.

This section begins – as does every Iranian meal – with fresh herbs. Together with bread and rice, herbs are the defining characteristic of the Persian table.

The Persian way of eating is rather more free-form than the two-or-three-course model that we are used to in the West. At mealtimes, at the most humble as well as the most elaborate tables, dishes of food gradually accumulate and are left for the duration of the meal for people to pick at in their own time and way.

Small dishes are first – these are intended to excite the eye and the palate and to balance and complement the more substantial rice and meat dishes that follow. It’s a very similar idea to the Middle Eastern mezze spread –in fact the word ‘mezze’ derives from the Persian word ‘mazeh’, which means ‘to taste’. A basket of mixed fresh herbs or sabzi is always the first thing to arrive, and sometimes a few crunchy vegetables, such as radishes and spring onions. These are eaten with soft white cheese and flatbread to sharpen the appetite for subsequent dishes.

Small salads, cold or stuffed vegetables and pickles also appear, and yoghurt features in various forms. Sometimes it is thin and soupy, for slurping up with a spoon, or it can be thick and creamy and come with dates for dipping. Yoghurt is also mixed with vegetables, such as cucumber, spinach, beetroot or eggplant, to create borani, another kind of salad.

Slightly more substantial dishes might be egg-based omelettes, called kuku, or fried meat or vegetable patties. Kukus are often served cold, cut into bite-sized pieces, but also make a wonderful light meal in their own right.

Finally, Iranians are inveterate nibblers of nuts, seeds and dried fruit, often combined in mixtures that are stored in the pantry for a quick and easy snack or to have on hand to off er guests. Freshly roasted and salted nuts will nearly always be offered before a meal, accompanied by little cups of refreshing chai or a long glass of chilled sherbet – cordial – in the summer.

Each of the following recipes is intended to serve six people as part of a selection. Offer a few of these small dishes for a simpler meal, assuming you have larger dishes to follow, or put together a spread for more elaborate entertaining. The kuku recipes are slightly heartier, and could easily serve six people as a light lunch or supper dish, with just a green leaf salad as accompaniment

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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