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

Shiraz: city of wine, poetry, roses and nightingales. and also, it seems, of rain. We arrive late at night and our plane descends through the clouds amidst a spring shower. This is the first real rain we’ve seen on our travels around Iran, and after the heat and wilting humidity of the Persian Gulf it is bliss to feel a cool breeze and the reviving raindrops on our faces once we are on the tarmac.

The next morning we draw back the curtains on a new day, a new city and thin, watery sunshine. The streets have a just-washed feel and visitors to the Naranjestan Gardens are rugged up against the wind. For the first time, I am grateful to be wearing a headscarf and tuck it in tightly around my ears and chin.

Because it’s a Friday, the pretty gardens are full of sightseers and the place is bustling with families, school groups and shy couples. The sour-orange trees that give the gardens their name are beginning to blossom and their perfume scents the air. Classical Persian music is playing through the loudspeakers – just a touch too loudly – and we spend a delightful hour admiring the opulently decorated rooms of the late-nineteenth-century pavilion.

I’m especially drawn to the gul-o-bul-bul decoration of the exterior façades around the garden. This ‘rose and nightingale’ motif is popular in Persian poetry and nineteenth-century art, and we are not surprised to learn that many historians believe it originated here in Shiraz. In this style, a mass of birds and flowers are depicted intertwined, representing the lover and the beloved, in earthly or divine union. On these walls there are not just roses and nightingales, but also irises, peonies and tulips and peacocks, lapwings and the mythical phoenix and simorgh. After the preponderance of blue, white and green tiles we’ve seen at other Persian monuments, the lavish use here of yellows, pinks, reds and lilacs is enchanting.

A bold use of colour can be seen at the nearby nasir-ol-molk Mosque, also known as the Pink Mosque because of its striking rosy-hued tilework. Inside the airy prayer room the caretaker is busy at his midday prayers and we move quietly so we don’t disturb him. We weave our way through rows of squat carved pillars that twist and turn in alternate directions beneath a canopy of tiled cupolas, and then, as we turn to leave, the sun bursts through the stained-glass windows and we walk back out to the courtyard through streaks and splashes of a brilliant rainbow.

Happy in her hometown, Yas now leads us through a series of archways into a tiny jewel-like prayer room, tucked away secretly at the rear of the mosque. Inside, the walls and ceilings are painted in pale, sugared-almond tones of lavender, pistachio, cream and pink. One vaulted corner is covered in a kaleidoscope of tiny mirrors and I tell Yas that I’ve noticed the use of mirror seems to be a popular decorative element in Persian buildings.

‘It’s because the idea of light is so important,’ Yas explains. ‘Inside many mosques, mirror is used to increase the light, which symbolises God, of course. But mirrors are also used to decorate houses and in ceremonies such as Nowruz – Persian New Year – and at weddings, and they are also used in poetry and literature to symbolise reflection.’ She pauses for a moment, then a smile breaks over her face. ‘There is a famous line of poetry,’ she says: ‘Ayaneh chon nagshe to benmood rast. Khod shekan ayeneh shekastan khastast. Don’t break the mirror for showing you what you really are. In other words, if you are unhappy with what you see, you must change yourself.’

There is more symbolism later that afternoon, but this time it comes in a simple bowl of soup. Greg has been longing to taste ash-e reshteh, so Yas has invited us to meet her sister Farideh, an expert home cook.

Farideh lives with their mother in the family home, and when we arrive she is already in the kitchen, picking over a mountain of fresh herbs. She tells us that the category of dishes known as ash is one of the earliest known, dating back to Zoroastrian times, and falls somewhere between a soup and stew. The word ‘ash’, she continues, derives from the Farsi word for a cook – ashpaz – which literally means ‘soupmaker’, and this gives us an idea of its significance in the Persian kitchen. We learn that there are endless varieties of ash, for all manner of different occasions, but the main ingredients are meat, pulses, grains and fresh herbs.

Farideh pauses to stir onion and spices in a battered old pot, then in go chickpeas, lentils, and borlotti and kidney beans and plenty of water. Once the pot is simmering away happily, she ushers us into the cosy living room to make the noodles. Kneeling on the floor in front of a large wooden board, she rolls a simple semolina dough out into large, thin sheets and then shreds these into fine strips before dropping the noodles into a shallow basket to dry.

It’s the noodles that distinguish ash-e reshteh, and as we look at the tangle gathering in the basket, Farideh explains that they represent the problems we all have to manage in our lives. It comes as no surprise, then, when she tells us that this soup is often eaten on the first working day of the Persian New Year, to symbolise a fresh start.

A little later the chopped herbs and noodles are added to the pot and as Farideh stirs, we watch the noodles unravel before our eyes. ‘You see,’ says Farideh, ‘in the end life is as simple as this soup.’

We visit the shrine of hafez, the revered fourteenth-century persian poet, in the late afternoon. His tomb lies in a rotunda at the centre of a pretty garden of sloping shadows, cypress trees and roses. It’s a peaceful spot, despite the number of visitors milling around, and Ebi tells us it’s one of the country’s most popular monuments.

Like many Westerners, before visiting Iran I knew virtually nothing about Persian literature, and I’ve been startled to learn of the sheer number of Persian poets and of the influence the poetic canon has on the Persian psyche. The era of classical poetry dates back more than a thousand years and encompasses epic works such as Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the mystic Sufipoetry of Rumi, and Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. I was familiar with Khayyam as will be many Westerners, but, interestingly, in his homeland he has always been more famous as a mathematician and an astronomer than as a poet. But of them all, I’ve learned that it is Hafez who reaches deepest into the Persian soul.

Hafez’s poetry explores eternal ideas of life, love and spirituality, but one of his most enduring themes is of unrequited love and longing – both earthly and divine – and of finding solace in wine. And this in a land and time of Islam! But most particularly, over the centuries, his poetry has given rise to a kind of fortune-telling – you pose a question, open his poetry at random, and find guidance from the words within. And if you don’t have a book of poetry with you when visiting Hafez’s tomb, outside the gardens a budgerigar will pluck a card at random, and offer insight from a Hafez verse for the cost of a few tomans.

We circle the tomb slowly, then draw back to watch as others approach. Most visitors are clutching a book of verse and they pause to bend or kneel in front of the tomb, tapping the surface tenderly and muttering beneath their breath. There’s no mistaking their sincerity. So cherished is Hafez that many Iranians can quote his poetry by heart, and Yas tells us that copies of his works outsell the Koran.

Yas is taking us out to lunch. she’s been teasing us about a local speciality called chakhol parhol, a sandwich filled with fried chopped lung, but it transpires she has something more substantial in mind, and is taking us to one of her favourite local restaurants. At first, the idea of a restaurant meal leaves us a little less than excited. By now we have learned not to expect too much from Iranian restaurants. Everyone here knows that if you want really good food it’s best to eat at home, and most restaurants dole out the same predictable offerings of kebab and chelow rice. But, admittedly, we have discovered the odd gem on our travels, and this is Yas’s hometown, after all, so we cross fingers and head off.

A good sign: although we arrive early at Brentin Restaurant, the dining room is already filling up and we are lucky to find a table in the corner. ‘Here you will find completely Shirazi food, but also some food with a modern twist,’ Yas tells us happily. We’ve barely had time to sit down before two small plates are set on the table before us. One contains hot cashew nuts that have been roasted with salt and lime juice, the other a pretty sliced arrangement of watermelon and white cheese. Good service and attractively presented food! Things are looking promising.

There’s no Shiraz wine on the menu, sadly, but chilled pomegranate beer and fresh lime and mint sherbet are just the thing to go with the hot cashews. Before long the table is crowded with dishes. There’s kalam polow, a rice dish with tiny meatballs and chock-full of tarragon, savory and dill; and khoresht-e gheimeh, a wonderful thick stew of lamb and split peas flavoured with dried limes. In Shiraz, this khoresht is served with shirin polow, a sweet saffron rice tossed with almonds, pistachios and shredded orange zest – a combination I find irresistible. We feel obliged to have a Shirazi salad, a dish we’ve eaten all around Iran. In the local version, cucumber, shallots and tomatoes are chopped finely and tossed with mint and verjuice – unfermented, sour grape juice. ‘This verjuice is typically Shiraz,’ explains Yas. ‘We have to find something to do with all those grapes after all!’

The famous shiraz grapes may no longer be used to make wine, but Yas tells us that every visitor to the city makes time to stock-up on bottles of the local verjuice. It provides a much-loved sourness to many Persian dishes, as do fresh lemon and lime juice, and we’ve seen an entire row of shops devoted to these products behind the eighteenth-century Citadel in the city centre. But Shiraz is also famous for its flower waters, and Ebi has plans for us to visit an araghiat – arak shop – before we depart for the ancient city of Persepolis.

The first thing we notice as we push open the gate to the Jaleh family araghiat is the pungent herbal aroma. Arak, which literally (and rather unappealingly) means ‘perspiration’, are distilled extracts from flowers and herbs. We’re very familiar with rosewater and orangeflower water, but here in Iran there is a dazzling array of arak varieties. A few, such as golab – rosewater –are used in cooking, but more often these distillations are combined with sugar syrup and ice to make thirst-quenching drinks or sherbets.

Today’s brew, bubbling away beneath the steaming domed stills, derives from walnut blossom, but all around the small yard are vast tanks of other types of arak. Yas translates some of the labels for us: oregano, cumin, eglantine, cinnamon, chicory, sweetbriar, pussy willow – it seems there are waters made from every conceivable flower, twig and leaf in Iran.

While we study the vats, a steady stream of customers arrives. Most of them are equipped with their own bottles and seem to know exactly what they want. Ebi explains that there is another reason for the popularity of arak – their use as natural remedies. Above the cashier’s office is a chart that outlines the medicinal properties of each water and Yas again reads some of them out to us: cinnamon for diabetes, oregano for the blood, borage for the heart, mint for stomach ache.

Iranians set great store by arak, and will usually try dosing themselves with the appropriate herb or flower water before making a trip to the doctor. Ebi has been talking to the owner and now he comes over to us with two enormous containers under his arms and a gleam in his eye. ‘This is pure and natural medicine,’ he declares. ‘And here in Shiraz it is the best in the country.’ Greg’s interest is piqued when Ebi explains that he’s choosing cumin water for weight loss and dill water to lower cholesterol. Greg hurries off to find a couple of empty bottles. ‘Anything’s worth a try!’, he calls back to us over his shoulder.

By the time we reach persepolis the landscape is washed in a strange, steely-mauve light and it feels as if a storm is brewing. In the distance, on a dusty plateau, the shattered columns of the ancient city jut like broken teeth under the dark, bruised sky. But even in ruins, it is dramatic.

Persepolis was established around 515 BC, and for two hundred years it was a dazzling symbol of Persia’s power, and its most sacred site. To this day it remains the best-preserved monument to the achievements of the Achaemenid kings; its destruction by the young Alexander the Great and his army, in a night of wanton vandalism in 331 BC, was the death-blow to the greatest empire the world had yet seen.

There is only one approach to Persepolis and, like every visitor before, we climb the broad but shallow stairway to the palace complex, which rises high above us on an immense stone platform. It’s impossible not to think of the other feet that have trodden here before us, of the subjects who gathered from all corners of the empire to pay homage to the king. And as we pass beneath the towering Gate of Nations, topped with mythical double-headed creatures, we surely feel the same sense of awe.

Yas tells us that it was Cyrus the Great who laid the foundation for this unique empire, one that was built on tolerance for other cultures and religions. And as she talks, a bell rings in my mind, and I remember Ali telling us about the Cyrus Stone all that time ago.

Cyrus and his successors expanded their territories across Asia, Africa and Europe, bringing twenty-three nations together under one rule. That early Persian ideal of inclusiveness and mutual respect is reflected in the very fabric of these buildings, which were constructed in an eclectic mix of Greek, Assyrian and Egyptian styles by skilled craftsmen brought in from the subject nations.

Clues to understanding the function of Persepolis are carved into the walls – and there are carvings everywhere. Yas points out twelve-petalled lotus flowers, radiant suns and great leaping lions – all of which are ancient metaphors for kingly power. In fact there are endless depictions of lions tearing at the flanks of horned bulls, and Yas explains that this also symbolises the victory of spring over winter, of day over night.

It seems that Persepolis was not a military or political capital, but a ceremonial complex, and spring was the highlight of the year. Then, as now, the Persian New Year was celebrated on 21 March, and on this first day of spring delegations from across the empire congregated at the palace with gifts for the king of kings.

After making our way through gateways and courtyards, we walk slowly up the great Apadana staircase to the Central Hall, flanked by a silent procession of carved stone dignitaries bearing bowls of gold and lapis lazuli, folds of gorgeous fabric, jewels, wine and rare beasts. There are no depictions of wars or fights between humans – indeed some figures hold hands in friendship. It seems certain that these visitors to Persepolis brought with them not just precious gifts, but also their various ideas, skills, languages and religions. Despite the undoubted magnificence of the buildings around us, I can’t help but feel that the greatest achievement of the empire was not material wealth, but the human kind.

There is only one hotel in persepolis and this evening we are its sole guests. It feels suitably splendid to have the place to ourselves, although the hotel staff tells us that in a fortnight it will be Nowruz, the Persian New Year, and the place will be heaving.

Hamid, the chef, is over the moon to meet a fellow professional from the other side of the world, and with the help of Yas translating, he and Greg manage a lively conversation, swapping recipes and notes.

After our long day travelling and sightseeing, none of us is very hungry, and hotel food is the last thing that we feel like eating. Rather than be irritated by his difficult customers, Hamid rises to the challenge and offers to prepare a homely dish called eshkeneh. It’s a suggestion that sends Ebi and Yas into transports of delight.

Eshkeneh turns out to be a lovely, simple onion soup flavoured with fenugreek and with egg whisked in at the last minute. Hamid brings it to the table with a basket of flatbread and a small jug of vinegar for sharpening the soup to our own taste, and explains that eshkeneh is a traditional peasant dish that dates back several thousand years. It’s the perfect comfort food for a chilly spring evening and we all agree that it seems very appropriate in these ancient surroundings.

The next day, after leaving our hotel at Persepolis, we stop at Naksh-e Rostam to admire the Sassanian bas-reliefs and massive cruciform cliff tombs of four of the Achaemenid kings – Darius I and II, Xerxes and Ataxerxes. And then it’s on to see the tomb of Cyrus the Great, which stands alone on a vast dusty plain.

It seems inconceivable that this is almost all that remains of Pasargadae, the first capital city of the mighty Achaemenids. But so it is. After Persepolis, we can’t help but think about the fleeting nature of power. And when we read the inscription on Cyrus’s tomb, it seems as if he has had the last word – again.

Although Iranians are well known for having a sweet tooth, they don’t tend to eat desserts after a meal in the same way we do at the Western dinner table. If there are guests, ice-cream or cream-stuffed pastries might be bought from a fancy pastry shop, but in the main most meals finish with seasonal fresh fruit – perhaps plucked fresh from the household’s own walled garden. Also popular are refreshing chilled fruit salads or ‘cocktails’ of crushed fruit combined with ice and perfumed with flower waters; watermelon and melon are favoured for these simple granitas.

Ice-creams and dairy desserts are popular all day long as between-meals treats, or as much-needed refreshment on hot summer’s days. Bastani – traditional icecream – comes in two tones: white and saffron-tinted yellow. It is made with sahlab, the ground root of an orchid that produces a characteristic stretchy texture. Both versions are usually mixed with pistachios and flavoured with sweet rosewater.

Faloodeh is a traditional sweet chilled concoction that is often sold in Iranian ice-cream shops. With a texture somewhat unusual to a Western palate, faloodeh is made from fine noodles that are drenched in a lime or sour-cherry syrup. In the stifling heat of an Iranian desert summer, this sweet treat is blissfully reviving.

Rice- and dairy-based sweet dishes, such as shir berenj (rice pudding), yakh dar behesht (a thick milk pudding that translates rather charmingly as ‘ice in heaven’) and shollehzard are eaten as daytime treats. In fact they are thought to have originated as nourishing, wholesome dishes to tempt children or revive invalids rather than as desserts to eat after a big meal. Shollehzard, a rich, thick, saffron-yellow pudding, is often distributed to the neighbourhood as nazri – a food offering to commemorate significant events, bereavement or religious anniversaries, or to give thanks for recovery from sickness.

Although the range of traditional Persian ‘dessert’ options is fairly limited, when it comes to shirini – which translates literally to ‘sweet things’ – it is a different story. This category encompasses cakes, cookies and confectionery, pastries, wafers, fritters, sugared nuts and fruits – in fact, any little sweet morsel you can think of. In Iran a cup (or glass) of tea is unthinkable without some kind of sweet accompaniment, however simple, and most households will have cookies or candies on hand to offer guests.

The fact that there is no real dessert tradition in Persian cuisine has encouraged us to adopt a rather freewheeling approach to the recipes in this section. Although we’ve included a few traditional favourites, in the main the recipes that follow were inspired by ingredients, techniques and flavour combinations we discovered on our travels. These dishes are predominantly fruit-based and many are intended to be served as a dessert at the end of a Western-style meal, while some of the pastries work well either as a dessert or as a treat with a cup of tea or coffee. Finally, the selection of sweet-meats are lovely with coffee after dinner – or to give as gifts.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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