The staples

The staples

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

It is mid-afternoon in the tea house; a quiet, in-between time. Thin sunlight filters in through a glass dome set high in the vaulted ceiling, piercing the subterranean gloom. Suspended beneath the dome is an arrangement of nomad tassels that rotates languorously in the warm air, casting mysterious shadows about the intricately tiled pillars and arches.

There are a few tables and chairs set around the room, but, in the main, the handful of customers here at this time of day prefers to recline against heavy carpet-covered cushions on takhts, low Persian day-beds. Apart from the hiss of the samovar and the faint clink of glasses there is sleepy silence.

Ali calls softly to the waiter, who fills a flowery china teapot and brings it to our table with a bowl of roughly hewn rocks of sugar. There is a sudden flash of movement behind him and we see a hand raised high towards the light. For a moment, the sun spills onto the stretched parchment of the musician’s drum, then a slow, rhythmic beat and his pure tenor voice break the silence.

Your dreams are like a boundless ocean with no shores ...

It feels like a dream to me.

It’s a long way from Tehran to Kerman – just over a thousand kilometres – and it’s even further away from our expectations of a dark and dangerous Iran. Here in the tea house the atmosphere has changed. The drowsiness has vanished and as the soulful notes echo around the room everyone is focussed intently on the musicians. At the next table an elderly man is leaning back with his eyes closed and I am startled to see a tear roll slowly down his cheek.

This particular tea house, Hamam-e Vakil Chaykaneh, is an old converted bathhouse just off the Kerman bazaar. Ali is our saraban – our guide, translator and expert driver – and he has brought us here after a busy morning exploring. He whispers in my ear that the song was written by Iraj Bastami, a classical musician killed in 2003 in the earthquake that destroyed the ancient city of Bam. ‘Everyone loved him,’ he says. ‘People still weep when they hear his music.’

The chai is hot and reviving. I drink it black and strong, although Ali and Ebi, our photographer friend, sip it through lumps of sugar, lodged between their front teeth. Greg is still learning this skill, and for now finds it easier to load the hard rocks of sugar into his glass and stir vigorously until they dissolve.

We’ve been in Iran for a few days now, and this must be the fiftieth glass of chai I’ve drunk. As Ali explained early on, ‘In Iran, without chai, nothing happens!’. His words have proved curiously prophetic as Greg and I have fast developed an addiction to Iranian tea and it’s become almost essential to our daily well being. I’m starting to feel that without chai, we don’t happen either.

A little while later we are back outside in the bazaar. In hot climates, commerce follows the course of the sun; the shutters come down at lunchtime and are only pulled back up again late in the afternoon. Now the shops are starting to reopen and the passageways are bustling with people. Kerman is an ancient city on the edge of the Dashte Lut – the Great Salt Desert – and it used to be an important staging post on the Silk Road that carried trade between Asia and Persia. This is one of the oldest bazaars in Iran and it feels a bit wilder than others we’ve visited in the Middle East. This could be because of its reputation as a centre for the opium that is smuggled in from nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it is also because of the clientele. These are Baluchi people; their skin is dark, their eyes black and intense. There are few black chadors to be seen. Instead the women are swathed in bright orange, pink and purple. The men wear baggy pants and long loose shirts; some sport elaborately wound turbans and curly slippers.

We wander idly past mannequins clad in manteaus, an Iranian trenchcoat of sorts, and stalls crammed with bolts of sheer, shimmering fabrics. There are dusty shops overflowing with cheap plastic toys and shelves of stoppered glass perfume bottles. Another arcade opens onto a broad square and is crowded with brightly painted tin trunks, towers of beaten metal pots and vast copper cauldrons. We stop to admire an attractive display of dried herbs and try to identify mysterious twigs, petals, seeds and nuts. Elegant brass dishes display fragrant spices of all the colours of the rainbow, and we notice a predominance of cumin, the locally grown spice that gives Kerman its name.

Further along we admire ancient wooden doors set into intricately carved stonework and Ali points out lions, dragons and radiant suns in the tilework. We pause at the high arched portal to the Ganj Ali Khan bathhouse, where the ceiling is painted with lively frescoes in chalky shades of red and blue, then continue down the tiny flight of stairs and enter the magnificently restored hamam itself, complete with alabaster pools of goldfish and rather bizarre wax effigies depicting traditional bathhouse scenes.

It is cool in the hamam, but back in the bazaar, despite the lateness of the afternoon, it is hot and dusty. Lunch seems a long time ago and we duck into a traditional ice-cream shop for refreshments. Two young women at the next table are eating saffron ice-cream studded with pistachios, but we opt for the local version of an Iranian specialty, faloodeh, a chilled concoction of thin noodles drenched in lime or sour-cherry syrup. In Kerman, faloodeh is more like tapioca and to our Western palates the texture is unusual. But it is icy-cold and revives our spirits.

The two women are keen to talk. They have been eyeing me curiously and lean over to ask why I wear no jewellery apart from my wedding ring. I see that their own thin brown wrists are weighed down with gold bangles of varying shapes and sizes. In this part of Iran, traditional families set great store by jewels, in particular gold, which can be converted to cash in times of need.

They tell us that they are students, but that the local university has been closed for the last four months in the wake of the country’s elections. They are bored. Foreign tourists like us are a rarity and provide a refreshing interlude in their day. I think of my stepson back in Australia grumbling about the number of lectures and seminars he has to attend. ‘How do you spend your days if there are no classes?’, I ask. They look downcast. ‘There is nothing here,’ says one of the young women eventually. ‘We come to the bazaar and we eat ice-cream with our friends. What else can we do but wait?’

The countryside between Kerman and Mahan to the south is stony and grey. It is separated from the terrible Dasht-e Lut desert by the Payeh Mountains, a long crease of craggy hills. Although it is early in the day, and a mere thirty-minute drive, by the time we arrive at Mahan we are hot and thirsty. It’s easy to imagine the exhaustion of travellers crossing such bleak terrain from the Indian subcontinent, and the relief they must have felt upon arriving in this oasis town.

In the fifteenth century, some of these travellers would have been pilgrims, coming to visit Shah Ne’matollah Vali, a revered Sufi Dervish and poet who died in 1431. One of his most devoted followers was Ahmad Shah Dakani, an Indian king, and it was he who in 1436 began building a shrine to the master. As our car pulls up out the front, it’s hard to miss the pretty turquoise dome peeping above high brick walls. Although it is more than five hundred years old, the dome looks strikingly modern with a geometric spiderweb of black and white tiles traced over its bright-blue surface.

Within the walls of the complex is a green, densely planted garden. Pink oleanders creep up the brickwork and everything is shaded by tall cypress and pine trees. We wander through peaceful courtyards, past ponds fringed with flowerbeds and rows of potted geraniums. Even the faintest breeze blows wonderfully cooling air across the surface of the water.

We follow a white-turbanned Sufi through a series of seven ancient wooden doors, symbolising the journey to divine unity – the seven doorways of heaven. We pass by the tomb itself and enter a vast airy prayer hall. The vaults and archways are decorated with exquisite plasterwork – the entire ceiling a delicate canopy of gold stars. Tucked away in a corner is a tiny meditation room where Ne’matollah is said to have spent forty days and nights praying. Spirals of calligraphy in soft shades of dusty red and green cover the walls and ceiling, and feel particularly Indian.

I pause in this little room for a while and am suddenly overcome by a strange feeling of ... what? Not peace, exactly, but a sense of calm. For a fleeting moment I can see the appeal of Sufism, this rather abstruse, mystical branch of Islam, with its abandonment of material things and its focus inward on the soul. And then from outside the room I hear a small child giggling. It’s a lovely, musical sound. I turn instinctively to find the source, and the spell is broken.

It isn’t long before our focus is very much back on the body – our stomachs in particular. On the outskirts of Mahan, in the car park outside the Bagh-e Shahzadeh, we buy two heart-shaped loaves of komaj, a bright-yellow flatbread and a local specialty. The seller stuffs them into a plastic bag and drenches them with icing sugar before passing the bag into our eager hands. Ali is just able to prevent us from tucking into the bread straight away with the promise of chai inside the garden.

‘Bagh’ is the Persian word for a formal garden, and this is a true oasis garden where water from the nearby mountains is channelled via the qanat system – underground pipes – into vast cisterns just outside the walls. It is a delight. The gardens stretch upwards before us and we climb a surprisingly steep gradient to the promised tea house at the summit. Water burbles merrily past us down a broad central channel, broken every now and then by dancing fountains. Willow, cypress and pomegranate trees overhang long reflection pools and at the top, in front of the governor’s residence, there is a riot of orange, yellow and red flowers. We gaze back down along the avenue of trees, to the fragile pillars and arches of a summer pavilion, framed by a backdrop of lilac mountains and a bright-blue sky.

We collapse gratefully onto carpeted daybeds at the tea house, idyllically situated beneath shady trees. The chai comes quickly and we are finally allowed to tuck into the sweet yellow bread. It’s filled with dates, walnuts and sugar and flavoured, surprisingly, with turmeric and cumin. It is quite delicious and between the four of us we make short work of the two loaves.

I long to laze around in these verdant gardens for the rest of the day. Instead we drive further into the desert.

Ali turns the car east and before long we are climbing steadily over the Payeh Mountains. We exit down into a flat, rocky valley and fly through a hot, grey, stony landscape that soon gives way to hot, grey nothingness. Then the colours begin to change and sand drifts onto the road. This is no longer the classic stony Persian desert, but closer to the sandy deserts I’ve seen before in North Africa, the Gulf countries and Australia. We coast through a rolling sea of dunes and then, suddenly, we’re looking out over a vast, empty plain. In the distance we can clearly make out the Kaluts, a long, broad corridor of massive rock formations marching across the horizon.

We drive on – by now we’ve been driving for several hours – and as we get closer a succession of fantastic rocky crags, sand turrets and towers start to spring out of the barren landscape. Ali is beaming. He comes from the north of Iran, where the terrain is very different, and he loves this desert. He is in the middle of telling us about a recent overnight trip he made here with a group of Swedish tourists, when he suddenly jerks the steering wheel and we veer off the road – although not onto any track that I can see. The car struggles higher and higher over the dunes and we finally draw to a standstill atop a sandy cliff.

We pile out of the car and immediately a stifling weight of hot, hot air crushes us into the ground. We clamber around for a while, slipping on the constantly shifting sand. An evil wind springs up and eddies around us, rippling the sand and sending great swathes of it over the car, over the rocks and over us. It is wind like this – often called the black winds for the dust they bear – that blasts across the desert from the northeast to create the strange eroded rock formations of the Kaluts.

‘Here you can sleep in a million-star hotel!’ proclaims Ali proudly. And a part of me longs to do just that: to wait until the sun drops into the sand, build a fire, spread out a rug and gaze up at the vast heavens above. But there are still many hours until sunset and the truth is that none of us can contemplate staying in this desiccated wasteland for one second longer. Defeated by the heat and the wind we climb back into the airconditioned comfort of Ali’s Peugeot and start the long drive back to Kerman.

We are following one of the ancient caravan routes between Kerman and Yazd to the north, now a modern highway. Marco Polo travelled this way in the thirteenth century and in his account of the trip he records passing through groves of fine date palms and feasting on an abundance of partridge, quail and other wild game.

We see no signs of any of these delights, but near Rafsanjan we pull off the road to watch a group of labourers in a pistachio orchard. The owner, Haj Mahmud, is supervising the harvest from a series of small walled fields. It looks like hot work, but the men and women move quickly, stripping ripe nuts from the branches onto sheets spread on the ground. When the mound of the purple–pink nuts is large enough, the sheet is gathered up and its load is carried to a truck to be delivered to Haj Mahmud’s house in the nearby village for processing.

We follow the truck to the village and watch as the pistachios are put through a machine that strips away the pretty outer skin, leaving the familiar white split shell and nut within. ‘We say these pistachios are smiling,’ Haj Mahmud tells us, grinning himself. ‘The bigger the smile, the better the nut.’

We are invited to lunch! Our first home-cooked Persian meal. Mahmud’s wife – Haj Khanum – spreads a bright plastic cloth over the floor of their airy salon and dishes of food appear from nowhere: saffron rice, thin yoghurt with cucumber, thick yoghurt with dates, braised eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, minced lamb ‘cotlets’.

There is much friendly conversation. Photos are taken, email addresses exchanged. Best of all, Haj Khanum shows us how to roast a panful of pistachios with saffron and salt. She fills a big bag with the fragrant nuts and, thus prepared for the onward journey, we are sent on our way.

The final push. we’re to spend the night at a caravanserai – an ancient hostelry from the Silk Road days – about an hour south of Yazd. Night has already fallen by the time we turn off the main highway and the road vanishes into blackness. I’m relieved that Ali knows the way through the desert. We bump along a track over the sand – mercifully only a short distance – and pull to a stop outside a massive building. It’s hard to make out the shape in the darkness, but as we climb wearily out of the car, two vast wooden doors are flung open, light spills out and we are admitted to heaven.

This is Zein-o Din, an exquisitely renovated caravanserai. No expense has been spared and inside there are all manner of comforts for the weary traveller. There is hot water, for a start, and we gratefully shower away the dust of the day. Next there is reviving food, and after dinner we retire to our own rooms to sort ourselves out. Each of us has a different chore: Ebi must upload and organise his photos, Greg and I must write up our respective notes, and Ali, our fearless saraban, must telephone ahead to confirm our itinerary for the days ahead.

The business side of the day completed, I venture out of my room and see the others sitting together on the platform outside Ali’s room. It’s carpeted and there are soft, long cushions against the walls. The men are eating dates and laughing. They call out to me across the open central courtyard and the voices of travellers past, present and future seem to echo off the walls and disappear up into the night sky.

The Persian Bakery

There is nothing quite like Iranian bread – and there is plenty of it! People eat naan for breakfast, lunch and dinner – in fact it’s the first thing to appear on any table, and all Iranians would consider a meal incomplete without it. Bread’s role is not just as a staple consumable; it also has a practical application as it is used instead of a spoon or fork to scoop and mop up food, and for wrapping all manner of ingredients to be eaten by hand.

Three basic types of naan are found all around the country – barberi, lavash (or taftoon) and sangak – as well as numerous regional variations. Bread can be thick or thin, soft or firmer, white or wholemeal, sweet or savoury – even crisp. In some parts, it is sprinkled with seeds, flavoured with spices, drizzled with flavourings, or stuff ed. That being said, apart from the odd bread roll, a favourite for lunchtime offal sandwiches, bread is always flat.

In small villages and rural areas some people still make their own bread in tanoor – wood-, peat- or dung-fuelled ovens that abut the house. In cities and towns, though, bread is so abundant that it is rarely made in the home any more. One of our favourite sights as we travelled around the country was of people – men, women and children – queuing up at their local bakery to collect hot bread straight from the oven. Neighbourhoods have not one but several bakers who each prepare a single kind of bread, several times a day. And their customers, too, come several times a day to stock up on supplies for the next meal.

In Iran, it would be unthinkable not to have the freshest bread on offer at every meal. Which is not to say that the older stuff is wasted. If stale bread is not able to be revived with a sprinkling of water and quick warm-through in the oven, it will be torn into pieces and used to bulk up soups or stews, dunked into tea, or turned into crumbs for a stuffing.

Bread has a huge symbolic significance in Iran and many older people – especially in conservative parts of the country – believe it is sinful to allow even the meanest crust to lie on the ground, and they will pick it up and place it respectfully on a nearby sill or ledge.

Cooking rice the persian way

For anyone used to the sticky clumpiness of Asian rice, Persian rice will come as a revelation. It is light, dry, fluffy and fragrant, and appears at the table in myriad forms. It is the axis around which nearly every Persian meal revolves, whether as a simple platter of buttery saffron rice to accompany kebabs or as a complex layered polow, incorporating meat, vegetables, nuts, herbs and all manner of exotic spices.

Rice was brought to Iran from India several thousand years ago and is grown in the northern provinces near the Caspian Sea. There are seemingly endless varieties on offer in Iran. Short, thick and starchy rice is used for stuffings, meatballs and desserts, but the vast majority of Iranian rice dishes are made from long-grain varieties, some of which are considered to be among the finest in the world. In the north the rice is sometimes smoked, too, which gives it a distinctive flavour.

It can be difficult to find Iranian rice outside Iran, although if you are lucky you might be able to find sadri, an excellent quality long-grain rice similar to basmati. For most of us, the best choice for Persian rice dishes is indeed basmati, which is what we specify in the recipes in this book.

Most rice these days is pretty clean, but it is usually a good idea to keep an eye out for any random twigs or stones. Whichever long-grain rice you use, it is always thoroughly washed before cooking to remove a lot of the starch. In Iran, the locally grown rice is rather hard, and needs to be soaked. Basmati rice doesn’t really need this, but we find it still benefits from a quick soak, to loosen the grains and remove some starch. Even 5 minutes, with a bit of gentle swishing, will help

When it comes to cooking Persian rice dishes, there are essentially two basic methods. Kateh, which is mainly used in the Caspian Sea region, is a simple absorption method whereby the rice is first boiled until the water has been absorbed and then steamed, without rinsing or straining, for 30–40 minutes, to create a solid cake with a crusty base..

Far and away the most prevalent cooking technique is the parboil–rinse–steam method, which achieves a gloriously fluffy result and is used for plain chelow rice and also for layered polow dishes. Nearly all the recipes that follow use this basic method, and we can almost guarantee that once mastered, you will never cook rice any other way! Although an electric Persian rice cooker (available in specialist Iranian stores) takes much of the effort out of preparing rice, we’ve found that a normal saucepan does the job well – and nonstick varieties make it a breeze.

For Iranians, one of the most important parts of any rice dish is the crunchy layer that forms under the rice as it cooks – the-tah deeg,

which literally means ‘base of the pot’. We’ve found that it is best to use oil or ghee to start the tah-deeg, as straight butter burns too easily. For aficionados, there are several popular tah-deeg variations. For a fancy presentation the rice is inverted onto a platter, so the golden crust can be properly admired. But in many households, for everyday eating the rice is spooned onto a platter and the tah-deeg is served on a separate plate for everyone to fight over.

Finally, a note about quantities. Most Westerners would blanch at the vast amounts of rice that the average Iranian can put away at mealtimes, so we’ve scaled back the amounts accordingly. As a basic guide, we suggest 50 grams per person, which should be sufficient as an accompanying dish for all but the hungriest. As the ratio of rice to water in this method is not critical, you can easily alter the quantities.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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