There’s a gap between the terms “Persian” and “Iranian” in our country. For most Americans, “Iran” is inextricable from a host of politically fraught issues, whether it’s the hostage crisis of the 1970s, George W. Bush naming it as part of the “Axis of Evil” or our current administration’s attempts to bar its citizens from entry. And yet America is already home to a million or more people of Iranian heritage, an immigrant population that ranks among our most educated and accomplished.
“Persia” is the classical Greek name for the country, and it conjures quite a different picture: antiquity, high culture, and splendor. The Persian Empire once encompassed 50 million people across Europe and the Middle East and was renowned as a highly developed civilization. Many Americans of Iranian descent prefer to refer to themselves as “Persian,” both to connect with this ancient heritage and to dissociate themselves from Iran’s uncomfortable political connotations in this country.
Iran has been a Muslim country since the 7th century, but before that its primary religion was Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest forms of monotheism. And although it has been ruled by Islamic fundamentalists since the 1979 revolution, Iran’s biggest national holiday is still Nowruz, or New Year, which also dates back to Zoroastrian tradition and has been celebrated for as long as 3,000 years. Nowruz begins at the moment of the vernal equinox and continues for 13 days. Like many spring celebrations across cultures, its traditions include deep cleaning of the home, visiting with friends and relatives, purchasing flowers and new clothes, and decorating eggs.
We love cooking with Middle Eastern flavors, and Iranian food is no exception: rosewater, dried lime, pomegranate molasses, barberries, cardamom and other aromatic spices figure prominently in its national dishes. For Nowruz, it’s all about the fresh herbs…dill, cilantro, mint, parsley, tarragon and chives. As a nod to the arrival of Spring, the herbs are incorporated into most dishes in large quantities as an integral part of the dish and not just a garnish. Most of the traditional dishes associated with Nowruz symbolize something, the most popular being sabzi polo, a rice dish that represents prosperity. We couldn’t even think of a Nowruz table without this saffron-flavored herbed rice with the crispy golden-brown crust known as tahdig which brings to mind the much sought after soccarat at the bottom of every successful paella. We’re happy to report that we achieved a perfectly crispy tahdig on our first try that slipped right out of the pan. Now that’s reason to celebrate.
Saffron Herbed Rice with Tahdig
2 cups basmati rice
½ tsp saffron threads, crumbled
3 tbsp plain greek yogurt
4 tbsp unsalted butter
2 medium sized leeks finely chopped, white and light green parts
½ cup chopped fresh dill
½ cup chopped cilantro
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
2 tbsp vegetable oil
In a large pot of salted water, boil the rice for 5 minutes. Drain and run rice under cold water. Set cooked rice aside in a large bowl.
In a small bowl stir together ½ cup hot water with the saffron. Stir until the saffron dissolves.
Melt 2 tbsp of butter in a pan and add leeks. Cook until tender, about 7 minutes.
Add cooked leeks and herbs to cooked rice and combine well. Add salt if needed.
In a small bowl, combine 1 cup of the rice mixture with the yogurt, 1 tbsp oil and 1 tbsp of the saffron water.
In a 10” heavy bottomed skillet melt 2 tbsp of butter and 1 tbsp oil over medium heat. Add the rice-yogurt mixture and smooth into a flat layer covering the bottom of the pan. Pile the remaining rice into the center of the pan. Gently poke 5 or 6 holes into the rice using the handle of a spoon. Pour remaining saffron water over the rice.
Cover rice with a tight fitting lid wrapped with a clean kitchen towel. This will keep the steam from escaping. Cook rice over medium heat for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to low and continue cooking for another 20 minutes or until a golden brown crust forms on the bottom.
There are two ways to serve the rice. the first being slightly nerve wracking. Hold a serving platter over the pan and invert the pan, unmolding the rice onto the platter. The other way is to spoon the loose rice onto a platter and using a spatula, lift the crust in pieces and serve it atop the rice. Either way is perfectly delicious. Just make sure your guest of honor gets plenty of tahdig.
Crispy Pan Fried White Fish with Turmeric
Fried or smoked whitefish, said to represent life, is traditionally eaten during Nowruz. Serve with herbed rice to bring good luck. We are always searching for a quick and easy fish preparation and this one fits the bill. We used halibut, but cod and sea bass also work well.
4 filets of firm white fish such as halibut, cod or bass
1 cup flour
1 cup rice flour
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp ground coriander
¼ tsp cayenne
Salt & pepper
Oil for frying
Season filets generously with salt and pepper.
Beat egg with 1 tbsp water in a shallow bowl. Combine flours and spices in a separate shallow bowl. First dip fish in the egg then transfer to bowl with flour mixture and coat generously. Repeat for an extra crispy coating.
Heat oil in large frying pan and cook fish for a few minutes on each side (depending on the thickness) until crispy and golden. Serve with plenty of lemon and fresh dill.
Radish & Cucumber Salad
Adapted from the New York Times
A version of this salad appears in most middle eastern cuisines. This one incorporates a healthy dose of (you guessed it) fresh herbs. Feel free to use any combination of cilantro, mint, parsley and dill.
1 bunch of radishes, sliced thin
2 English (or Persian) cucumbers sliced thin
½ cup toasted walnut pieces
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
½ cup chopped cilantro
½ cup chopped parsley
½ cup chopped dill
¼ cup chopped mint
3 tbsp lemon juice
½ cup olive oil
1 tsp pomegranate molasses or honey
Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil and molasses in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Combine ingredients in a large bowl and pour dressing over. Season with salt and pepper and toss gently.
Mint Yogurt Sauce
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped
1 tbsp cilantro, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
Salt to taste
Whisk together all ingredients in a bowl, taste and adjust seasonings.