This post was inspired by Serious Eat’s Chinese Pantry edition, but I thought it could be a great resource for those of you who really want to dive headfirst into Persian cooking.
The first thing to know about Persian cooking is that measurements are inexact. Anybody who tells you otherwise is lying or doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Every Persian mom’s retelling of a recipe always involves a little bit of this, a pinch of that, or a tea cup’s worth of this. You see what I’m getting at. So that means the true art of Persian cooking is trial and error, which I think is very Persian in its own away. We are not surgically precise in everything we do, rather we’re far more loosey goosey in how we interpret things and how we live our lives. The same applies to our cooking, every dish can be made in slightly different ways depending on who you’re talking to or eating with. The best way to master Persian cooking is to first try it out at a Persian restaurant, why? Because I think you need to understand the flavors and the balance of those flavors to truly get Persian cooking. If you don’t know what something is supposed to taste like then you will have a much harder time at producing something you want to eat again. After that, you just need to start cooking and accept the fact that the first time you make something it’s not going to be the best. Once you’ve accepted that fact, the road to Persian cooking nirvana is wide open to you.
So lets get down to business, a well stocked Persian pantry is essential to Persian cuisine. Without the spices and different ingredients that are in a Persian pantry you have no chance of making Persian food well. The following items are essential to executing perfect stews (khoresh), mouth watering kabobs, and fluffy cloud like rice.
Rice – Specifically you need Basmati rice and it can’t come from the major grocery chains including Whole Foods, I don’t know why but the rice you get at the International grocery store is just better. I’ve never had any luck with rice bought at the regular grocery store, it’s not long enough in the grain. The word Basmati means fragrant and is Hindi based on its etymology, fragrant is the perfect description of Basmati rice. When you make it your whole house has this wonderful aroma that’s both inviting and comforting. The world’s source of Basmati rice comes from Indian and Pakistan as they are the number one and two exporters of Basmati rice. If you’ve seen organic Basmati you might be having the American variant of the rice called Texmati (it doesn’t taste the same).
Sabzi Khoshk or Dried Herbs – Now when I say dried herbs I don’t mean oregano, thyme, sage, or rosemary. Dried herbs in Persian cooking are essential for so many dishes that without these magical ingredients you basically can’t make KooKoo, Ghormeh Sabzi, or Sabzi Polow. The primary herb in our mixes is fenugreek along with parsley, leek, sometimes Mint, and sometimes Dill. Fenugreek is a herb that’s native to the Middle East and is very popular in numerous dishes across the region, many of the Saag dishes incorporate this herb. Often times these dried herbs are used to amplify the flavor that fresh herbs don’t deliver. When using these herbs be weary that the flavor is strong, so be careful not to use too much, it’s best used along with your sauteed onion base in a stew. Depending on the dish you’re making, many Persian cooks have different Sabzi Khoshk mixes for those dishes. For instance Koo Koo often has more parsley and leek than Fenugreek, while Ghormeh Sabzi has more Fenugreek. You’ll also need dried dill as it’s critical when making Sabzi Polow, dill is ubiquitous in Persian cuisine as it’s often mixed into rice, yogurt dishes, and on fish. You can find different mixes online and I’ve linked to them above.
Limoo Amani or Dried Limes – Dried limes are one of the quintessnetial flavor drivers in Middle Eastern cooking, especially Persian cooking. The dried limes come from Oman actually (hence the name) and they look like brown balls (LOL). Typically in Persian cooking, you add the dried limes to your stew around the mid way point and they deliver a fantastic sour slightly bitter flavor to your dish. You cannot really replicate it with fresh lemon or lime juice, it’s not the same. Once you’ve begun cooking the limes in the stew they’ll soften to the point that one could mistake them for a large chunk of beef. Many a Persian child has bitten into a chunk of dried lime thinking it was meat and then subsequently crying out in horror that they’ve bit into the lime ( I know I did). This ingredient is essential for Ghormeh Sabzi and Gheimeh.
Advieh or Spices – Think of Advieh as the Persian version of Garam Masala, it’s a spice blend that includes coriander, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, cardamom, and a slew of other secret ingredients that Persian chefs like to throw in. Every family has their own mix, no one’s blend is the same but many they are similar. The base for practically every Persian stew is onions, turmeric, cumin/coriander, so having your own Advieh mix is really helpful to get the right spices down in your cooking. Persian cooking is all about the spices (not spicy), without great spices your food will fall flat.
Beans or Loobia – Beans are essential to Persian stews, you basically don’t have a Persian dish that doesn’t have some sort of bean incorporated into it. Khoresh-e-Gheimeh has yellow split peas, Ghormeh Sabzi has red kidney beans, Aash soup has too many beans to count, and Sabzi Polow Baghali has lima beans in them. Those are just a few of the several dishes that have beans in them, so yeah you got to have beans in your pantry.
Pomegranate Molasses – Fesenjoon is a super popular dish in Persian cuisine and you cannot make it really without this ingredient. It’s a sweet syrup that has the perfect hint of sourness to it which makes it essential for Fesenjoon.
A Non-stick Pot for Rice – Tahdig is an important Persian dish but without a good non-stick pan it’s really hard to execute. A nice non-stick pan helps make the difficult process of preparing Persian rice a little easier.
Metal Skewers for Kabob – We all know how much I love Persian Kabobs. They’re much better than anything else out there, end of discussion. But in order to really make authentic Persian Kabobs, you need these metal skewers. Get them with the wood base so you don’t burn your hand.
Sumac – Sumac (pronounced sow-magh in Farsi) is essential for Persian Kabobs. It’s said to help with digestion and it adds a nice citrus flavor to the rice. You use it like you would salt, after you’ve been served your kabobs and rice you pour your sumac over it (think about half a teaspoon).
Rose Water– All Persian desserts usually have rose water in them, it adds a magical floral element to the desserts. Be careful though not to add too much or it will taste like you’re eating Chanel # 5.
Saffron – Saffron is Persian gold, it’s worth more than gold per ounce and you really need it to elevate your Persian cooking. Just remember, you can stretch your saffron way further if you grind some of it up with a mortar/pestle and then you brew it in some hot water.
Dates – Before Dates became the favorite of annoying people who follow some weird fad diet, Middle Easterners have been eating Dates for centuries. It’s a deliciously sweet dried fruit that is not really incorporated too much into our cooking like it is in these weird sugar free diets. But it is essential for tea time, people always have Dates with their tea for breakfast or in the afternoon.
Tea – Black Tea – You can find Persian/Indian Blends Persians LOVE tea. It’s said that Tea was smuggled into Iran way back when from India inside the cane of one the Iranian ambassador. Why would they need to smuggle it? Because tea was a cash crop for the British in India and they didn’t want anyone stealing their magical drink. But the Persians figured out a way and from there they planted the magical crop in Iran and it’s been a popular drink ever since. If you’re making Persian tea, you need to brew it, we don’t do that tea-bag crap. Get yourself a proper kettle and a proper tea pot, then brew it.
Cardamom – This is a popular spice in many Persian desserts, it adds wonderful aromatic flavors to desserts and teas.
Chickpea Flour – Many Persian desserts incorporate chickpea flour in lieu of flour, the end result is a rich treat that often leaves a residue in your mouth. It’s not for everyone, but it’s also gluten free so that’s a plus.
This list certainly isn’t everything, but it’s a damn good start to get you on your way to cooking Persian food.