Queen Esther’s Cuisine: A New Persian Cookbook
Of the many unusual ingredients in Persian cuisine, rose water, which tastes like flower petals, may be the most exotic. Persians, according to Reyna Simnegar, the Jewish, Venezuelan-born author of the new cookbook “Persian Food From the Non-Persian Bride, and other Kosher Sephardic Recipes You will Love!,” consume rose water in order to carry on “the enchantment and mystery, the passion and romance that are characteristic of their people and their culture.”
Such personal reflections on the Persian ethos permeate the book, and the author’s friendly voice guides the reader through this lavish book of over 100 recipes. The text, devoted to the subject of Persian recipes — both specifically Jewish as well as other popular foods of Iran — is as much an education about Persian culture as it is a tutorial on Persian culinary practices. Being half Persian myself — my father grew up in Iran — and a devotee of the cuisine’s healthy seasonality and sweet-and-sour flavor profile, I got excited when this handsome tome appeared in my mailbox.
As the title suggests, Simnegar is married to a Persian, and the book is peppered with anecdotes about quirky Persian customs. She recalls being shocked when her father-in-law tore pieces of challah on shabbat, and threw one at each guest; throwing it, she later discovered, signifies that the bread is not the bread of mourners. Despite the often goofy tone of the writing, the book is nevertheless a thorough primer on Persian food as well as a guide for kosher cooks who wish to prepare a Persian meal for Shabbat or a holiday.
With Purim just around the corner, this book is particularly timely, not only because the story of Purim took place in Iran, but because this raucous holiday is one of the highlights of the year for Jewish children. Simnegar’s own brood of five sons feature prominently throughout the book. It’s full of recipes that kids will enjoy helping with, like the one for Persian halvah — an essential element of the mishloach manot given away on Purim — that can be made into playful shapes with cookie cutters. (Recipe below.)
Each feast day is given a three-course menu. The Purim holiday menu includes Water Challah (rather than the typical Ashkenazi egg challah), a hearty Chicken with Eggplants, and for dessert, Persian halvah, mentioned above, made not with sesame paste but from flour and water flavored with saffron, turmeric, and rose water.
The book is designed to be user-friendly for the kosher cook, with separate chapters on fish, poultry and meat, and dairy foods, respectively. The chapter on meat has a variety of dishes, from chicken and ground meat kebabs seasoned with saffron and turmeric, to Persian matzo balls known as gondy that are made with beef and chickpea flour. You’ll also find recipes for the comfort food, mentioned above, joojeh bademjune, aka roasted chicken with eggplants, potatoes and spices — the recipe has been simplified from Simnegar’s mother-in-law’s painstaking version to one that’s easier for the American cook. (recipe below)
The chapter on Persian rice shows off one of the key elements of every Persian meal: basmati rice. Simnegar explains that this grain is a blank canvas to be embellished with fruits, vegetables, and nuts, and gives recipes for some of the most popular polo (dressed up rice) dishes, including Rice with Lentils and Caramelized Onions and Jeweled Rice, a dish served at special occasions that’s decorated with currants, barberries, pistachios, slivered almonds, orange peel, and rose petals. Simnegar also gives the least intimidating instructions for making tadig that I’ve ever seen. Tadig is the crunchy rice that forms in the bottom of the pot during cooking, which should be removed intact and presented as a crisp golden sphere on its own plate. Who knew the secret to this favorite Persian delicacy was a non-stick pot?
While her instincts are generally excellent, Simnegar occasionally turns to highly processed ingredients such as onion soup powder, Ortega taco seasoning, and Coke, in order to take a shortcut in a recipe. While I can understand trying to make the recipes more accessible, using cheaper ingredients with questionable health benefits seems to clash with her stated mission in other parts of the book to reduce the amount of oil and frying in Persian recipes.
“Persian Food” is a solid resource for many basic techniques like preparing tadig and kebab, and it offers extensive tips on stocking the pantry with essential ingredients and cooking with Persian spices. Aesthetically pleasing, with its wealth of vivid photography, the book is both a fun and irreverent journey into Persian Jewish culture, and a rich compendium of recipes and personal recollections. Simnegar even extends a sincere offer to her readers to join her family for a Shabbat meal. “Everyone who knows me knows how much I enjoy having guests on Shabbat,” she enthuses. “I have had the pleasure of hosting people from all walks of life.”
For more recipes, cooking techniques, and videos, visit Reyna Simnegar’s website, Kosher Persian Food.
Louisa Shafia is the author of Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life (Ten Speed Press, 2009), an IACP Award-nominated collection of seasonal recipes. Shafia has cooked at noteworthy restaurants in New York and San Francisco, including Aquavit, Pure Food and Wine, and Millennium. For a schedule of her upcoming cooking classes, visit lucidfood.com.