Cookbook review: From the Land of Nightingales and Roses
Food blogger and home cook Maryam Sinaiee takes readers through a full year in the Persian kitchen, including the festivals, traditions and rituals that make up day-to-day life across Iran.
Born in Tehran, Maryam learned to cook from her mother, grandmothers, and aunts. The kitchens of her youth were filled with the aromas of frying kotlet, stained glass jars of pickled fruits and vegetables, and sweets. After relocating to the UK, she started her blog the Persian Fusion.
Iran is a large country, with many regional specialties. What we call Persian cuisine has been shaped by the Persian Empire’s ancient expansion, trade on the Silk Road, and the wide range of climates within Iran. Regional cooking in southern Iran has been influenced by Indian, Arab and African cuisines. The recipes in the book are taken from Gilan, Mazandaran, Azarbaijan, Kurdistan, Hormozgan, and Khuzestan.
Persian food is based on the theory of “hot” and “cold”: high-energy, high-protein foods are considered “hot” (no relation to spicy), while many vegetables and fruit (particularly sour ones) are “cold.” Persian meals are a careful balance of these elements; it’s believed that too much “hot” food can cause rashes and hot flashes, while too much “cold” food causes digestive issues and low energy. A meal may balance out each of these elements in the same dish; for example, walnuts are “hot” so they are served with pomegranate (“cold.”).
Like my country of Japan, Persian cuisine places great importance on seasonality and the first vegetables of the season, which are called “first of the harvest.” The Persian calendar is based around nature, beginning in March with Noruz (the spring equinox). Iran’s seasonal festivals (including harvest and rain) predate Islam by some 1,400 years. Persian cuisine places high priority on hospitality, and above all, beautiful presentation; dishes are garnished with saffron, yogurt, nuts, caramelized onions or herbs.
Beginning with spring, many seasonal fruits and veggies are incorporated, including rhubarb, onion and egg soup, lamb and rhubarb stew, fava bean and dill frittata, and rice with fava beans and dill (thankfully fresh fava beans, or “soramame,” are also a springtime staple here in Japan!). Summer finds lighter dishes using apricots, plums, cherries and mulberries, as well as chilled soups and cold salads, from the refreshing chilled yogurt and cucumber soup, rice with sour cherries, smoky eggplant dip, and zucchini with garlic, yogurt, and toasted rose petals to refreshing rosewater ice cream with pistachios and a melon and rosewater smoothie. Autumn is the season for quince, squash, pomegranates, pistachios and barberries. Heartier stews and dishes like duck in walnut sauce, lamb and dried plum steew, herbed meatballs and polos (pilavs) are rounded out with stuffed quinces, and butternut squash pancakes. Chilly winter features dried legumes, dried fruits, nuts and wheat noodles, like noodle soups, stews, hotpots, and hearty polos. The “Basics” chapter provides recipes for important elements like steamed rice, breads (taftun, barbari), salads, pickles, garnishes, and drinks.
The food photography (styled and shot by Maryam) is absolutely stunning, with beautifully plated and arranged dishes in an explosion of color and textures. The edges of the pages feature brilliant ceramic tiles and geometric designs, while black and white family photos and scenes from everyday life give a personal touch to the beautiful food photography. Recipes include both metric and US measurements, which I greatly appreciated as I prefer to cook by weight rather than volume, particularly when baking. There is also a glossary of Persian cooking terms.
I own numerous Persian cookbooks, and “From the Land of Nightingales and Roses” has quickly become one of my favorites due to the wide range of regional recipes, ease of finding most ingredients (I keep a fairly well stocked Persian pantry of barberries, spices, dried limes and dried herbs on hand), cultural tidbits, and beautiful photography – it is also highly accessible for vegetarians as many of the vegetable and rice dishes are vegetarian or can easily be made so. The flavor combinations are outstanding too: I loved the inclusion of currants and dates in the rice and green lentils with brown butter eggs, or the saffron potato frittata, which combines mashed potatoes, walnuts, cinnamon, and rose petals in a beautifully layered dish that also holds up well for leftovers (it reminded me of the Spanish potato omelette I used to eat as an exchange student in Spain).
Fans of Yotam Ottolenghi, Persian, and Middle Eastern cuisine will want to add this to your collection as soon as possible – it’s as close as you can get to a food tour of Iran (which is probably outside the realm of possibility for many readers).