Over the last decade, I’ve taught hundreds of students from over 100 countries, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran and Kurdistan, and this was one region that was conspicuously empty on my shelves (as a cookbook reviewer and collector, I have over 500 cookbooks, most of which focus on international cuisine from far-flung corners of the globe).
I’d never had the opportunity to visit any of these countries other than hearing my students speak lovingly of their homelands and their mothers’ and wives’ dishes or the occasional bottle of wine from a Georgian student, so was fascinated by Naomi’s lush descriptions of local markets, twisting, mountainous roads, glistening piles of pomegranates on sale at roadside stalls, and the kaleidoscope of colorful clothing worn by women in the various regions.
Creamy Persian boranis, smoky dips and pates, and warming soups pair nicely with the included breads, from Georgian favorite kachapuri, Kurdish kutar kalana, an intriguing spiced bulgur bread from Kurdistan, Persian staples such as naan-e-sangak, naan-e-barbari, and Georgian and Armenian breads. Vegetarians will find much to relish, including Armenian cabbage rolls stuffed with beans and tart fruit, Thanksgiving pumpkin rice, whole-grain pilafs, and rice dishes like Kurdish black rice (the color comes from pomegranate molasses), baked Persian rice, and Georgian polenta studded with sulunguni cheese. There are also many ideas for incorporating herbs and vegetables in ways perhaps unfamiliar to Western readers, such as pairing dishes with a hearty plate of fresh herbs, or pickled root vegetables and fruit compotes.
Desserts include regional favorites such as rosewater-laced rice pudding, Georgian paghlava (the Georgian variation forgoes phyllo in favor of homemade sour cream pastry and is more akin to a strudel), a lovely Armenian puff pastry cake, and date-nut halvah. As the region is abundant in fruit, finding ways to preserve the most of the season’s bounty is a centuries-old-art in countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, where creations such as fruit leather, walnuts on a string (churchkhela), spoon sweets, compotes and fruit syrups abound (ancient Persians would pour fruit syrups over shaved ice as a refreshing treat).
The book closes with a more detailed guide to each of the featured countries (Iran, Kurdistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia) as well as travel notes (hotels, visas, entry and exit procedures) and an in-depth glossary to featured ingredients. An annotated bibliography provides selected articles, online resources on food, travel, and culture, websites and blogs, and even suggested films.
As I always strive to make several recipes from each book I feature on BundtLust. For this review, I made the Grilled Eggplant with Pomegranate Seeds, Thanksgiving Pumpkin Rice, and Emmer Mushroom Pilaf. As I have a gas stove, I grilled Japanese eggplants directly over a medium-high flame as recommended, which lends them the charred, smoky taste you would expect from charcoal grilling. I was also lucky enough to find imported American pomegranates (not always easy during winter in Japan!), and the beautiful ruby arils add both a pleasing crunch as well as a visual impact on the dip. Unlike some eggplant-based dips like baba ghanough, this one does not feature garlic and is simplicity itself: mashed eggplant, dried mint, sea salt, onion and pomegranate. Despite its simplicity, it is moreish.
The Thanksgiving Pumpkin Rice by way of Armenia makes for a show-stopping holiday centerpiece; make sure to use a hard-shelled winter squash such as pie pumpkin as I discovered that using whole kabocha (the only readily available substitute here) does not hold its shape and tends to collapse! The filling, made with creamy Arborio rice, sour plums, apricots and walnuts resembles a fruited risotto, and the bright orange scoops of pumpkin flesh as you dish it out make this a festive dish for Halloween and Thanksgiving especially.
The Emmer Mushroom Pilaf was my first introduction to this ancient grain. Although I own and have reviewed both of Maria Speck’s excellent books on cooking and baking with ancient grains (including emmer, farro, millet, spelt, teff, etc.), I hadn’t used emmer wheat before. It’s an absolutely stunning vegetarian main, full of toothsome whole grains and meaty seared mushrooms (I used a gorgeous box of shiitake that were in season).
As tarragon wasn’t readily available at my Japanese grocery store, I substituted thyme instead, which made this even more similar to a meat-based dish (there is a meat-based option using ground pork, beef or lamb). Optional accompaniments include yogurt and an herb plate.
Naomi’s journey is one that makes my heart sing; as a traveler who so far has only dreamed of visiting these countries, her vivid descriptions made me feel as though I too was sharing an overnight train carriage with Iranian women, passing around tidbits on a long-distance bus and communicating with smiles despite language barriers, or making my way through hectic, colorful markets past stalls piled with gleaming pomegranates and sacks of spices.
Overall, “Taste of Persia” is an outstanding cookbook and travelogue that I named one of 2016’s Top Cookbooks, and with good reason: not only a beautifully photographed and transcribed journey of the region’s foodways, it also reads like a love letter to places, people, and foods encountered along the journey.