The third book of our winter 2022 season of cookbook club is one that’s been around for several years and is a personal favorite of mine. This time our “Cooking Off The Beaten Path” journey takes us to five places that were once part of the first global empire, dating back to the seventh century BC.
Through the two previous books, we traveled from Portugal to the Baltic. We are now arcing south through Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kurdistan in Taste of Persia by the inimitable Naomi Duguid.
Off the Beaten Path is a perfect theme for the inclusion of Naomi Duguid’s work. Her previous solo book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor would also be a great choice (or any of her other 6 books coauthored with Jeffrey Alford). Duguid is a traveler, writer, photographer, cook, and culinary anthropologist. The journey she takes us on is captivating, revelatory, and delicious!
ancient history still very much alive
The first Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC. It grew to its largest under Darius I in the years 522-486 BC. At its peak the Persian Empire comprised about 44% of the world including: Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Greece, and much of the Balkans, the western Indus basin, parts of Central Asia, northern Arabia, and northern Libya. That’s a lot.
Some systems established in those ancient times are still with us today. For example,
“[Darius the Great] set up a system of provinces and governors, and a postal service that spanned the empire in order to establish widespread communication. Darius also used the tribute money paid to him from each province to fund public works, such as roads and canals.”–NationalGeographic.org
The Ancient Persian influence is also still alive today in our food and drink. For starters, wine. The oldest proof of commercial wine production comes from the Caucasus Mountains where amphorae dating back to over 8000 years ago were discovered. Distillation was also started in this region where flowers were distilled for use in perfumes and to flavor dishes (rosewater, orange blossom water, etc.).
Flavors of cinnamon, mint, and sweet spices used in savory dishes came from Persia. Also, saffron, pomegranate, apricots, pistachios, almonds, and the sweet-sour (agrodolce) flavor profile so beloved in much of North Africa and Sicily.
about the book
Even if you don’t cook from Taste of Persia, it’s still a must read. But, seriously, don’t miss the adventure of cooking from it too! To reiterate one of my favorite sayings, food is culture. And Naomi Duguid has given generously in sharing her wisdom and knowledge of the regional culture. She does not shy from any topic. And, based on her response during our live Q&A session, she does not appear to understand why anyone would.
Beyond cooking, you’ll also learn at least a bit about the history of Assyrian and Kurdish cultures in the region, geography (with maps!), the Soviet impact on the Caucasus, being a woman traveling in Iran, and an introduction to the several thousands of years old Zoroastrian faith. Also, lighter topics such as hunting for saffron, picnic and tea cultures, honey farming, the history of wine, and sharbat – the predecessor to sorbet and water ice.
Taste of Persia is subtitled “A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan.” As Duguid writes in the introduction, “The connections between [the people from these countries] are found not in their different places of worship, nor in their many distinctive languages and alphabets, but in the kitchen, in the garden, and at the table.” So, that’s where all the stories in this book lead – to the table.
the cooking part…
For each cookbook I create a menu featuring a selection of recipes – kinda like an assignment. This provides some structure for prep and for our conversations. They’re only suggestions, and many people experiment with whatever strikes their fancy. This round I also included some challenges for those who wanted to push their limits a bit. Here’s what we chose from for this book…
soup Herbed Yogurt Soup Dried Apricot Soup with Wheatberries Pomegranate Ash with Meatballs Farmstead Winter Soup stuffed things Fried Eggplant Rollups Cabbage Dolmas main course Kerman Bazaar Lamb Stew Fesanjun: Classic Pomegranate Walnut Chicken Stew Spinach Borani and/or Eggplant Borani Lobio with Pomegranate and Onion sides Basic Persian Rice Emmer Mushroom Pilaf Georgian Polenta desserts Persian Rice Pudding Oasis Baqlava Cardamom Cookies challenge time! There’s a whole section of Flatbreads – bake at least one or two kinds Khinkali: Top Knot Dumplings Sharbat is the predecessor of sherbet, sorbet, sodas, and more
Note: The photo titles are named for the club member who submit them. If any of the above photos are yours, please claim them in the comments.
notes on what we cooked
herbed yogurt soup: I’m the only one who made this one (I think). It’s definitely worth mentioning because it is so unique – and uniquely delicious. When I read the recipe I wasn’t sure it was going to work. Basically, you’re cooking rice in yogurt then adding a ton of fresh herbs (better to start with a non-Greek style). The most special part though is the addition of cinnamon as a garnish at the end. The author points out the importance of this step in the notes, and I assure you it is a flavorful game changer. As the flavor scientist Pascal Chartier says, 1+1=3!
pomegranate ash with meatballs: Ash is the term for a style of soup from Iran. It is hearty, warming, aromatic, and satisfying. The lamb meatball addition makes this a substantial meal, but vegetarians can comfortably omit them without sacrificing flavor and satisfaction. Here’s another place where tons of fresh herbs come into play. So much so that you’ll want to plant an herb garden immediately. This recipe also features the sour fruity savory flavor profile that is distinct to Persian cuisine. My family drizzled extra pomegranate molasses on top at the table.
fried eggplant rollups: In our interview with Naomi Duguid, she confessed that this is one of her favorite recipes in the book and all of us agreed that no matter how many you make, it is never enough! Plan accordingly.
classic pomegranate walnut chicken stew (fesanjun): Here we find the pomegranate molasses again. This time with meaty walnuts. The final product is not at all attractive, but you won’t care a bit as soon as you taste it. I’ve been making this dish regularly since I got the first edition in 2016. It’s a staple comfort food for me. And now it’s also on several others’ favorites lists too! Note from the author: there are also instructions for making this with duck breast. That’s her preferred way. Now, I need to try that too.
borani: A Persian way to eat vegetables that you will wish you knew about forever. Cooked vegetables (spinach, beets, eggplant…), thick yogurt, caramelized onions, maybe some walnuts, maybe some fresh mint. Addictive. I’ve used these as side dishes, sauce replacement, and stir-ins for leftover rice. I’m sure I can find a few other uses. I’ll let you know. I’m pretty sure everyone made at least one version of borani, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be making many more.
Persian rice: Everyone’s talking about Persian rice these days, and many are intent on mastering the perfect tahdig (crunchy rice from the bottom of the pan). When this book first came out, it was still new to the average home cook. For me, the recipe in Taste of Persia was my first successful tahdig, and it’s been my most consistent over the years.
Georgian polenta (ghomi): In the western part of Georgia, corn is a staple, and the use of corn flour surpasses wheat. Lovers of polenta or grits should definitely try this one.
flatbreads: Bread is a staple at every table in this region. There are many types of flatbreads called different names in different places, but there are also similarities from ancient times. One of the “challenge” sections of our menu was to choose one of the many bread recipes to play with. A few people took me up on the challenge and were thrilled with the outcome. I’m not much of a baker, but I’m certainly tempted to try!
oasis baqlava: More of a bar cookie than the more popular vision of “baklava”. These are rich with almonds. Scented with rosewater and cardamom. Soaked in an aromatic syrup of saffron and honey. Garnished with chopped pistachios. Perfect with hot tea. Several people made these… add them to the list of things I still need to make from this book!
Have you cooked from Taste of Persia? Do you have a favorite Persian dish? Do you have a favorite Naomi Duguid cookbook? Let me know in the comments!
As always, I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC for creating these programs that provide great opportunities for furthering food and drink scholarship and enrichment.
Reminder, if you would like to catch up with the past seasons’ books, you can get started HERE.
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