Persian Paradise

When Shani Feinstein cooks, her Philadelphia kitchen is filled with the aromatic spices of her native Iran. Ordinary dishes like rice are transformed into a colorful mosaic of tantalizing flavors.
In fact, the scents bring her back, so to speak. Memories of life in Tehran, she says, are as vivid as when she left as a young student, right after the Iranian revolution. She remembers that "it was a golden time … each neighborhood had a beautiful synagogue, and for us, life was idyllic."
But from the beginning of making a home in this country, she was determined to preserve the culture of her childhood. She and her children communicate in Farsi at home. Foodwise, it wasn't easy; she had never made a Persian Chanukah meal.
In Tehran, her mother did not allow her daughters to cook — only to watch. "We were the sous chefs," she says with a laugh. "For a girl's education, it was more important to know how to run a household."
Searching bookstores, she collected cookbooks, requested recipes from other Jewish Iranians, and tracked down places where Persian spices, such as turmeric and saffron, were available, often only by mail order. In the early 1980s, these spices and essential ingredients, including even basmati rice, weren't always available in local supermarkets.
She remembers Chanukah in Tehran as joyful and lively, even though it was celebrated in private. Shani, the youngest of nine children, explains: "We lived in an inhospitable environment … as Jews, we did not want to draw attention to ourselves." Her large extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins who all lived nearby, came together, dining at a different home each night.
Food was the highlight of the evening. The hostess shopped that day, so that fruits, vegetables, chicken and meats were fresh. She spent the day making sure the dishes were cooked to perfection.
So that the guests were comfortable, tapestry cushions were arranged on bright Persian carpets. Everyone, young and old, could sit comfortably at the long low table, helping themselves to aromatic dishes passed round on large pottery and silver platters.
Unlike our holiday meals, where I always delegate a guest to bring a specific dish, in Jewish Tehran, the hostess did all the cooking. Women took great pride in knowing how to entertain magnificently, says Shani; "otherwise, it would mean that the hostess was not a good enough cook and lacked hospitality."
After the meal had been served and Persian tea sipped, the chanukiah was lit in the kitchen or in a room, but unlike here in America, away from the windows. Then there was singing, laughing and children spinning dreidels.
Shani says that at first, she was unsure how her Persian dishes would be enjoyed by her U.S. friends and neighbors. "Out of respect, I introduced Persian dishes very slowly — at Chanukah, maybe one 'Ku Ku' and Persian rice — one or two items at a time." She says she was delighted and surprised when guests raved over the fluffy saffron rice and the oversize fresh-vegetable "pancakes."
"Everything must be fresh –that's the key to Persian cooking," insists Shani.
In her kitchen are big bunches of fresh parsley and mint, baby spinach and green onions, pomegranates and quince. In Iran, at Chanukah time, you would never find our little potato latkes, explains Shani. Instead, there are "Ku Ku" — large, 10-inch "pancakes."
With the emphasis on freshness, Shani makes several varieties. There are fresh herb ones, which are a mixture of parsley, dill and Romaine lettuce; and onion and potato, seasoned with turmeric. Pungent with an intense yellow-orange color, turmeric is as important to Persian cuisine as salt and pepper are to Western dishes.
"Ku Ku" are fried in oil, a symbol of Chanukah all over the world. On the holiday table may be chicken kabobs, marinated in lemon juice and seasonings. Always there is Persian rice, at every meal.
I always thought this dish difficult to make without a special rice maker. Not so, says Shani, as she instructed me on how to make it in a nonstick pot. The result, each grain is separate and tender, resting on a bed of crisp browned potatoes.
Desserts in Persia consist of a variety of seasonal fruits and nuts. On Shani's Chanukah table are pomegranates, clementines, apples and grapes — all artfully arranged in a beautiful bowl along with little dishes of pistachios, almonds and cashews. The only baked dessert — tiny squares of baklava with a moist, pistachio-cardamom filling — is served with cardamom-scented tea.
Fresh Herb 'Ku Ku'
    6 eggs
    1 cup chopped green onion, white and green parts (packed)
    1 cup chopped fresh parsley (packed)
    1 cup chopped fresh dill (packed)
    1 cup finely chopped Romaine lettuce (packed)
    1 tsp. salt
    1/2 tsp. ground pepper
    1 tsp. turmeric
    1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
    1 Tbsp. found walnuts (optional)
    1/4 cup vegetable oil
    parsley and dill to garnish
In a bowl, whisk the eggs together. Add the remaining ingredients, except the oil. Mix well.
In a 10- to 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Pour in the herb mixture.
Cover and cook over low heat until it sets completely. This may take about 25 minutes.
Flip over or cut into quarters and flip, turning over one at a time. Cover and cook 15 minutes longer. Transfer to a platter.
Garnish with parsley and dill sprigs.
Makes 1 large pancake, serving 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 120; protein, 5 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 160 mg; sodium, 338 mg.
Onion 'Ku Ku'
    1/2 cup vegetable oil, divided
    6 medium onions, chopped
    4 eggs
    1 tsp. salt
    1/2 tsp. ground pepper
    1 tsp. turmeric
    parsley to garnish
In a 10- to 12-inch nonstick skillet, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium-low heat.
Add the onions and sauté until golden-brown. Cool slightly.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs, salt, pepper and turmeric. Add the onions. Mix well.
Heat the remaining oil in the skillet (no need to wash after sautéing the onions). Add the onion mixture. Cover and cook over low heat until it sets completely. It may take about 25 minutes.
Flip or cut into 4 wedges, turning one at a time. Cover and cook for 15 minutes over low heat. Transfer onto a platter.
Garnish with parsley.
Makes 1 large pancake, serving 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 158; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 0 g; fat, 16 g; cholesterol, 106 mg; sodium, 322 mg.
Potato 'Ku Ku'
    2 large potatoes, quartered
    4-5 eggs
    2 medium onions, grated coarsely (use the grater blade in a food processor)
    1 tsp. salt
    1/2 tsp. pepper
    1/2 tsp. baking powder
    1/2 tsp. turmeric
    1/4 cup oil, divided
    small baked potatoes, parsley for garnish
Place the potatoes in a pan. Cover with water and bring to boil over high heat.
Reduce to medium. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes or until tender. Drain well, peel and mash.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs.
Add the onions, potatoes, salt, pepper, baking powder and turmeric. Mix well.
Heat 1/4 cup oil in a nonstick, 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Pour in the potato mixture. Cover and cook over low heat until completely set, about 25 minutes.
Flip or cut into four wedges, turning over one at a time. Add the remaining oil. Cook 15 minutes longer. Transfer onto a platter.
Garnish with small baked potatoes and parsley. Serve with pita bread.
Makes 1 large pancake, serving 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 204; protein, 5 g; carbohydrates, 9 g; fat, 17 g; cholesterol, 133 mg; sodium, 363 mg.
Perfect Persian Rice
 6 cups water
    11/2 cups basmati rice
    2 tsps. salt
    1/4 cup oil
    1 tsp. turmeric
    1/2 tsp. salt
    2 Tbsps. water
    2-3 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
    3-4 threads saffron
    2 Tbsps. warm water
In a large pot, bring the water to a boil over high heat.
Add the rice and salt. Return to boil. Cover and cook for 5 to 7 minutes to parboil. Stir once or twice during cooking. The rice should still be chewy-hard, but not dry. Drain well. Set aside.
In a large, nonstick pan, pour the oil. Add the turmeric and salt. Stir.
Arrange the potatoes in one layer over bottom of pot. Add the rice and pat into a firm pyramid shape making sure the edges do not touch the sides of pan.
With the handle of a wooden spoon, make 6 to 8 holes in the pyramid so that the steam comes up into the rice and cooks it from the inside. Cover and cook over medium-high heat for 10 minutes to brown the potatoes. Reduce heat to low.
Cover and cook 25 minutes.
Potatoes should be brown and crisp on bottom.
Spoon the rice onto a warm platter. Place the browned potatoes around.
Crush the saffron threads to a powder and stir into the warm water until dissolved. Drizzle over the rice.
Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 228; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 37 g; fat, 7 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 438 mg.
Persian Baklava
(Pareve or Dairy)
 Filling Ingredients:
   11/4 lbs. ground pistachios
    2 cups confectioners' sugar
    3 tsps. cardamom
   Syrup Ingredients:
   11/2 cups sugar
    1 cup water
    1/4 cup rosewater
    1 package filo dough, thawed
    1/2 lb. margarine or butter, melted
To Prepare the Filling: In a bowl, mix the pistachios, confectioners sugar and cardamom. Set aside.
To Prepare the Syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan.
Bring to boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar completely. Cook 15 minutes or until the mixture begins to thicken slightly — almost syrupy.
Remove from heat and cool. Stir in the rosewater.
To Assemble: Preheat oven to 350°. Generously grease a cookie sheet with the melted margarine or butter. Place half of the filo sheets, three at a time, onto the cookie sheet. Brush the top of each layer generously with melted margarine or butter.
Sprinkle the pistachio mixture on top, spreading and patting down with your hands. Repeat with remaining sheets and melted margarine or butter.
Hold top of baklava with one hand while cutting into diamonds or squares with a sharp knife.
Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden-brown. Spoon half of the syrup over the baklava. Transfer to a serving dish. Pour the remaining syrup over top.
Makes 48 pieces.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 184; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 20 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 4 mg; sodium, 88 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. E-mail her at: [email protected]


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