FOOD / Persia on my mind

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Indy Lifestyle Online
NAJMIEH BATMANGLIJ tells the story of a princely feast to which a poorly dressed guest showed up. Given his ragged cloak, he saw that he would get the least of everything, so he went home to dress in a more splendid fashion. Thus accoutred, he returned to the feast and, now taken for an eminent person, was promptly served the best of everything. Whereupon he rubbed the food into his turban and silken cloak. His host asked about his curious eating habits, and was told: 'Nothing special. The cloak and turban got me here and got me the food. Surely they deserve their share?'

I have been reading and thinking about Persian food - and cooking it, with the help of Najmieh Batmanglij's cookbook - because I have received an invitation to have a Persian lunch in Andorra in a few weeks' time. I know Andorra; the food up there, among the tax-free camera shops and ski lodges, is hearty and the wine, at that altitude, is dangerously heady. But about Persian food I confess to knowing little.

This is not entirely my fault. Iran has had a somewhat confusing history during my lifetime, and although I grant it is one of the boons of life that major cuisines usually escape even the worst regimes - the memoirs of a number of Germans show that one of the principal motivations for the occupation of France was to enjoy French food - it remains a fact that one hardly sets out on a gastronomic journey when faced with either mullahs or Mossadeq.

Nor does it seem (though I am sure I will be enlightened and corrected over lunch in Andorra) that Persia has left a huge mark on Western food.

Nan, which I adore - and which I had always taken to be Indian, which it also is, although the name is the Persian word for bread - and the rice we call pilau (and the Iranians, who bake it, call polo), form the bulk of what we know as Persian food, along with bits of Omar Khayam and the idea of saffron.

The splendid meatballs and kebabs, the hugely sweet desserts, the condiments and preserves have also spread east and west, but their very success (which followed on the spread of the Persian empire) has defeated their specificity. We now think of them all as 'Middle Eastern' cooking.

Finally, it is a daunting cuisine to the outsider. The Persians are a most handsome and gracious people, and they are strikingly enamoured of food and entertainment. This has induced in me a sort of lazy bliss: let them do it, since they know best. And it is on that principle that I have accepted the invitation to lunch in Andorra. I will make a point of wearing my best turban.

Day-to-day Persian cooking is different. It is very simple, mixing - in the manner we call 'oriental' - many ingredients in a single meal or a single dish. At the heart of it are bread and rice; surrounding it are pickles and brines; following it are delicate, perfumed desserts. Vegetables are central to the diet, and the aubergine figures prominently; meat is largely lamb and chicken; and fish (which depends on the Gulf) is generic.

The only two dishes I have tried cooking are chelo, a form of steamed rice, which was unsuccessful, and an aubergine recipe given below. Both derive from Najmieh Batmanglij's modest but splendid cookbook, Food of Life (published in Washington DC by Mage Publishers). It is the sort of book that takes the uninitiated through the steps of Persian cooking with great common sense.

As aubergines are now plentiful and good - and as most cooks, I note, have not the foggiest what to do with them - I suggest this dish as a first step:

Kashk-e Bademjan (Aubergine with Sour Cream or Whey)

Ingredients: 3 medium aubergines; 2 large onions, chopped; 1/2 lb stewing lamb cut in small cubes; 2tbs yellow split peas; garlic, dried mint, saffron, a few walnuts and pitted dates; something over 1/2 pint of sour cream.

Preparation: Peel and cut the aubergines in lengthwise slices; sprinkle with salt and let stand for 20mins. Wash and dry. Brown one onion in oil, add split peas, 1/2 tbs tomato paste, salt, pepper and a 1/2 pint of water. Cover and cook over low heat for 30mins. Heat 3tbs oil, and brown the aubergines; saute the remaining onion and set aside.

Arrange layers of aubergine and sauteed onions in an oven- proof dish, and top with mixture of lamb and split peas. Cover and bake in pre-heated oven (at 350F/ 180C/gas 4) for 40mins. Immediately before serving, brown 2 crushed garlic cloves, remove from heat and add dried mint. Remove dish from oven, pour on sour crean. Garnish with garlic and mint mixture, plus saffron (1/4 tsp diluted in 1tbs hot water), a few quartered walnuts and dates.

The result tastes and looks splendid, the sourness of the aubergine being subsumed into the richness of the whole.