On a journey from the mountains of Tabriz to the cafes of Tehran and the fishing ports of the Persian Gulf, Yasmin Khan revisits the food of her childhood. She talks to Emma Hagestadt
It all began with pomegranates. As a child, Yasmin Khan would cling to her mother’s knees as she got ready to leave for work. The tears only stopped when her mum explained that she needed to earn enough money to buy her daughter pomegrantes. ‘I practically pushed her out of the door when I heard that’, recalls Khan. It was an obsession further nutured during holidays to her grandparent’s farm in the Gilan province of Iran where she picked the pulpy fruit fresh from the trees – listening to the ‘ruby seeds pop and crunch beneath my fingers.’
Two years ago Croydon-born Khan decided to take a break from her career as a human rights campaigner and revisit her childhood passion. Armed with a bottle of pomegranate molasses and a notepad, she embarked on a 3,000 kilometre journey around her mother’s vast homeland. Travelling from the mountains of Tabriz to the cafes of Tehran, and ending at the tropical fishing ports of the Persian Gulf, she visited tea-houses, chocolatiers and, of course, pomegrante orchards. The result is The Saffron Tales – a collection of contemporary re-workings of classic Iranian recipes, many of which reflect her own move towards vegetarian cooking.
Meeting at The Good Egg, a popular cafe on Stoke Newington Church Street, Khan scans the hipster menu with a quizzical eye. ‘I’m excited to show modern Iran, and explain its story through its food and people,’ she says about her book. ‘There’s more to Iran than what happened in 1979.’ A cook who prefers to talk about Iranian rather than Persian cuisine, Khan doesn’t feel the need to romanticise or westernise her gastronomic roots. Instead her recipes reflect the kind of meals that ordinary Iranians might enjoy every night of the week, in city apartments and on seafront terraces. Included at the end of the book are more elaborate menus for New Year and Thanksgiving feasts, as is a useful index of diary and gluten-free dishes.
With lunch served, Khan does a deft job of negotiating a particularly unctuous Sabih — a Tel Aviv-style pita stuffed with egg, fried aubergine, Yemenite green chilli zhoug, amba and tahini. In between slippery mouthfuls, and the odd projectile pickle (mine), I ask her what distinguishes authentic Iranian food from the kind of Eastern-inspired recipes perfected by Moro and Ottolenghi, and indeed the eclectic chefs here at The Good Egg.
‘The most dominant taste is the sour and sweet balance,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t have the fiery punch you might expect. It’s full of subtle flavours….dried limes, saffron and orange blossom.’ Using fruit to flavour savoury dishes is very common, she adds, as is an emphasis on herbs: ‘In Iran we have a wonderful custom of serving up a platter of fresh herbs, almost as a palate cleanser…lovely handfuls of parsley, coriander and dill that you help yourself to between helpings of stew and rice.’
There is much that is seductive in Khan’s thoughtful book, including the recipe for her favourite comfort food, Addas polo: a simple rice dish layered with lentils and topped with dried fruit, nuts and crispy fried onions. Amongst her more recent discoveries is Gheysavah, a date and cinnamon omelette – a sweet and soothing breakfast whisked up by Maman Betty, a ‘loveable grandmother from Tabriz’. Khan’s recipe for the classic Iranian dish Chelow – ‘perfectly steamed, elongated grains of rice with a buttery saffron crust’ – gives wonderfully clear instructions about how to avoid soggy rice. The secret lies in a 15-minute pre-soak, plenty of salt and a quick parboil.
But it’s pastisseries and puddings that really fire Khan’s imagination, from choux buns to poached quince. In a culinary culture that prefers to measure ingredients by the handful, Khan says she’s perversely drawn to more exacting science of baking. Her Persian Love Cake, an iced almond cake perfumed with rose water and citrus, comes adorned with neon green pistachios and dried rose petals. It’s already reached Nigella Lawson’s Twitter feed.
Asked which contemporary British cooks she follows, Khan says she’s a fan of Jamie Oliver and his campaigns ‘to change the world through food’. In a similar vein this talented young cook sees her career move away from the stressful world of the NGO worker as entirely logical. ‘What could be a more effective way of dispelling stereotypes than through stories and food? There is so much to share about Iran, this is a celebratory way of doing just that.’
The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan, Photography © Shahrzad Darafsheh and Matt Russell, is published by Bloomsbury, £26 thesaffrontales.com.
For a taster of the recipes in Yasmin’s book, visit the recipe section in Bread&Oysters