'People think Iran is all bombs and chador-clad women: it's not': Putting Persian food on the menu

'People think Iran is all bombs and chador-clad women: it's not': Putting Persian food on the menu ...
cambridge-news.co.uk 02/06/2016 Cuisine

Keywords:#Birmingham, #Bloomsbury, #Cambridge, #Cambridge-news.co.uk, #Garnish, #Gilan, #Iran, #Iranian, #Khan, #People, #Persian, #Saffron, #Sunflower, #Tabriz, #Tehran, #UK, #Yasmin_Khan

Human rights campaigner-turned-food-writer Yasmin Khan is on a mission to change perceptions of Iran - and she's starting in the kitchen.
Yasmin Khan is taking Iran's image to task. A former human rights campaigner-turned-cookery writer, Khan spent much of her childhood in Birmingham, where she was raised on slow-cooked stews and sweet pomegranates - mealtime mainstays from her family's Persian heritage.
Her passion for Iranian food is such that she took to crowdfunding site Kickstarter to get her first book The Saffron Tales - about Persian cuisine - off the ground. "You ask the average person what they think of Iran, and its bombs and chador-clad women," explains Khan, whose family hail from northern Iran. "If you never heard about our music, our beautiful nature, our really cool artistic stuff, if you only heard about one aspect of a country, why would you know anything else? That's why I wanted to write the book; because I felt there isn't anything that showed that."
Clearly lots of people agreed with her; Khan achieved 100 per cent of her funding target within 24 hours, proving there's an "appetite to find out what Iran is like". "Food is such a great window into a culture," adds the writer, who travelled extensively around Iran, taking in Tehran, Tabriz and Gilan, while researching for the book. "We can all relate to sitting down over a good meal and enjoying it. It was so important to show the common thread of our humanity, from us in the UK to the people in Iran. That's what this book is about."
Growing up with a nutritionist mum, who "always cooked us a big meal", Khan and her family were spoiled at mealtimes. "Iranian food is all about really fresh and bright flavours," she enthuses. "They use loads of fresh herbs, lots of citrus and nuts to flavour foods. It's not overpowering. It's delicate saffron or dried limes, or cinnamon or rose water... these evocative scents mixed with nuts and dried fruits. It's that sweet and sour flavour that best epitomises Iranian cooking."
Up until four years ago though, cooking was just a happy pastime. For a decade, work for Khan was running campaigns for international development charities, but she reconsidered her career options after taking a sabbatical. "I had a really bad burnout," she admits. "I was working on issues to do with conflict zones and war. I had to do something positive and creative using the experience I have, so the book came out of that. Luckily I've recovered now, and I've got a book for it. Now I'm just really enjoying immersing myself in the kitchen."
If you fancy immersing yourself in the kitchen too, here are three lovely recipes from The Saffron Tales to try at home...
(Serves 4 as a starter)

100g Persian flatbread (or toasted tortillas or pitta bread)
50g walnuts, roughly chopped
100g feta cheese, crumbled
25g bunch mint, roughly chopped
25g bunch basil, roughly chopped
25g bunch tarragon, roughly chopped
3tbsp pomegranate seeds, to garnish
For the dressing:
2tbsp balsamic vinegar
3tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/4tsp golpar (optional)
1/2tsp sea salt
1/2tsp black pepper
Using a pair of scissors, cut the flatbread into small jagged pieces and place them in a large bowl.
Toast the walnuts in a small pan over a medium heat for two minutes. Add them to the bowl, along with the crumbled cheese and chopped herbs.
To make the dressing, whisk the balsamic vinegar, olive oil and golpar (if you are using it) with the salt and pepper. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and then get your hands in there, giving the whole thing a good stir to evenly distribute it.
Leave the salad for 10 minutes for the flavours to soak into the bread, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with a generous sprinkling of pomegranate seeds just before serving.
Read more: Cambridge's star baker Ian Cumming serves up a taste of summer
(Serves 4)

Sunflower oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
8 chicken thighs, on the bone, skin off
200ml good-quality chicken stock
1tsp turmeric
1/8tsp ground cinnamon
Sea salt and black pepper
1/2tsp saffron strands
A pinch of sugar
2tbsp freshly boiled water
800g spinach
Juice of 1 lime
Juice of 1 orange
Pared zest of 1/2 orange, sliced into thin strips
150g prunes
11/2tbsp flaked almonds, to garnish
Heat three tablespoons of oil in a large casserole pot and fry the onions over a low heat for 25 minutes, until they are soft and beginning to caramelise. Add the garlic and fry for another two minutes.
Turn up the heat and add the chicken. Cook for a few minutes to brown the chicken on all sides. Lower the heat, then add the stock, turmeric, cinnamon, a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of black pepper. Cover with a lid and cook for 35 minutes.
Meanwhile, make a saffron liquid by grinding the saffron strands with a pinch of sugar using a pestle and mortar and then adding the boiled water. Leave to steep.
In a large pot or wok, cook the spinach over a high heat until it has wilted and then place in a colander to drain. You'll probably have to do this in a few batches, unless you have an extremely large pot. Let the spinach cool and then squeeze it dry with your hands. Roughly chop and set aside.
After the chicken has been cooking for 35 minutes, add the chopped spinach and the lime and orange juice, along with the orange zest and saffron liquid. Place a lid on the pot and leave to simmer for 10 minutes.
Fry the prunes in one tablespoon of oil until they just start to plump up and caramelise. Add them to the stew and cook for a final five minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper to your preference.
Toast some flaked almonds in a small pan over a low heat for one minute, until they start to go a golden brown colour. Sprinkle the toasted nuts onto the stew just before serving.
(Serves 6-8)

200g unsalted butter
150g caster sugar
4 medium eggs
12 cardamom pods
100g plain flour, sifted
275g ground almonds
Zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
1tbsp rose water
1tsp baking powder
A generous pinch of fine sea salt
For the drizzle topping:
2tbsp caster sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2tbsp rose water
For the icing:
150g icing sugar
Juice of 3/4 lemon
2tsp cold water
To decorate:
2tsp sliced pistachios
2tsp dried rose petals (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 160C/Gas 3. Grease a 22cm cake tin (with a removable base) and line it with baking parchment.
In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together. When the mixture is thoroughly combined, beat in the eggs.
Place the cardamom pods in a mortar and work with a pestle to get the seeds out of the pods. Discard the pods and grind the seeds to a fine powder. Add them to the cake mixture, along with the flour, ground almonds, lemon zest and juice, rose water, baking powder and salt. Mix well.
Pour the mixture into the cake tin and bake in the oven for 45 minutes. To check if it's ready, stick a fork in the middle of the cake - it should come out dry.
Towards the end of the cooking time, make your drizzle topping. Place the caster sugar, lemon juice and rose water in a small pan over a low heat and heat until the sugar melts.
Remove the cake from the oven and place it on a wire rack. Poke holes all over the top of the warm cake and drizzle over the syrup.
When the cake is completely cool, make the icing by combining the icing sugar, lemon juice and a few teaspoons of water until you have a smooth, thick icing. Spoon the icing over the cake and finish with a sprinkling of sliced pistachios and, if you like, rose petals.
* The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan is published in hardback by Bloomsbury, priced £26. Available now.

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