Naomi Duguid's 'Taste of Persia' Demystifies and Enchants

Duguid is particularly well-qualified to address the jewels in Persian cuisine's crown: exquisite rice cookery and a vast array of flatbreads.

Taste of Persia: A Cook's Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan

Publisher: Artisan
Length: 390 pages
Author: Naomi Duguid
Price: $35
Format: hardcover
Publication date: 2016-09

With Taste of Persia, the ever-intrepid Naomi Duguid takes readers on a culinary journey through the Middle-eastern nations of Georgia, Armenia, Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran. While diverse in language and culture, these nations share a complex culinary style, signified by the lavish use of fresh herbs, flavorful bean dishes, a fondness for walnuts, dollops of yogurt, and plenty of pomegranate, both the gem-like fruit and its sticky, sweet-sour molasses. Duguid, who with Jeffrey Alford co-authored the books Flatbreads and Flavors and Seductions of Rice, is particularly well-qualified to address the jewels in Persian cuisine's crown: exquisite rice cookery and a vast array of flatbreads.

Taste of Persia, like all of Duguid's work, is equal parts travelogue and cookbook. Beginning with an overview of each country, Taste of Persia briefly touches on the languages, religions, peoples, and daily meals of each region. The book concludes with "A Closer Look", which is precisely that, delving more deeply into geography, religion, and politics. "Travel Notes" offers information on appropriate behaviors for the visitor, including dress codes for women. Those seeking additional reading or recipes will appreciate the excellent annotated bibliography

Jittery cooks will be relieved by the brief list of "pantry basics", many of them familiar: deeply aromatic spices like coriander, cloves, sumac and cinnamon are popular, as are masses of mint, dill, parsley and summer savory. Under the heading "Other Useful Pantry Items", Duguid lists sunflower oil, pomegranate molasses, dried barberries, tamarind pulp, verjuice, and kashk, or fermented whey, dried and rolled into balls. Thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi's cookbooks, these ingredients are less exotic -- and easier to locate -- than they were.

Into the kitchen. Readers searching for ways to eat more greens should try sabzi khordan, or the herb plate. Simply offer a plate of fresh herbs at lunch or dinner; these can be mint, parsley, dill, basil, coriander (also known as cilantro), arugula, whatever you like. Persian diners often eat an herb plate with soft, fresh cheese and flatbreads. Duguid notes she enjoy herb plates with breakfast, an unusual but an appealing idea.

Persian Grilled Café Kebabs With Grilled Tomatoes may be made with ground lamb, goat, or beef. I used lamb, neglecting to tell the onion-hater in the house about the grated onion kneaded into the kebabs. He never noticed, asking instead what the compelling lemony flavor was. It was sumac, a deep reddish spice whose almost haunting citrus taste is what the English call "moreish" -- a polite way of saying there were no leftovers.

Pomegranate-Marinated Kebabs are equally delicious. After grinding walnuts in a food processor, you mix them with pomegranate molasses, garlic, parsley, and sunflower oil to create a marinade for finely cubed lamb or goat. I fretted over what seemed an awful lot of walnuts and pomegranate molasses. Would the recipe be overly sweet? Then again, I was cooking from a Naomi Duguid book; her other seven volumes take nearly an entire bookshelf. My trust in her work is implicit. Once again, there were no leftovers.

Duguid writes she had never seen nor eaten Turkey Kebabs until traveling to Azerbaijan. There, boneless turkey is prepared with verjuice (rice wine vinegar may substituted, and I used it here, verjuice being prohibitively expensive), grated onion, sumac, salt, and sunflower oil. The results are flavorful enough to convert even the most vociferous of turkey haters. (Ahem.)

Kurdish Fried Chicken in Broth asks you to fry chicken, then plunge the results in broth. Don't cringe. Breathe deeply and follow the instructions. Bone-in chicken pieces are marinated in salted lemon juice, lightly fried, then returned to their marinade, which is topped up with water and grated lemon. Richly seasoned without being overly spicy, this is marvelous with rice, flatbreads, and an herb plate.

Nervous rice cooks -- and we are legion -- can draw confidence from the Basic Persian Rice recipe. Do try Kurdish Red Rice, its flavor and color deepened by the deceptively simple addition of tomato paste. Kurdish Golden Rice calls for chicken broth instead of water, enfolding a warm spicing of turmeric, coriander, and cumin. All three of these dishes will sit proudly beside any main dish, or for rice lovers, can be the meal itself.

"Bread is life in Greater Persia," writes Duguid, opening the chapter on flatbreads. Ardent bread lovers will take particular delight in the flatbread recipes, which require little more than a hot oven and a heated surface -- a cast iron pan, upside down wok, baking stone or stone tiles all work.

My outing with Half-Moon Hand Pies was rather a comic affair, which was no fault of Duguid's. One is supposed to make a simple dough of bread flour, salt, and water, which is allowed to rest, then rolled thin, cut, and filled with either greens or cheese. Alas, there were copious amounts of dough but not nearly enough filling. It happens. What I did manage to fill and bake was deemed delicious.

Duguid is no stranger to traveling and writing about politically fraught areas, including India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and most recently, Burma. Throughout, she has maintained a carefully neutral stance. In Taste of Persia, this longtime reticence slips ever so slightly. All of Duguid's books, (including those co-authored with ex-husband Jeffrey Alford) include brief biographical pieces about the people encountered during her travels. In Taste of Persia, the majority of these feature women.

In "Kurdish Welcome" readers meet Hoshida, matriarch of a Kurdish family. Duguid, who is friends with Hoshida's son, a fellow journalist, is staying with Hoshida in Halahbja, Kurdistan. As the story unfolds, readers realize the warmly welcoming Hoshida is tremendously overworked:

Apart from prostrating herself to pray, Hoshida is constantly getting up and down, for everything in the household takes place on the carpeted floor: eating, sleeping, praying, and sitting around.

When Duguid travels to another Kurdish city, the repression women deal with becomes apparent: a hotel is unthinkable. She is to stay with another of Hoshida's married sons, Yusef, for family and their connections are paramount:

Once you belong, the family is committed to you and you have an obligation to them as well, to work within their codes of behavior.

Duguid is grateful for the family's generousity, but when a Kurdish couple invites her to lunch, Yusef insists that she decline. Why? He is at work during lunch hour, and cannot escort her. She may accept a dinner invitation, he tells her, when he can accompany her. Duguid cannot go unescorted, as the couple is not family. Duguid, recounting the event, graciously describes the experience as "touching" but also "a little confining".

In "Women of Iran", Duguid describes two young girls dressing for school. Nilofour is 11. She only has to wear four garments. The 14-year-old, whose name isn't given, must dress entirely in black. She wears pants, a three-quarter-length jacket, or manteau, a headscarf, and a full-length chador. When Duguid visited Iran, she had to cover her head, neck, arms, and legs. Initially anxious about complying, she came to realize most people disliked the dress code and relaxed a bit. Nevertheless,

I found myself after my first few days in Iran taking on the habits of the women there: You reach up and feel the top of your head to check whether your scarf has slipped back. Then you run your fingers along the edge of the scarf, where it meets your face, to check that no hair has strayed forward and that the edges are even. It becomes a tic, endlessly repeated.

Duguid is a magnificent photographer. Here, she trains her lens on the faces of vibrant women. Required layers of clothing fail to dim their intelligence or hide their beauty. After Duguid strikes up a conversation with two brothers in a tea shop, they take her to meet their mother, Farahnoz, who insists on driving her to the Caspian Sea.

The weather is gray and windy, the beach deserted. Farahnoz, emboldened, slips off her shoes. When her scarf slides back, she smiles. Duguid capture the moment with her camera: a beautiful, barefoot woman, laughing as she walks in the surf.

And then it was time to go, time for us women to cover our hair, put on our shoes, and return to the public world of constrained behavior.

In "Train Journey", Duguid finds herself on a train with five Iranian women: a young woman and her mother, en route to a family wedding, and a three-generation family who appeared less polished, or at least, less interested in fancy make-up and manicures than the mother-daughter pair. Nevertheless, the daughter eventually worked up the nerve to try a little English with Duguid. Eventually the women began asking questions:

The others wanted to know my age, my matrimonial status, what my job was. When I told them my husband left the marriage, we all rolled our eyes together and laughed. "Men!" we were saying to ourselves, each in her own language. And everyone relaxed into the journey.

Not entirely: the women remain on their guard. For periodically men come to the train door, knocking a warning, then open the compartment door -- leaving the women little time to cover their heads, their arms, their necks...

With the arrival of president-elect Trump in mind. Duguid had no way of knowing she was writing a heartbreakingly prescient social document with Taste of Persia. Yet she has, and in the months since its September publication, the book has transcended its niche. Taste of Persia isn't merely a cookbook full of pretty pictures and fancy recipes. Rather, Taste of Persia should become required reading, a book to give to everyone you think might be willing to educate themselves about a people and place with an extraordinary artistic history and an exquisite cuisine. Food for thought, indeed.


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