If there is a cookbook author who I would follow anywhere, it is Naomi Duguid. In her latest, Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan, she invites us into the home kitchens of this diverse culinary region. With prose that reflects deep on-the-ground research and the workings of an ever-curious mind, the guide opens a window on to a rich culinary blend.
Cooking through this beautifully photographed cookbook and travelogue, one encounters dishes adapted over the course of empires. Chief among them, perhaps, is Persian Rice (Chelo), a preparation that is specific in technique and glorious in result. Yet the book’s true focus is on the living, breathing people who continue to evolve Persia’s culinary traditions — a group too often overshadowed in conflict-hungry news cycles.
As with her previous book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, Duguid is masterful in elevating people above their political contexts. “The people are not the government,” she stated elegantly on Toronto’s Breakfast Television one recent morning. Ample evidence of that perspective abounds in this delicious gathering of recipes, where pride in culture shines clear.
For the reader, this approach creates a human connection, and Duguid celebrates her guides at every turn. After preparing Date-Nut Halvah (Hormah Bereshte), it was exciting to discover a photo of Afsar, the recipe’s creator, later in the text. Her Southern Iranian rendition of the classic “sweet” (as translated from the Arabic) is made with wheat flour, differentiating it from the sesame-based version popular in the Arab world.
Packed with thoughtful essayistic interludes and headnotes, the book is a pleasure to read on its own merit. Yet it is best experienced in a fenugreek-scented kitchen with a Tamarind Sharbat in hand — a refreshing drink made with sweet-tart syrup, water and ice. For those eager to explore Persia’s bright flavors and textures, there are revelations to be found. The first for me was this: it is possible to use four heads of garlic in a single recipe and not find it overpowering.
Hands sticky from peeling cloves, I made large batches of Green and Red Ajika over the course of a weekend morning. The green emerges in a soulful shade: a painted reflection of dill, coriander, parsley, Chinese celery and leeks. The red brings together walnuts, cayenne and ripe red peppers (and offers a kick). These Georgian condiments are salty yet fresh, summertime captured. I have swirled them into yogurt as a vegetable dip and transformed them into marinades, thinned with sunflower oil and spiked with vinegar. As Duguid predicts, I have created reasons to use them often.
These are just two of the recipes that anchor the “Flavors and Condiments” chapter, which forms a baseline for all that follows. In the Persian pantry, we find Mint Oil and Saffron Water, golden bright. Spice blends and flavored salts entice. Most revelatory, however, is the easiest to prepare: the fresh herb plate known as Sabzi Khordan. A gathering of whatever is in season, this is the anchor of the Persian table, and it encapsulates the region’s culinary ethos.
In “eating greens” (the literal translation) we find flavor and health, and evidence of a strong hospitality culture. Guests are invited to select what they please.
A number of recipes surprise in their simplicity, incredible tastes and textures emerging from streamlined flavor combinations. A perfect example is Kurdish Black Rice (Birinji Rash), a risotto-like preparation that Duguid aptly describes as astonishing. When Arborio is dressed up with pomegranate molasses, shallots, walnuts, and sunflower oil, plus a little bit of water and sea salt, magic happens. The same can be said for cucumber salad dressed with sumac and dried mint.