Author hopes her latest cookbook will demistify Persian cuisine

Jemimah Steinfeld, Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager, in conversation with Jila Dana-Haeri, author of From a Persian Kitchen

Jemimah Steinfeld, Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager, in conversation with Jila Dana-Haeri, author of 'From a Persian Kitchen'

Author hopes her latest cookbook will demistify Persian cuisine

20 November 2014

By Naomi Canton

A  riot of flavours, herbs, tastes, colours and aromas make up Persian cuisine, one of the oldest cuisines in the world and feast for both the eyes and palate. But many people in the UK have no idea how to cook it.

But Jila Dana-Haeri hopes that her latest cookbook From a Persian Kitchen will “demystify” the cosmopolitan ancient cuisine, held get people interested in the preparation of the food and bring the Persian way of life to Europe.

Cookbooks are a relatively new concept in Iran where recipes have traditionally been handed down through families who often have their own signature dishes.

Fresh ingredients and fragrant herbs and spices, notably saffron, dried limes and pomegranate, are the hallmarks of the exotic cuisine, which has been influenced by many countries including China owing to the Silk Road and India, thanks to the Spice Trade.

The three most important staples of Persian cuisine are aash (a rich nutritious thick soup with a consistency similar to porridge), khoresh (stew) and rice.

“Rice has been around forever in the cultural memory of Iran,” Dana-Haeri said, in conversation with Jemimah Steinfeld, Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival Manager, at a discussion about Dana-Haeri’s book, which was held at Asia House on 14 November 2014.

“Rice is very important and the way we cook it is very different to how Chinese, Japanese and Indians cook it,” she said. “Rice has a very special position on the table in Iran. It is the centrepiece with beautiful decorations and other dishes places around it. A lot of mastery and time needs to be spent steaming it so that it is just right the way you serve it – there is a ritual around everything,” she continued, adding there were several very complicated rice dishes called Jewelled Rice (morassa polo) customarily made for weddings and celebrations.

“Persian food has layers of flavour. There is no one flavour dominating and that is the interesting thing for me. If you taste Persian rice for example, apart from the beauty and the fragrance, you will find layers of taste, such as rice, yoghurt, saffron, lemon juice and vegetables, perhaps ending with pistachio and almonds,” she added.

Whilst the core Persian dishes are cooked all over Iran, they are often made quite differently in different regions. “Aash is cooked in the North, South, West and East, but how they make it is different. In fact every single family has a signature dish of their own. When you meet someone they will often say, ‘My mother’s aash is out of this world!’” she said, laughing. Herbs like coriander, tarragon and chives are then added to the aash to remove the blandness.

Dana-Haeri then explained the reasons for fruit being mixed with fish and meat in Persian cuisine.

“The khoresh (stew of meat or fish with vegetable or fruit) concept lends itself to using a little bit of meat which goes a long way.  It means that very poor households always have the option of creating something with meat. Rich people can have more meat in the khoresh, the poor people can have less, but they subsidise that with fruit as it’s very cheap and there are lots of orchards in Iran. The fruit also takes the blandness away from the meat or fish as Persians like lots of flavours in their food,” she said.

Guests had the chance to sample Persian tea and desserts at the literature event

Guests had the chance to sample delicious Persian tea and desserts at the book discussion held at Asia House

Dana-Haeri, who was born in Iran, moved to England 36 years ago, and this is her second cookbook.

Her first book New Persian Cooking contains her recipes for well-known Persian dishes that are cooked all over Iran.

This latest book aims to highlight the variety and diversity of Persian cuisine showing the different dishes originating in the mountainous, lush and green Northern Iran by the Caspian Sea, full of orchards, where there is high rainfall.  There the dishes are rich in herbs and have a sweet and sour taste with lots of fruit. The book also has recipes from the South which is hot and dry. Those dishes are more aromatic, hot and spicy, and seafood dominates.

“The way they cook fish in the North is different to the way they cook it in the South. The North is nutty whereas the south is chillis, garlic and coriander,” she said.

“When I first came here 36 years ago it was difficult to find things like dried limes and my mother used to send them to me from Iran, but now you can find most ingredients as there are lots of Persian corner shops in London,” she said.

Dana-Haeri stresses that all the recipes in her cookbook work. “I like Delia Smith very much too because her recipes work. She’s not a chef. Often chefs create cookbooks that are only good for restaurants,” she explained.

When asked the golden question of what her favourite Persian restaurant in London was, she was temporarily stumped.

“Iranian restaurants tend to be more like kebab houses,” she said. “It’s very difficult to prepare Persian dishes in traditional restaurants in the same way that we have them at home because it takes time to prepare our dishes. Some restaurants in the UK try very hard to present Persian food in a Western way but the food does not taste right – it’s nice but it’s not how Persian food is. The best thing is to get invited to a Persian home,” she added.

Her two main influences are Margaret Shaida, author of The Legendary Cuisine of Persia, as well as her mother, also a great cook.

The Almond Soup in From a Persian Kitchen is her mother’s recipe.


Jila Dana-Haeri’s second book ‘From a Persian Kitchen’

At the packed talk, she also spoke about how the way Iranians do dinner parties is very different to the way they are thrown in Britain, which follows the first course, second course, dessert model. “In Iran it’s not like that – there is a culture of sharing food around the table,” she said. “We used to put the tablecloth on the floor before we were influenced by the West. But in Iran today you put all the different dishes on the table, with often up to 10 dishes on the table. It’s very important that everything is in abundance and there should be lots of food left over,” she said, adding having a bowl of fruit laid on a coffee table and nibbles before the meal was also mandatory.

Food and wine have been an important part of Persian culture since ancient times. The love of cooking and the culture of sharing food is depicted in Persian literature and poetry, which is rich with references to wine.

“The nation as a whole is very concentrated on food. Persians love their food,” she said, adding she hoped the book would help young Persians living in the West, who did not have their mothers around to teach them, to retain their culture and make the dishes they love.

“I’ve tried to put the measurements there and tell them how to go about it and make it more accessible,” she explained. “I have been living in England a long time now and I can see a tremendous change in how people are,” she adding she felt they were ready to experiment and cook Persian dishes.

So how difficult was it for her to get a cookbook deal. Not that difficult, it seems. “Apparently cookbooks are the most popular books for publishers at the moment. You just need to find a niche and present your idea as something new and different,” she said.

All of the From a Persian Kitchen cookbooks on sale at the discussion were sold within a few minutes of Jila Dana-Haeri's talk ending

All of the ‘From a Persian Kitchen’ cookbooks on sale at the discussion were sold within a few minutes of Jila Dana-Haeri’s talk ending

Are you a foodie? Do you love cooking? Have you ever considered publishing your own cookbook? Asia House is offering you the chance to do just that. You could win up to £2,500 to travel to an Asian  country of your choice and research that country’s cuisine with a view to getting a publishing contract. Find out more here: