Persia in Brum: Kashk Bademjan, Fesenjoon and Pars Supermarket

I had a gentle introduction to persian cuisine via Sally Butcher’s rather nice book Veggiestan. But it wasn’t until Hannah came home with a copy of Pomegranates and Roses that I got a real thing about cooking some “authentic” persian. But where to start? The choice was problematic for me, having no real frame of reference for Persian food, coupled with the use of unfamiliar ingredients, plus the fact that all the pictures just look kind of brown and unappetising.

So as always, Twitter to the rescue:

OK! I figured the aubergine and whey one was kashgeh bademjan, a dish containing aubergine, caramelised onions and kashk. The kashk, judging from Internet searches is a bit hard to pin down exactly, but it seems to me to be a cultured, salted whey product which comes either fresh or dried. Needless to say, having tasted it, neither yoghurt nor buttermilk would be an appropriate substitution. This would be served as an appetiser, with some lavashk or nan bread.

Fesenjoon seems to be something like the persian national dish, being a stew made from freshly ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses (Ariana specifies only Iranian brands will do here) and in modern times chicken, but more traditionally duck with the optional addition of little lamb meatballs. This is a real banquet dish in Iran, served at celebrations.

For pudding, I figured a sour cherry and almond ice-cream would be in keeping with the theme not relishing my chances of getting hold of any selap – wild orchid – powder.

So, the next challenge was to get hold of some of the ingredients; specifically kashk and pomegranate molasses . This time Twitter didn’t come to the recipe, but a little site called Iranian Birmingham did. I spotted two Persian supermarkets, one in Smethwick called Yaas and one on the Hagley Road called Pars, probably not coincidentally near the Persian restaurant Shiraz.

Wasting no time, I headed down to Pars and was delighted to find the owner very friendly, and interested to hear I was cooking fesenjoon. I found the pomegranate molasses, the kashk and was delighted to see all manner of other strange ingredients. Even better, they operate a bakery with a tandoor at the back and will cook fresh to order nan breads (4 for a £1) during their opening hours Tuesday – Sunday! A great find. I love the way that the simple act of wanting to cook something different opens up a whole new world previously hidden. They also have a decent selection of biscuits and baclava, and I picked up some excellent frozen sour cherries for my ice cream. Result!

So to the cooking – I found a few recipes for kashke bademjan, including this one which is informative on the subject of kashk. In the end I used the one by Sabrina Ghayour, as it was her version that was recommended to me on Twitter. All I would add to this recipe is that I chose to let the dish cool down to room temperature which brought the flavours together compared to a taste straight out of the pan, and that I needed a bit of salt in addition to the kashk.

For Fesenjoon (or Fesenjan) I had a quick look at Ariana’s recipe, but was surprised to see that a slow cooked dish like this called for chicken breasts, as well as some other esoteric ingredients including lavashak (persian fruit roll) and gold leaf for finishing. Now I don’t know about you, but my experience with slow-cooking chicken breast without fail will result in tough, dry meat. So I had a quick word on Twitter with Sabrina who reassured me that chicken thighs were the way to go here. Makes sense, so I decided to go with her recipe. I figured chicken thighs will both slow cook nicely and add some decent flavour to the dish without having to use chicken stock. I also thought I’d throw in the little lamb meatballs as well, using the recipe at Turmeric and Saffron.

On the side, I tried to make rice with a decent tahdik (the brown bit on the bottom of the pan) by using yoghurt and beaten egg and saffron in the first layer. However, our guests decided they would turn up a few hours late, so it kind of burnt to the pan. Oh well.

The ice cream is just the regular ice cream recipe, with chopped almonds added to the milk and sugar at the start (drained) and then sour cherries in syrup added after churning the ice cream.

How did it all work out? Well it’s pointless me describing it all except to say this is a completely different style of cuisine– the fesenjoon was dark and rich and complex but cut nicely by the sour pomegranate. Although there are no spices in the dish, one of my co-eaters was convinced there must be. The kashk aubergine had a complex, very grown-up flavour which encouraged huge wads of bread to be stuffed down. And obviously the ice cream was nice.

I hope you will be inspired to give this style of cooking a try, I certainly will be trying more persian dishes now!

Fesenjan with meatballs – OK maybe still a little brown but bloody delivious