poppies

This is a post about food, not poppies, but my pictures of the cookbooks I’m about to tell you about were sooooo bad that I had to use a picture of poppies instead. Poppies grow in the region we’re going to visit in this post, so I’m only cheating a little bit. Do you know this cookbook: Persepolis: Vegetarian recipes from Peckham, Persia and beyond? Oh boy, I adore this book! I would so love to sit down and have a cuppa with its author, Sally Butcher. I suspect she’d make me laugh so hard that I’d snort tea out of my nose. It’s a collection of vegetarian recipes spanning North Africa and Central Asia, written in a chatty, funny style. It’s also hugely informative about the places the recipes come from. Did you know, for example, that meze comes from the Persian word meaning taste? No, neither did I.

For a couple of years I had an on/off (mostly off) Persian boyfriend. He’d lived in Australia for most of his life but his love for Persian food had not diminished. Before I met him I knew precisely nothing about Persian food, but hearing him talk about it made me go and research it and I became a little obsessed. I was lucky enough to stumble upon this book: Persiana, by Sabrina Ghayour. Mr On/Off had been talking about fesenjan, which is a kind of chicken, walnut and pomegranate stew. That was the first dish I cooked from the book and oh!my!goodness! it was a revelation.

If, like me, you have a bottle of pomegranate molasses in the cupboard that you bought because it sounded exciting but now you don’t know what to do with it, go and make fesenjan. I’m impatient, so I didn’t cook it for as long as Sabrina says to, but it was still mouth-wateringly marvellous. It’s piquant and silky and satisfying. Another recipe from Persiana that I’ve made over and over again is joojeh kabab: saffron and lemon chicken. It’s super easy and completely delicious. You marinate chicken in a yoghurt/lemony/saffron mix then blast it in the oven until the edges char. People wolf it down.

A further recent find in the bookshop was this: Mountain Berries and Desert Spice, by Sumayya Usmani. It’s a collection of Pakistani desserts, which, I’ve discovered, basically contain everything I like in a dessert: cardamom, rice, nuts, dried fruit, rose syrup, berries, soft cheese and that magic ingredient that makes everything in the world seem all right…condensed milk.

So far I’ve made apple halva (like stewed apple but more buttery and fragrant), ground almond and saffron ladoos (a condensed milk treat), and carrot rice pudding (so delicious for breakfast AND it contains vegetables so it must be good for you). The book is laid out according to the regions of Pakistan and the author weaves her personal story into it. It’s beautifully photographed and a pleasure to read. That pleasure increases once you start making and eating the gorgeous sweetmeats.

But back to Persepolis, which I like so much that I could eat the book. Yesterday I cooked a thankyou lunch for a friend, with all courses from Persepolis. We started with pan-fried haloumi with honey and sesame seeds. (Have you tried haloumi with honey? No? Go and make it now. Salty and sweet. So good.) Then we had Somali curry (with peanut butter, chilli and coffee—who knew?!) with tomatoey rice, which had lovely crispy bits on the bottom. We finished with ice-cream made with saffron, coconut milk, coconut sugar and cream, topped with date syrup. The coconut sugar and date syrup were my additions, because that’s what I had, and they gave it a wonderful carameliciousness.

So if you’re wondering what to cook for dinner this week, may I suggest something beginning with P?