The unique taste of Persia

Leila Sarraf takes a look at the complex flavours of Persian cuisine, and probes Mrs Bahar from restaurant Galleria in London for her deepest culinary secrets.

The unique taste of Persia

**Leila Sarraf takes a look at the complex flavours of Persian cuisine, and probes Mrs Bahar from restaurant Galleria in London, for her deepest culinary secrets.**

Persian food remains the lesser known cuisine when it comes to ‘Middle Eastern’ fare. Yet it’s one of the most ancient and diverse cuisines alive today. Enriched with a long history of influences from the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians to the Greeks and Romans, Turks and Russians, the food is a delectable showcase of culture and ideas. There are many Persian restaurants popping up all the time throughout London. However, Persian cuisine is one that is best sampled in people’s homes, where slow cooking methods and recipes handed down through generations brings the best out of the dishes. Of course accessing home-cooked dishes such as these isn't possible for everyone and so the next best thing is the restaurant Galleria, on New Cavendish Street. Here Mrs Bahar prepares dishes with the same love and attention as one would find in an Iranian household.

Galleria originally opened fifteen years ago as a coffee shop and gallery, showcasing Mrs Bahar’s husband’s art work. From here Mrs Bahar also conducted the occasional catering job and soon enough customers started to request Persian food to be served on the premises. “I started making snacks like Koo Koo Sabzi (herb and walnut frittata) and Salad Oliveh (eggs, chicken, potato and mayonnaise salad originating from Russia)” muses Mrs Bahar, “but then of course, people started asking me why I don’t cook pollo ghoreshts (rice with meat stew), and so I started to introduce that into the coffee shop”. Her loyal customers started to spread the word of Mrs Bahar’s tasty cooking, amongst friends and colleagues and before she knew it, she was setting up a fully fledged restaurant which now counts celebrities such as Barbara Windsor and Joan Collins as regular customers. The menu at Galleria covers an assortment of appetizers such as mirzeh ghasemi (charred aubergine, fried eggs in tomato and garlic sauce), mast mousir (yoghurt with finely chopped elephant garlic) and kashk-e-badenjan (aubergine with herbs and soured yogurt).

Mrs Bahar tells me “There are no starters in Persian food. We lay everything out together at once and eat a little bit of everything. But we have separated the dishes on the menu to fit in with the customs of eating here”. There is also a choice of the renowned kebab, (the national pride and joy of Iran). Forget greasy and fat laden take-away imitations, for the Persian kebab involves subtly marinated skewers of lamb and chicken accompanied by a glistening mound of Chello (steamed rice), juicy grilled tomatoes and a sprinkling of Somagh (dried and powdered sour fruit). Then there are the daily specials known as ghoreshts. These comprise predominantly of lamb or chicken mixed with delicate herbs, vegetables and fruits such as sour cherries, apricots, orange zest and pomegranates and subtly flavoured with cinnamon, turmeric, dried limes and saffron – the gold of Iran. My personal favourite is Fesenjoon, a warming stew of pomegranate molasses with crushed walnuts that can be served with both chicken or lamb. All the ingredients are slow cooked and delicately balanced to create flirtations between sweet, salty and sour.

“Persian food is not fast food. It requires a lot of preparation,” says Mrs Bahar. “ The first principle of cooking Persian food is dedication and love. If you have that, your food will be delicious!”. A great place to start with Persian food, is with the berenj (rice). After all it’s the fundamental staple of any Persian dish. There are two common ways to prepare the rice; polo and chelo. Polo consists of vegetables, fruit and/or meat, mixed in and cooked at the same time as the rice (similar to a pilaf). Whereas Chelo is prepared by parboiling rice, draining the water and then leaving it to steam over a long period of time. This method results in fluffy grains of rice that are wonderfully separated, rather then clumped and sticky. It also creates the prized Tahdig; a crispy golden crust at the bottom of the pan which is often fought over in Iranian families. Mrs Bahar’s tips for cooking Persian rice are to wash the rice several times before cooking, to get rid of the starch (this is key to preventing stickiness) and to steam the rice half way, using a piece of thick cloth or towel at the top of the pot to absorb the vapours. There are many varieties of rice in Iran, which are not available here, so the next best thing is to use a long-grain rice or Basmati. When it comes to sourcing ingredients for Persian food, your local supermarket is not the ideal place to start. Instead a small venture to one of the many Middle Eastern or Persian food shops in London will equip you with authentic ingredients as well as inspiration to spend the time and care required to create the unique and mouth-watering dishes that represent one of the most diverse empires in history.