Full Reviews of A Taste of Persia: An Introduction to Persian Cooking

The Times Literary Supplement (March 31, 2000)

Eating to Remember
From Persia to Casablanca: the culinary
traditions of the Middle East
By Robert Irwin

In 1980, Terence O'Donnell published Garden of the Brave in War, a volume of reminiscences of his time as farmer in the 1960s and 70s in the province of Fars in Iran. The "Garden of the Brave in War" (the name of his farm) produced pomegranates, apples, sour cherries, quinces, sheep, chicken and bees. O'Donnell's Pickwickian memoir of outings, scrapes and parties is full of evocations of great meals, such as the picnic which preceded and almost superseded a hunting expedition and which consisted of "gazelle, lamb and chicken, two kinds of pilau, spinach cakes, wild rhubarb, yoghurt and herbs, whiskey, brandy and the local date spirits". O'Donnell's book is filled with a nostalgia for a douceur de vivre which the Iranian revolution of 1978-9 has probably placed beyond recovery.
Najmieh K. Batmanglij is an Iranian who lives in the United States, and her cookery book, A Taste of Persia, is suffused with a similar food-laden nostalgia. In a prelude to a recipe for dill rice with fava beans, she recalls the old family retainer who would appear shortly before the Persian New Year bearing a wicker basket edged with violets and narcissi and containing Seville oranges and smoked whitefish. When Batmanglij sets out a recipe for rice with tart cherries, she notes that such cherries are hard to find these days, and that "they always bring back memories". She remembers waiting as a child for the crates of cherries, which "were placed in the garden by the stone fountain and gently sprinkled with water to wash off the dust". She and her sisters "soaked all our senses in sour cherries". A discussion of khoresh, or braise, summons up the memory of her mother chopping herbs: "I can see and smell and hear it still: the various greens of the herbs, the sharp steel of the cleaver with droplets of herb juice on it, the lovely aroma, the faraway trancelike concentration on my mother's angelic face she never wore rings when she cooked - the even quick blows of the cleaver."
Batmanglij stresses the pre-Islamic continuity of Iranian cuisine, and relays the Assyrian Ashurnisapal II's boast that he had given a ten-day feast, including thousands of cattle, calves, sheep, lambs, ducks, geese, doves, stags and gazelles, as well as fruit, vegetables, cheese and nuts, for 47,074 people. (However, Batmanglij's own recipes only cater for eight people at most and usually only for four.) It was under the Sasanian dynasty (third to seventh century AD) that a culture of the dinner table and the drinking bout developed, which combined gastronomic and oenological expertise with a broader grounding in etiquette and the elements of table talk. Much of this culture of the table was passed on to the Arabs in the form of adab (on which see below). The Persians cultivated and disseminated to the rest of the world "the walnut, pistachio, pomegranate, cucumber, broad bean and pea . . . as well as basil, coriander and sesame". In "A Dictionary of Persian Cooking" at the back of the book, Batmanglij makes similar claims for almonds, fenugreek, quince and saffron. Some readers may well be suspicious of such broad claims to Persian priority, which might be thought to smack of gastronomic imperialism. However, the Larousse gastronomique and Alan Davidson's recent Oxford Companion to Food not only support most of these claims, but they even add to the list. It also seems to me likely that Turkish haute cuisine, as it evolved at the Ottoman court, was modelled on that of the Timurids in Persia and Transoxiana in the fifteenth century, when the latter dynasty was at the height of its cultural prestige and an "International Timurid court style" prevailed in other Islamic art forms.
. . . Like A Taste of Persia, Casablanca Cuisine summons up child's-eye visions of mother in the kitchen and of leisurely family feasts.
. . . Claudia Roden's new book, Tamarind and Saffron, takes some of its recipes t from her first book, but the recipes are often pared down and simplified, and the ingredients specified seem to cater for a more health-conscious audience. Tamarind and Saffron is lavishly illustrated, but I preferred Roden's spare prose to the images of over-lit, strangely glowing foods. (Batmanglij's photographer has succeeded in producing more naturalistic, mouth-watering pictures.).
. . . Geert Jan Van Gelder is Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford. His Of Dishes and Discourse traces the numerous and complex interrelations between food on the one hand and medieval Arabic poetry and belles-lettres on the other.
In A Taste of Persia, Batmanglij refers to the tenth-century Persian epic poet, Firdawsi, as despising the Arabs who conquered Iran for Islam as rough men who "fed on camel's milk and ate lizards". Naturally, Van Gelder offers a discussion of lizard-eating in its literary context. Poets who were of Persian origin but who wrote in Arabic, such as Bashshar ibn Burd and Abu Nuwas, were particularly inclined to mock the whole Arab race as the eaters of lizards, hedgehogs or locusts. This was a stock literary insult. Strictly speaking, however, it was only the nomadic Arabs who genuinely delighted in eating lizards and locusts. A swarm of locusts, though it spelled disaster for farmers, might be welcomed by the nomads as a delicacy on the wing.

Robert Irwin's most recent book is, Night and Houses and the Desert: An anthology of classical Arabic literature.

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