Last week, I went to a food festival and came away trying to puzzle why no restaurateurs have gone in for Iranian food on their menus. After all, there’s Mexican which has a remarkable affinity for our own cuisine, Lebanese which has hardly any and Thai which has been spectacularly unsuccessful in North India, with its multiple flavours and liberal use of coconut milk.
Radisson Blu Plaza, New Delhi recently had an Iranian festival that was part of a buffet. There were several types of rice, a few lamb stews, a couple of kebabs and a sprinkling of the mandatory vegetarian dishes without which no food festival in India is complete. I was struck by several aspects. First of all, the suitability of Iranian food – or at least some parts of it – to our palate. Their delicate pilafs, stained with saffron and their kebabs ought to be on every world food menu in the country. It remains a mystery why they aren’t.
Secondly, the Radisson Blu Plaza festival was conducted by two young (and beautiful, but that’s beside the point surely) sisters, Azadeh Sabouhanian and Bahareh Behnia. They are from Isfahan and live in Tehran, where they attended cooking school. Having a husband and wife team or one with two brothers or two sisters somehow provides a certain synergy that a group of impersonal strangers, no matter how qualified, can’t. Like all foreign chefs who land up on Indian shores, the sisters spent sleepless nights wondering how to cater for vegetarians, until they finally decided on serving garnishes as complete dishes! One of them, much to their amusement, worked like a treat: dolmeh that consists of capsicum stuffed with chopped vegetables including sweet corn kernels. “When guests gush over this particular dish, it is hard for us to keep a straight face,” the sisters twinkle.
Thirdly, Iranian food, whether vegetarian dishes or non-vegetarian ones, glorifies vegetables in a way that you don’t often find in Indian cuisine. Numerically, there may be more vegetarian dishes in Indian food, but Iranian cuisine perks up the natural taste of vegetables.
However, most important was the use of saffron, the spice that Iran produces in ten times the quantity than India does. 200,000 kilos are produced in Iran versus 20,000 kilos from Pampore, near Srinagar in Kashmir. While daily or even party cooking in Kashmir does not make use of saffron – it is only used as a flavouring agent in kahva, Kashmir’s tea – Iranian food uses it in pilafs and in kebabs. Kashmiri wazwan food never uses saffron for rice or for kebabs. Instead, it is used for every other dish on the wazwan, including those with plenty of spice, chilly and assertive flavours. The only exceptions are those mild dishes based on milk or curd. I personally can never tell whether saffron has been used in a wazwan or not. Iranian food, on the other hand, treats saffron with a certain amount of respect, adding it to those dishes where its flavour and colour would be immediately discernible.
Fun fact: The Kashmiri wazwan is supposed to have come from Iran, but there’s little evidence of that today.