As far as cooking goes, Sabrina Ghayour‘s Persiana is the best thing that happened to me in the past year. I’d never say that lightly; least of all this month, after my landlord refurbished our kitchen, getting rid of the drab, tattered ’80s furniture we’ve been stuck with for years. Being able to run hot and cold water from a single mixer tap is my hapless tenant’s version of Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap”; still, knowing how to make a mean Biryani excites me far more. Cooking skills are forever, a rented flat is for now.
I’ve been raving about Persiana to anyone willing to listen, and even convinced a few people to buy it. As I write this, though, I’m worried that my review won’t do it the justice it deserves; that my pictures won’t be good enough to convince you to believe my words. This is food I want to devour as soon as it lands in front of me: I’d rather miss out on the perfect shot, than risk it going cold while I faff around with props and camera settings. Plus, I’ve already waited too long. Sabrina Ghayour’s brand new book Sirocco is out next week, so before I begin lusting after it, let me tell you how much I love Persiana, and why I know it’s love.
It’s love, because it’s just my type
I’ve already written about how much I enjoy Middle-Eastern food, and how infrequently I get to eat it in London restaurants. Thanks to Persiana, all the ingredients I long to see on menus – from tahini to saffron, pulses to pistachios, smoked aubergines to lamb – are now part of my day-to-day cooking too. The cumin, turmeric and coriander compartments in my spice tiffin need replenishing several times a month. I’ve learnt what sumac is, and grew fond of its lemony smell. The joy of cooking with sea salt isn’t lost on me either: finally, a book that encourages me to be lavish with it, to forgo restraint.
Even though my favourite Middle-Eastern dishes are savoury, it’s my sweet tooth’s duty to tell you that the Spiced Carrot, Pistachio and Almond Cake is one of Persiana‘s brightest highlights. The batter is much denser than carrot cake as you and I know it; the butter and grated carrots stave off dryness for days in a row, and the taste and smell of coconut baked with sugar and ground almonds are pleasures you’ll want to savour for as long as you can.
That’s a lot of different flavours; still, blending them requires hardly any effort. None of Persiana‘s recipes feels like drudgery: even the ones that call for a bit more elbow grease, or time spent sourcing ingredients, deliver rewards far greater than the immediate solace of giving up and ordering takeaway.
It’s love, because I will do anything for it.
In this case: I will go out of my way to buy saffron stalks. Although they’re not on sale at my local superstore, a tiny off-licence near my office has them, tucked behind the counter like precious items that need looking after. A medium-sized bag costs £13, and it’s £3.50 for a sachet smaller than my palm. I knew saffron was the world’s most expensive spice – I just never had to ask how much before.
Cooking Joojeh Kabab or Saffron and Rosemary Chicken Fillets for dinner makes it all worth the while. These chicken dishes are marvellously simple (as in: prepare a marinade, leave to rest, cook for a few minutes), but no less impressive for that: the Joojeh Kabab‘s lemon and saffron notes were the best introduction to home-cooked Middle-Eastern food I could hope for. My favourite side for them is Chelo: steamed basmati rice cooked with oil, sea salt and butter. Sabrina’s warning that it takes time and experience to form a tahdig (a salty, buttery crust, the dish’s true showstopper) made my first, successful attempt all the more fulfilling – and her claim that “once tried, it’s hard to cook rice by any other method” is spot-on.
Speaking of sides: Persiana‘s roasted baby new potatoes are another miracle of simplicity and taste. All they call for is a large enough oven dish, and plenty of turmeric, cumin, sea salt and pepper to sprinkle on top. No parboiling, no constant watch on the oven, no sticky mess at the bottom of the tin; no need to be a domestic god or goddess to craft a heavenly meal.
I love it, because it takes me where I’ve never been before
I’m not a patient cook. I tend to avoid recipes that require losts of advance planning, and those that call for hours of simmering, roasting, braising – the ones my grandmother is so fond of – are unlikely to ever make it to my table. Sabrina Ghayour’s lamb Biryani was a definite step out of this comfort zone. Her recipe – simplified by her own admission, and inspired by Biryani overlord Asma Khan – achieved a result no others reached in the past: bridging the gap between “jeez, that sounds complicated” and “actually, I think I’ve got this”. It does so by making Biryani look like the natural next step after mastering Chelo: the procedure to make the rice is exactly the same, so instead of feeling you’re about to climb a steep, scary mountain, you can approach the recipe as if you were already halfway there.
More strikingly even, Persiana convinced me to give frying a second chance. I thought I was done with it, after a disastrous attempt at Italian Mozzarella in Carrozza resulted in a sad bunch of cracked, soggy cheese toasts, and a sleepless night nursing a sore stomach. Enter Sabrina Ghayour’s Fistikli Kebap and Kotlet: lamb and pistachio, and beef and potato patties respectively. Much like with the rice, now I’m privy to the delights of spice-packed meatballs, I don’t want to have them any other way.
I make the Fistikli Kebap more often, as they’re done and dusted in less than an hour. The Kotlet require time to boil, mash and cool the potatoes; an hour well spent, as the mash makes for a soft, smooth texture I haven’t seen the likes of anywhere else. Both dishes work as well served straight from the pan, as they do the next day, rolled up in a flatbread with spinach and houmous. The simple act of grilling my wrap in the office kitchen, while my colleagues unpack store-bought sandwiches and reheat ready meals, feels like a small yet important win. It’s a sensation I get more and more often, in my life after Persiana.