My recent tryst with Persian cuisine essentials like kashk, zershk and rob-e anar on my vacation to the Middle East had left my palate intrigued. While I did carry the latter two back to India, they soon ran out during my recipe trials. Ever since then I have been craving a meal dished up with these wonderful ingredients. So, the announcement of Persian Food Festival at Namak at Hotel Sahara Star, Mumbai seemed like the perfect avenue to satiate my Persian food-starved taste buds.
This food festival taking place until March 12, is the brain child of Chef Mujeeb-ur Rehman hailing from the reputed gharana or clan of chefs/khansamas of the Wajid Ali Shah dynasty of Awadh and Chef Mona Nezhad, a home-chef from Hormuz, Iran. Together they have done an exceptional work of familiarizing Mumbaikars with the nuances of Persian gastronomy.
Persian cuisine has long been admired for blessing the global gourmet scene with some spectacular ingredients, the most notable being saffron, pomegranate and walnuts. The heart of the erstwhile Persian Empire, Iran is the world's largest producer of saffron and it comes as no surprise that saffron is used in various savory and sweet dishes that form part of the daily diet of the Iranian populace. The explanation of each of the dishes consumed at the festival will highlight this fact brilliantly.
Also, Persian food is not at all spicy and makes use of fruits especially pomegranate and lemons to a great extent for various flavorings, thereby providing a sweet & tart experience to the palate. Rice forms an integral part of the Persian cuisine. Numerous varieties of polo or pulao/pilaf originate from this gastronomy and the most venerated one being prepared with saffron and barberries or Zershk. This dish of Persian gastronomy is the inspiration for the famous Berry Pulao we find in one of the most admired legendary Irani cafes of Mumbai today.
In addition, while the Persian cuisine bends more towards working with non-vegetarian ingredients, the curators of the festival took into consideration the requirements of vegetarian diners and devised ample dishes to meet their dietary requirements as well.
So, here is a glimpse of the food being served as part of the festival:
ZAFFRAN PANEER KEBAB (vegetarian)
This was your quintessential cottage cheese or paneer tikka albeit sans the spices. The paneer was subject to a simple marination of saffron, olive oil and pistachios before being grilled in charcoal fired oven.
FELAFIL ABADAN (vegetarian)
These are the popular chickpea fritters across different Middle Eastern cuisine. However, the Persian felafils served during the festival were peculiar preparation that pleased the palate. A batter of chickpeas and potatoes was flavored with only cumin & capsicum and surprisingly did taste great. The only let down was that the fritters were a tad bit dry.
JUJEH KABAB (non-vegetarian)
A staple in the Persian cuisine, this dish consisted of large chunks of boneless chicken marinated in saffron, curd, onions and lemon juice. The chicken was cooked to perfection, was succulent, reeked of saffron and had a subtly sweet taste owing to use of onions in the marination.
KABAB KOOBIDEH (non-vegetarian)
These are Persian-style skewered kebabs of pounded meat. The marinade for the meat comprised of garlic, black pepper, onions & saffron. Cooking on charcoal embers ensured the meat had imbibed a profound smoky flavor. Also, as tradition goes in Iran of serving these kebabs on a bed polo or saffron infused pilaf along with a side of onions & tomatoes was followed closely.
KHORESHT- E FESENJAN (non-vegetarian)
In the Farsi language, khoresht means stew and fesenjan means pomegranate. The stew had pomegranate molasses or rob-e anar and walnut paste base giving it a tangy and nutty flavour profile. Boneless pieces of lamb dotted the dish that had soaked up the flavor from the stew and turned luscious. A wonderful garnish of pistachio slivers added to the richness of the dish.
KHORESHT -E BADEMJAN (non-vegetarian)
This was a delicately flavored, thick consistency chicken stew comprising of boneless chicken cooked with bademjan or eggplants, tomato paste, saffron and chickpeas. This is somewhat similar to the Indian preparation called Dal Gosht that is a lamb and chickpea gravy.
DAL ADASI (vegetarian)
A simple preparation of adasi or masoor dal /red lentils entailing olive oil and sumac made up this dish. A surprise that awaited me when I sampled this dish was potatoes in the form of wedges.
KASHK E BADEMJAAN (vegetarian)
In Persian tongue, kashk means drained & sun dried chunks of fermented yoghurt. The combination of kashk, eggplants along with walnuts, garlic, onion and saffron is a popular dip in Iran. For this Persian food festival, the dish has been slightly modified it to resemble a thick gravy to comply with the Indian taste buds.
PANEER FASENJAN (vegetarian)
This was the vegetarian counterpart to the khoresht- e fesenjan where lamb was substituted with cottage cheese. But, I have to admit the meat rendition was more flavorful than the paneer one.
POLO or PULAO
There were two polo dishes I ended up trying. One was BADEMJAN PULAO that was a mix of long grain rice, fried eggplants, potato slices flavored with saffron. Absolutely aromatic, this dish had a hint of sweetness and an earthy flavor. SHEREEN PULAO was a lamb pilaf comprising of pistachios, almonds and orange rind in addition to saffron flavoring.
This was a rich milk, cottage cheese pudding laced with dry fruits like walnuts and pistachios. It is not overtly sweet and has a nice crunchy texture.
I had a wonderful time indulging in some Persian fares at this festival in Mumbai. You can choose a set menu with predefined number of dishes or simply take your pick from the a la carte menu at this festival. So, do visit this food festival if the Persian cuisine piques your curiosity.
Till then, HAPPY EATING...
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