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A Celebration of Persian Cooking: The Legendary Cuisine of Persia.

By Margaret Shaida Published by Lieuse Publications, Harpenden Way, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 1NL Price |pounds~19 hardback. 325 pages ISBN 0-9519918-17

THIS LARGE AND ATTRACTIVE illustrated book succeeds very well in giving an eloquent evocation of Persian cuisine as well as authentic recipes for superb meals. The author lived in Iran for 25 years, marrying into a Persian family and enthusiastically adopting the highly refined cuisine of Iran. Here the evolution and influence of Persian cooking is traced down the centuries and across the continents, in ancient times to Greece, the Roman empire and Arab lands, and later to the Ottoman empire as well as the Mughal court in India and to the West.

Shaida claims that the cuisine of Persia is unique and that its continuing tradition as a distinct national example of cooking is due above all else to its intrinsic excellence. "Persian food is nutritionally balanced and visually attractive. But above all, it has survived because it is delicious."

The sophisticated civilisation which produced this cuisine also borrowed some of its elements from Arab, Chinese and Indian culinary traditions. Tales from classical Persian and Arab sources are featured here, with relevant quotations from early Muslim writers.

A special section on herbs, nuts, dried fruits, beans and peas is a sign of their great importance. Herbs "are lavishly used in stunning and subtle combinations," points out the author, having a significance in Persian cookery quite unknown in the West. A chapter on Festivals and Legends begins with Nauruz, the Persian New Year, in which are preserved Persia's own special dishes and ceremonies from ancient times. The preparation of sweetmeals, shortbreads and other specialties is described, along with zoloobiya ("syrup threads") prepared for the month of Ramadan.

The physical geography of the country as well as the theories behind the development of this cuisine are discussed in a short chapter with the portentous title "Iran's Destiny". The author points out how the beliefs of the Zoroastrian religion have continued to influence Persian attitudes to cooked food. "You are what you eat" is, as she writes, a very ancient belief among Persians.

Rice dishes are considered special by Persians, partly because rice has been rare, grown only in the northern Caspian provinces. Persia's delicious aromatic rice has won many admirers. "Jewelled rice" (morasa polow) was described as "the King of Persian dishes" by James Morier, the shrewd English diplomat who knew Qajar Persia well, and wrote Haji Baba of Isfahan, the best comic novel on Iran. Many meat and fish dishes as well as stews are described here, with welcome advice that cooking them is really quite straightforward.

Some of the most delectable fruits and vegetables enjoyed in the West (and in the Arab world) came originally from Persia, often with the Persian name barely altered. The aubergine, (also known as "the poor man's caviar"), is one of Persia's unacknowledged gifts to the Mediterranean lands. Many Persian recipes were then adopted or adapted in other countries. An entire section of the book is devoted to stuffed vegetables, in recognition of their excellence.

The food of the Gulf region of Iran reflects the influence of neighbouring peoples. In a prawn stew, (ghaliyeh maygoo), the writer says, "the curry powder and tamarind of India are combined with the herbs of mainland Persia to make a rich pungent sauce for the splendid king prawns found in the Gulf."

Ice creams have been known since centuries to the Persians, through a remarkable system in operation to store mountain ice underground through the hot months from May to provide cool drinks. Ice was not even a luxury. The Victorian medical practitioner, Dr Wills, in his book about Persia wrote from Shiraz: "So common is the use of ice that the poorest are enabled to have it, a big bit being sold for a farthing, and even the bowls of water for gratuitous drinking at the shop doors are cooled by it."

Enthusiastic reports of Persia's cooling fruit drinks, "laced with snow and crushed ice," soon made sherbet preparations imitated and eventually common in cities of Western Europe in the 19th century. The taste for Persian food was to grow steadily. This charming book will surely attract new devotees to the many delights of Persian food.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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