ESFAHAN ON A PLATE
Nobody does meat on a stick better than Iranians, but classic Persian food is about much more, including earthy to elegant stews, Mike Peters discovers.
It was nutty. It was sweet. It was sour. It was… amazing. When foodies discover a new dish, we reach for easy comparisons. The phrase “It tastes like chicken” has become a joke ever since someone tried to describe tasting rattlesnake for the first time.
However, when I met my first bowl of fesenjen in the ancient Persian city of Esfahan several years ago, I was completely stumped.
I inhaled the steam coming off the rich, meaty stew and scooped a fragrant mound ontomy fork.
A huge smile wreathed my face.
Eight minutes later, the bowl was empty — and my notebook was blank, too. I couldn’t begin to describe it.
Eight years later, the rich stew of pomegranate paste, walnuts and chicken lingers in palatememory, recallingoneof my favorite cities in the world.
Located in central Iran, Esfahanisafairy-talecityofblue-andyellow tiled walls, magnificent bridges and tranquil parks swarmingwith picnickers.
It was built around the immense Naqsh-e-Jahan (Imam) Square by the brilliant Shah Abbas I (Abbas the Great, 1587-1629), whotooktheSafavid empireto itspeakandlaunched a new flowering of Persian culture. Abbas made Esfahan into a major Silk Road hub for traders in silk, spices, gold, silver and porcelain. He built his capital in an architectural spree perhaps only rivaled by China’s Emperor Zhu Di, who moved his capital from Nanjing to Beijing, and began construction in 1406onwhatwouldbecomethe Forbidden City.
Esfahan is so grand, it was once renowned as “half of the world”.
Robert Byron, author of the 1937 travelogue The Road to Oxiana, hailed Esfahan as “among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity”.
I suspect he had just eaten Persian food when he wrote the words.
For many food lovers who want to explore a foreign cuisine, the best answer is to go out to eat with a native of the country in question.
To find out what restaurant has the best traditional Persian food in Beijing, however, dining with an Iranian can sometimes add to your confusion.
For example, Iranian fans of near neighbors Rumi and Persepolis, located in the capital’s expat haven of Sanlitun, are sharply divided on the question — though most have eaten at both places.
Some of the issues are more cultural than culinary: The venerable seven-year-oldRumi
From left: A lamb and eggplant stew topped with shredded potatoes, lamb shank with broad bean and dill rice, and panirsabzi, a salad of fresh basil and mint with radishes, scallions and cheese, all from Rumi Grill in Beijing.