It is the last day of Hanukkah, at a banquet hall on the Tel Aviv-Holon border. Blue and purple spotlights on a table groaning with pots and platters give the festive dishes a surrealistic greenish glow.
"Welcome to the first Persian Master Chef," announces the DJ, a popular broadcaster on the RadisIN Internet station for Iranians in Israel. The studio is located in the hall's basement.
Vida Leveim, the competition's creator and tonight's emcee, is the author of two Persian-Jewish cookbooks. She put out the call for entrants on her weekly cooking program on the station. News of the event later spread by word of mouth within the tightly knit Iranian community.
The format may be new, inspired by the "Master Chef" fever that has seized the country in recent months, but the cuisine is ancient, with a place in the very heart of Persian-Jewish identity and culture for thousands of years.
Each of the 40 or so entrants was asked to bring the dish of her choice. Rice, which arrived in Persia from China and India 5,000 years ago before going on to the Middle East and Europe, is a superstar. One woman brought a pot of rice-stuffed grape leaves and vegetables. Another pinned her hopes on kofte berenji, large patties of rice, meat and herbs. Most made zebahar polo, rice with raisins and dried fruit, seasoned with saffron, cardamom and orange peel. Alongside every rice dish is tahdig, the crispy rice from the bottom of the pot - a delicacy fit for a king - and a plate of fresh green herbs.
The women and their families sit at the round tables and wait to hear who will be crowned the queen of Persian cuisine. A Persian woman is measured by two things, I was told - her rice, and the way she uses fresh herbs. The hands that prepared the dish contain a store of traditional knowledge and skill that have been handed down from mother to daughter for hundreds of years. There are also family and community affiliations: Mashadi cuisine is not like Isfahani cuisine, and both are different from the cuisine of the Tehran community.
Mrs. Leveim, wearing a festive red blouse, explains the principles of the competition in Persian. Those sitting in the hall are absolutely forbidden to taste the competing delicacies, and the iron lady bars everyone from approaching the table. A wave of grumbling goes through the spectators. Everyone wants to taste. There is no one in the audience gathered in this hall, nor among members of the community in the various diasporas, who is not convinced that Persian cuisine is the best in the world. The greenish lighting and the modest home-style presentation do not deceive those present: This is a selection worthy of the residents of Paradise, prepared by the best cooks in the community. It is now being served, to their dismay, to the judges only.
The judges, the senior team of RadisIN broadcasters, surround the table in all seriousness, taste the delicacies before the longing eyes of those seated and distribute grades on small pieces of paper. The cooks are obviously under great pressure.
"It's almost sacrilege," says one of the few men in the audience, explaining the importance of the occasion to guests who are unfamiliar with the Persian language and culture. "It's forbidden to tell a Persian woman that her cooking isn't tasty. The judges have to be very careful."
Until the results of the vote are announced, a Mr. Kalimi is invited to the stage for a medley of jokes and folk tales. Every punch line is accompanied by a drum roll and lively Persian music. The connection between food on the one hand and music and dancing on the other is also ancient; there is no festive meal without music and there is no music without a festival of food and drink. But at the moment, too much is at stake. The fact that this event is taking place for the first time makes people suspicious. Occasionally one of the honorable ladies is swept away by the rhythm and bursts into a dance.
The announcement of the winner is received with quiet grumbling ("She got points for styling," "The judges aren't objective" ) and polite applause. This is the signal for a collapse of order. The winner dances among the tables with her entry in her hands. The losers grab the dishes they prepared to serve to friends and close family members. Others crowd around the competition table and grab anything they can.
"Disgusting. In Europe that wouldn't happen. Nu, we're in the Middle East, after all," says someone at my table, and rushes to taste some of the food on display.
Lights and shadows
In 1971 the last shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, held a festive banquet to mark 2,500 years since the establishment of the Persian Empire. In a luxurious tent city constructed in the desert especially for the event, thousands of world leaders dined at a meal that was prepared - in an act of folly - by cooks from Maxim's restaurant in Paris, of all people. Eight years later, with the fall of the ruler who had his eyes on the glory days of the Persian Empire and on the West, came the end of the short Golden Age of Iranian Jewry, who flourished in an unprecedented way under his rule. For thousands of years before that, especially after the rise of Islam, the Jews were considered an impure minority.
The exhibition "Lights and Shadows," which is now on display at the Museum of the Jewish People (formerly the Diaspora Museum ), covers 3,000 years of Jewish presence in Iran, from the arrival of the first Jews during the period of the Babylonian Exile to present times. In the two galleries where the exhibition is on display - one devoted to the pre-modern period and the second to the 20th century - there are utilitarian objects, works of art and crafts that tell the story of the community not chronologically, but through various topics, like everyday ceremonies and rituals or roots and identity.
There are exhibits that tell of the culinary arts and their central place in Persian-Jewish identity. For example, there are wooden doors, the work of an anonymous 19th-century artist, on which a poem about love and wine in the Persian-Jewish language was engraved. (The production of wine and the playing of instrumental music and entertaining at festive events, two activities that are forbidden under Shi'ite law, were left to the Jews, who acquired expertise in classical Persian poetry. ) There are traditional serving dishes like the sofra, a round tray that was placed on the floor and served as a dining table; and a rare series of photographs taken in 2008 by Hasan Sarbakhshian, which document the lifestyle of the 20,000 Jews who remained in Iran after the revolution.
Lights and Shadows, the story of Iranian Jews (principal curator Hagai Segev ), Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv University campus.
Recipes from Itay Har-Gil and Maoz Alonim
Every stall of greens in the market, especially during this season, is an entire world. Like an archaeological tel, every stand selling herbs or legumes provides a glimpse into the layers from which local cuisine has been constructed in recent years. On the bottom are the greens unique to Israel, which are still an important part of Palestinian cuisine, such as wild endive, wild spinach, za'atar (hyssop ) and sage; on the layer above it are the mainstream greens: parsley, dill, lettuce, fresh peas and different types of beans. Persian Jews added tarragon, cress and fenugreek leaves to the stalls; in the 1990s basil, arugula and roquette were added; and in recent years there are also piles of pak boong, kana and different types of green legumes contributed by the Thai workers. All recipes serve 6.
Seared green salad with aioli
A festive salad using a variety of the fresh beans that can now be found in local markets.
To preserve the green color of the vegetables and prevent their turning yellow-gray, they must be scalded properly. Fill a wide pot three-quarters full of water, add a teaspoon of coarse salt, bring to a vigorous boil and scald in small batches, so as not to lower the heat of the water. Scalding time is no longer than one minute, except in the case of broccoli and thick asparagus, which will take 2-3 minutes. Prepare a bowl of ice water on the side, and transfer the greens to it from the pot immediately, in order to stop the cooking process.
1 kg. green beans - a mixture of wide, narrow, spotted, yellow lubia, the more varied the better
a handful of snow peas
2 large broccoli florets without the stems, separated into small florets
2 medium potatoes, boiled in their jackets
10-12 halved cherry tomatoes
3 hard-boiled eggs
1/2 cup olive oil
Juice of one lemon
Sea salt and black pepper
For the aioli:
2 egg yolks
1 tsp. mustard
juice of 1/2 lemon
juice of one tomato (halve a tomato and squeeze out the juice with the seeds )
2 crushed garlic cloves
100 ml (1/2 cup ) olive oil
100 ml (1/2 cup ) corn oil
a little salt and pepper
Scald the beans and broccoli as described and then dry them with a towel. Clean the snow peas and remove the thin threads found on both sides of the pod. If you have a grill, sear the beans slightly and place them in a bowl. If there is no grill, heat a heavy skillet well and on it sear (without adding oil ) the beans and the broccoli in several batches on all sides, a few seconds for each side.
Cut the beans into thirds or quarters and transfer to the bowl. Cut the potatoes into rough cubes and add to the bowl together with the cherry tomatoes and the fresh snow peas. Season gently with salt, pepper, olive oil and lemon juice (the rest of the seasoning will come with the aioli).
Preparing the aioli: Beat the yolks manually or with a mixer together with the other ingredients except for the oils, for about 2 minutes. Slowly drip the oils into the yolks, beating constantly. The mayonnaise that is formed should be stable but slightly liquid. If it is too solid, dilute it with a little water.
Arrange the salad in a serving bowl. Arrange the egg halves on top and pour the aioli over them. Tastes best when ingredients are still warm.
Salad of green herbs, pickled sardines and mozzarella
There are wonderful sardines in the markets now, some of them quite large, which makes them ideal for pickling. Cress is very popular with the Persians, but here it is used with an Italian touch - its spiciness combines very well with the bitterness of the arugula and the roquette in a simple green salad. In this case, it goes well with the saltiness of the sardines and the delicacy of the mozzarella. You can buy already cleaned sardines, but if not, cleaning them is a very simple process that can even be enjoyable.
For the pickled sardines:
20 fresh sardines, as large as possible (you'll need less for the salad, but they're good to have in the refrigerator. Most fishmongers will give you a withering look if you buy five sardines )
1 cup coarse salt
1/2 liter olive oil
zest from one lemon
1 tbsp. coriander seeds, fried in a skillet
several dried shata peppers
For the salad:
2 bunches of cress, rinsed and dried
1/2 bunch spearmint, leaves only
1/2 bunch coriander, coarsely chopped
2 radishes, cut into thin slices
1/2 cup roasted and chopped almonds
1 tbsp. chopped pickled lemon, or a fresh lemon finely chopped with its peel and without the seeds
red chili pepper, chopped to taste
2 large balls of buffalo mozzarella, crumbled
5 preserved sardines (10 fillets ), cut into thirds
1/2 cup olive oil or (preferably ) the oil from pickling the sardines
juice of 1/2 lemon
sea salt and black pepper
Preparing the sardines:
Rinse the sardines and clean off the scales with a knife. Cut off the heads and with scissors open them all along the belly and clean out the insides. Place each sardine on a board. Insert a finger between the skeleton and the flesh and move your finger downward along the skeleton so that it separates from the body. Repeat the process on the other side of the skeleton. You will be left with a clean skeleton that is still attached to the tail. Cut the skeleton near the tail and throw it out (the tail can be cut off, but we think it's attractive ). Now remove the small bones on the sides of the sardine, and the fin in the center of the body. You will have a clean sardine composed of two filets connected at the back.
Scatter some coarse salt on a large baking pan and place the sardines on it in one layer, skin side down. Generously scatter salt over the sardines, but don't bury them - you should see sardines under the salt. Put in the refrigerator for 40 minutes to one hour, depending on the size of the sardines.
Rinse the salt off gently and dry the sardines on a kitchen towel. Arrange them in layers in a container and sprinkle the coriander, lemon zest and shata pepper between them. Cover all with olive oil - it's important that the oil completely cover the sardines. Place in the refrigerator for several hours.
To make the salad, simply put all the ingredients into a bowl, mix gently and serve.
Seared rump steak with snow peas
Rump steak (shaitel) has become increasingly popular, and justly. This is a cut with a meaty flavor, and when it is not too aged it is also very juicy. Rump steak is a lean cut and therefore is suitable only for quick roasting; anyone who likes meat very well done should choose another cut. It is cheaper than better known cuts such as entrecote and sirloin tip (sinta); the latter can be substituted in this dish. This recipe was inspired by a similar one from Thai House in Tel Aviv and is served at room temperature. Originally it is made with fresh lubia beans, but we discovered that snow peas are better. You will need several ingredients that are found in Asian grocery stores: fish sauce, peanut oil, dried kaffir lime (a lotus plant ) leaves, dried limes (all of them preserved for a long time ). You also definitely need a mortar and pestle to prepare the dish, and this is good to have in the house - it's a tool that upgrades many sauces and dishes. For example, try preparing pesto with a mortar and pestle and you'll see the difference.
1/2 kg. clean sheitel. The sheitel can be separated into two pieces, but it's important they have an elongated shape so that they can be seared equally on all sides.
a little corn oil
1 package cleaned snow peas (or as Israelis call them, Chinese peas )
For the sauce:
1 tsp. ginger, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp. chopped onion
4 dried kaffir lime leaves
1/2 tsp. chopped lemon grass
1 tbsp. chopped coriander leaves
1 tsp. roasted coriander seeds
1 tsp. or more chopped fresh red chili pepper
2 tbsp. fish sauce
3 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tbsp. peanut oil
Take the pieces of sheitel out of the refrigerator and allow them to reach room temperature in a warm place.
Prepare the sauce: Place all the ingredients, beginning with the ginger, in a mortar and pestle and crush until you get a uniform, but not completely smooth, paste.
Heat a heavy skillet. Add salt and pepper to the meat. Grease the skillet lightly, place the meat on it and brown well on all sides. The idea is not to fry the meat but to sear it and create a crisp brown cover (you can also roast it on a grill, of course ). Put meat aside for 3-4 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix the snow peas with most of the sauce. After the meat has rested for a while, cut it into thin slices. Arrange the slices of meat alongside the snow peas, pour the remaining sauce and the meat juices over all, and serve.
Philosophy on the table
In melting pot cuisine, as they used to call it, or in the new Israeli cuisine, as it is called today, there is almost no trace of Persian food. Kneidlach, melawah, couscous and burekas have become familiar, accepted foods in almost every home, regardless of ethnic origin, but its hard to think of a dish from Persian Jewish cuisine that has become part of the Israeli canon.
We can try to analyze the reasons the complexity of the dishes and the use of many types of seasoning and herbs; the small number of Persian restaurants; the seclusion of the community or the fact that it does not have a spokesman in the guise of a famous chef. But we can only regret the minor influence of the rich and complex Persian cooking on the new Israeli cuisine.
Persian cuisine holds a place of honor in the history of the worlds food. The strategic geographic location, on the ancient trade routes between East and West, dictated a fascinating history of an exchange of techniques and ingredients that influenced many world cuisines. Persian cuisine had a great influence on Arab cuisine, which in turn, starting in the Middle Ages, made a decisive contribution to Western cuisine. The Jewish community, which arrived in the region during the period of the large Persian empire, was also influenced by the rich local heritage, in spite of its social isolation and observance of the biblical dietary laws.
Behind the tremendous variety of foods and the abundance of flavors, fragrances and colors, lies an entire philosophy. The ancient Persians believed in a connection between the body and the soul, and the influence of the dietary regime on them. Food is not only a means of survival, but also a vital medicine for maintaining health. The different types of food are divided into hot and cold, and the ideal diet combines them in a harmonic way. The unique taste combinations sweet-and-sour and sweet-and-spicy are considered the heritage of ancient Zoroastrian views of the duality of the material world.
The Persian booth
Twenty years ago, Itzik Pourostamian was the owner of Shehrezad, a high-end Persian restaurant in south Tel Aviv. He imported luxurious furniture from Iran and prepared a magnificent banquet each day, but customers never came in large numbers. Members of the Iranian community have always preferred to eat at home, and at the time, other Israelis were almost totally unfamiliar with the delicacies of Persian cuisine. So the restaurant closed. Pourostamian now owns a catering company that bears the name of the restaurant, and specializes in preparing meals of Persian cuisine for events large and small.
On weekends the catering firm comes to the Tel Aviv food markets in Dizengoff Center and Gan Hair. Over the years, by popular demand, they have added a choice of baked antipasti vegetables and homemade dishes from other cuisines. But one can also find a large, tasty selection of traditional Persian dishes: gondi nokhodi dumplings made of chick pea flour and meat served in a clear chicken soup, which is the dish most identified with Persian-Jewish cuisine; gondi berenji dumplings of beef and rice with a prune in the center; halebibi a stew of rice and meat, Shiraz style; khoresht ghormeh sabzi the national dish of Persian and Persian Jewish cuisine a somewhat sourish dish of meat, herbs and dry Persian lemon; tas kebabi kebab made of a mixture of beef and mutton, baked in the oven with vegetable sauce; adas polo rice with raisins and lentils; meat and chicken patties in tomato sauce, Isfahan style; halim a divine pudding made of wheat and meat; and on rare rainy days Itzik also prepares aash a sourish rice dish seasoned with tamarind and pomegranate concentrate.
Shehrezad Catering, (03) 687-2819, shehrezad.co.il (on Thursdays and Fridays at the food markets of Dizengoff Center and Gan Hair)