The Beauty of Persian Culture, From Rita to Pulao

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren's kitchen got an Iranian twist when members of America's Persian community were invited for dinner, accompanied by a live performance by Israeli superstar Rita.

Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman
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Vered Guttman
Vered Guttman

Bowls and plates of colorful salads lined the tables at the residence of Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, as the guests filed in.

At the center of each table stood a large plate with fresh herbs, which included parsley, Iranian basil, small watercress, mint and cilantro, alongside a bunch of radishes and a handful of raw almonds. This arrangement might seem odd to some, but it was very familiar to the 60 or so Iranian-American guests who came from as far as New York and Los Angeles for the first ever Israeli outreach event to the Persian community.

The guest of honor was already there to greet them. Iranian born Israeli superstar singer Rita Jahanforuz, known simply as Rita to her hordes of fans, was in Washington to perform songs from her new album, My Joys. The album was recorded mainly in Farsi and includes Persian songs that Rita grew up with, listening to her mother sing.

Rita’s album, the first she ever recorded in Farsi, was an instant success not only in Israel, but in Iran as well. Her CD’s are sold in the black market in Tehran, putting at risks those who buy and listen to them, and her contemporary interpretation to old time Iranian songs are now popular at Iranian weddings. Ambassador Oren called Rita “an international ambassador” and Rita said she wished one day she would perform on the stages of Tehran. It was nice to be reminded of the beauty of the Persian culture, after being used to hearing of Iran only in a negative context.

To complete the experience, the food was Persian as well. I was catering the event, and I cooked an (almost) traditional Persian meal from the starters to desserts. We started off with salads, lavash (a flat Iranian bread) and the plate of fresh herbs. The herbs (sabzi in Farsi) accompany every Persian meal from start to end and are popular in different forms in many dishes as well.

One such dish is the kuku sabzi, a herb frittata (very similar to the Israeli pashtida), made with chopped herbs and zereshk (dried barberries). Next to the kuku we served a dip made of roasted eggplant, tomato and pomegranate syrup, a simple lentil salad, a refreshing cucumber and mint salad and roasted beets with pomegranate seeds in pomegranate syrup dressing. Pomegranate syrup is widely used in the Persian cuisine to add a sour taste to stews and salads, much like lime or sour grape juice, also common in the Persian cuisine.

For the main course we had a chicken, apricot and date pulao. Pulao, or polow, is a rice dish that is cooked with protein and spices, dried fruit or vegetables and can be served as a one-pot meal. In this case, pieces of chicken thighs were browned, onions were sautéed with dried apricot and dates, cinnamon and nutmeg, and all topped steamed Jasmine rice, which was then cooked in the oven to absorb all the flavors.

Rita was accompanied by seven musicians as she sang after dinner. They played the accordion, viola, drums, keyboards and kamanche, a Persian bowed string instrument. Adding Rita’s beautiful sensual voice and her charisma to the ensemble made the over-crowded room jump with energy. Singing along to the familiar Farsi tunes, the guests clapped and whistled and stomped their feet with joy. Ambassador Oren, a talented drummer in his own right, joined the last song, playing a bodhran, an Irish drum.

For dessert we served trays of baklava, chickpea flour cookies, and rice flour cookies -all staples of the Persian cuisine.

Rita, left, performs at a dinner hosted by Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, center, Nov. 2012.Credit: Shmulik Almani, courtesy of Israel Embassy in Washington
The table is set at the Israeli ambassador's residence for the Persian community outreach event, Nov. 2012.Credit: Shmulik Almani, courtesy of Israel Embassy in Washington

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