Over the decades, I’ve savored Iranian food at Southern California restaurants and dinner parties, and have even managed to dabble in cooking Iranian-inspired stews, kabobs and appetizers. But I hadn’t heard of their quince stew, nor had I ever seen quince — apparently, firm like a potato but resembling a large, yellow apple, with the contours of a pear — until this past December. So, when I pulled off cooking quince stew, inspired by an Aslan Media post, it felt like a small victory.
My mother and I were delighted by the savory but ever-so-slightly sweet production of the chunks of tender, cubed lamb and sliced quince submerged in a thick tomato-based sauce. A departure from stews I’d grown up with, the whole process of cooking, arranging and eating the dish reminded me of how Iranian cuisine has tweaked my Indo-Pakistani-American gastronomic sensibility.
Growing up, I’d been eating some great Indo-Pakistani food at our Southern California home. In fact, I had a hunch that cooking South Asian food, with its myriad of spices, sautéing methods and marinades, is more complicated than cooking Iranian food. But it was at a local Iranian dinner party in the nineties that I realized the power of food presentation — that the visual mysteriously heightens taste. The only food presentation I’d been exposed to before then had focused on functionality, not the grandeur I saw in Iranian food.
The thirty or so guests at that Tehrangeles dinner party mingled in the living room before feasting. I had gone with my older sister, Nusrat, who dealt with socializing while I people-watched. There were ample plates and paring knives for the appetizers — Persian cucumbers, delicate and juicy, green grapes and fleshy persimmons — displayed on magnificent dishes. All of this, combined with aromas from the kitchen floating in the air, hinted of the culinary splendor to come.
When we were finally called to the table, my eyes were spellbound. It was a supreme display. Silver serving dishes — brimming with chicken karafs, chicken stewed together with celery, mint, parsley and succulent spices; kabobs; basmati rice; raw greens — all perfectly matched the silver spoons. There was a separate platter for tadig, a thin sheet of rice cooked with oil that offers a crunchy kick, the Iranian take on ‘al dente.’
Dessert and Persian tea — cardamom-infused black tea presented in ornate teapots and served in transparent glass cups — followed the main course. Assortments of bite-sized sweets were spread to perfection. Not as sweet as the Indo-Pakistani equivalent, gilebi, the oblong zulubia, drenched in sugar syrup, with a slight exterior crunch. Divine.
I’ve always felt a kinship with Iranians as a result of the similarities between our cultures. Shared bloodlines between Iran and the Indian subcontinent (my parents, who were born in India, moved to the region that became Pakistan after the 1947 partition) might explain why I’ve so often been mistaken as Iranian. Coming of age within a rigid Southern Californian Indo-Pakistani cultural bubble, with largely rigid parents to boot, set the stage for my loyalty to the cuisine of my cultural heritage. But my fascination with Iranian majesty comes from my father, who studied Farsi in his secondary Pakistani school. The Farsi-influenced Urdu poetry he always speaks of planted the seed of fascination for me with the language of Iran.
But the food has been the most fun part. Though I embrace my culinary roots, it’s fun to open the door to Iranian cuisine’s take on dishes familiar to an Indo-Pakistan table. Like us, Iranians eat kabobs, stews and basmati rice. They drink doogh, a salty yogurt blend similar to our lassi, and rose water frequently accents both cuisines’ desserts.
Though our borders touch and our flavors mesh so well, if it weren’t for my parents’ migration from Pakistan to this Southern Californian cuisine megalopolis, chances are I wouldn’t have tasted the flavors of Iran’s rich cuisine. Now, I nearly always make Iranian mast-o-khiar — yogurt with dried mint and cucumbers — in place of the traditional Pakistani raita, a similar appetizer that’s made instead with diced tomatoes, onions and green pepper. Smoother but with a layer of an interesting cucumber crunch, I’ve come to prefer the Iranian version. Not too long ago, the Iranian koobideh kabab I cooked for one of my father’s birthday parties blended well with our purist Pakistani spread of biryani and qorma.
Globalization couldn’t taste any better.