Useless information. Holds the fabric of the universe together. We’ve heard that little bits of it can even be used to mend holes in the space time continuum.
Well, you’ll find plenty of it here. A glorified glossary of all things Persepolitan. And lots of stuff which we didn’t know where else to shove.
OK, so I’ve just bought a Persian rice cooker. Now what?
First thing to do is to pat yourself on the back: this culinary gewgaw will change your (rice-eating) life. In Iran rice cookers are often given as a wedding present – this brand is famous for the longevity of its appliances, and it is not uncommon for them still to be working ten, twenty, thirty years on.
Before you begin to use your new Pars Ghazar gizmo, you will need several things:
• a two pin to three pin adaptor fitted with a 13amp fuse
• some rice: you can cook any sort of rice in your rice cooker, but basmati would be the rice of choice
• some butter, margarine or ghee: choose your poison
In the box you will find a power cable (affix to aforementioned adaptor plug), a measuring cup, a spongy thing (which is what you are meant to use to clean the liner: never use a scourer on it as you will scratch it and there will be no more lovely tahdik). You will also find some quaintly translated bits of paperwork: I’d bin this if I were you.
Wash your rice quickly (use a fine sieve for this). The idea is that you use one measure of rice per person (NB – this is a Persian measure, and they eat a lot of rice in Persia: half a measure might be nearer the mark for mere mortals), together with one measure of water per measure of rice, and one generously heaped teaspoon butter per measure of rice. Rice varies, not only between brands but from harvest to harvest, and so you may find you need to add a little more or less water. Add salt as required.
Just plug your rice cooker in, and set the colour-graded dial at the bottom to make the required colour of tahdik. Y’all know what tahdik is, right? Because that is surely why you bought this model… Tahdik (literally, ‘to the bottom’) is the sticky golden crust which forms at the bottom of the rice as it cooks (which you then turn out so that the crust is on top, just like a cake). If you don’t want a crust, just set the dial to the palest colour on the dial.
Your rice will take about twenty minutes to cook, thirty minutes if you are to get good tahkik. The cooker has a thermostat, so it will turn itself on and off safely and keep your rice warm: but be under no illusion – if you go out in the morning and leave it on, you will have very dry, dark rice when you get home.
If you are cooking fancy rice, you can add the raw ingredients (things like broad beans, or French beans, or raw garlic) with the rice at the beginning. Spices and herbs should, for the most part, be stirred through at the end, or you can turn your rice out, crack the crust and stripe your extra ingredients artfully across it. Liquid saffron, for example, is usually trickled on to the rice after it has been turned out.
A few other random hints/sticky golden crusty rules:
• brown rice takes a bit longer to cook: add a dash more water to it, and soak it beforehand
• if you are adding a liquid sauce to your rice (tinned tomatoes, or coconut milk, or Bolognese sauce), reduce the amount of water you use accordingly: it will otherwise turn out as katteh – soggy and overcooked
• only ever use wooden utensils when playing with your rice-bot: you will scratch the lining otherwise
• we sell spare non-stick liners, so if you do manage to scratch your lining, don’t panic Captain Mainwaring
• have fun :)
The sweeties you buy tell us a lot about you (although we never judge a customer by their coat). In our experience, our cake selection is rather hard to resist – those who don’t buy are either a) diabetic (you have our sympathy), or b) on a diet (shame on you). The categories we have observed thus far are as follows:
The Quick Fix:
This guy goes for a small selection of the sweetest, gloopiest most depraved little numbers. This apparent rampant sugar junkie is actually more in tune with his inner glucose demons than most of us – he knows what his body needs and chooses the most direct route to get it there. Either that or he has a hangover. Quick fixers are often sportsmen or students.
This lady entertains and is entertained very regularly and is constantly looking for something new to offer guests or as a hospitality present. She usually goes for a moderately sized, beautifully ranged platter. And then realises that she can’t pick at it on the way home, and so has to have a modest side order of the same (for qualtiy control purposes only, you understand). This lady is great fun, if terrifyingly well organised.
“Ten of the same, please!” cries this fellow as he rushes in. He is constantly rushing… to board/committee/staff meetings. He has the potential, if not the time, to be quite cool. But slow down, man! And do you really want to be on the sort of committee where they’ll argue over who has what?
…will unashamedly choose a mismatched selection and linger over each choice because it is all for himself/herself. Sometimes the purchase is spontaneous, but regulars have confessed to planning their Persepolian moment. The strangest one that we’ve heard of yet is with Muscadet (v.cold), in the bath (v.hot, vanilla bath essence), with candles and Persian flute music (v. refined). Er, how do you eat yours?
Sidles into the shop and then agonises before selecting one or two of the most modest morsels. For goodness sake, if it’s a money thing, we’ll give them to you, and if it’s a diet thing, well life’s too short. So EAT, woman!
The Cult Cakie:
…buys the same, week in, week out. You know what you like, why you like it, its history, and, saints preserve us, its calorific value. Cult cakeism often manifests itself with Turkish Delight. You probably watch Star Trek.
Saffron: The Mellow, Yellow Facts
The shah of the spice world. Saffron, which is basically the stamen from a particular type of crocus, is probably the most prized spice of all, and is most certainly the most expensive. Which is hardly surprising, since it takes about 100,000 flowers to produce 1kg of the stuff.
It is used all over the world: hey, where do you think Saffron Walden got its name? Over the centuries it has been used medicinally (it is pollen, after all, and so is prized by homeopaths), as a dye, and to make ink. But it is as a food ingredient that it is most renowned. Saffron famously goes into paella and all manner of Spanish dishes; it gets quite an outing in Italian cuisine too, and Indian. But the best in the world, by general consensus, is from Iran, specifically from the area around Mashhad in the North East of the country. Yes, we’re biased, but no, we’re not just saying that. Once you have inhaled the aroma of Persian saffron, and witnessed its deep golden colour, and enjoyed saffron infused rice, or ice-cream, or pastry – well there is no way back. Thenceforth nothing but Persian will do. Mr. Shopkeeper often comes out with such remarks: Mrs. Shopkeeper rarely agrees as it would go to his head, but in the field of saffron there is no argument.
When you buy saffron, never buy it pre-ground – it is too open to adulteration, and will quite possibly be mixed with colour. Look instead for pure strand saffron. Having said that, it is best to use it ground, for all the fancy recipes that suggest that you use whole strand saffron: grind it in a pestle and mortar or coffee grinder, and then store it in an airtight, bone dry jar until you need it.
To use, pour a little bit of boiling water into the bottom of a shallow bowl or saucer, and then just take a ¼ of a teaspoon of the golden stuff and sprinkle it over the surface of the water. Leave it to stand for a few moments: once it has infused, then you can then use the saffron water in whatever it is that you are creating. If you accidentally steep too much of it, keep the surplus saffron water in a jar in the fridge until you need it. In Persian cuisine, saffron is most frequently used in rice. But it gets in all over the place. It is believed that if you add some to your tea it makes you laugh. Of course, when you know that then of course you get the giggles anyway. Saffron sugar, saffron cookies, saffron candy floss – hey, you name it. On a day to day level, we really rate it with fish, or in mash (yellow mashed spuds – yay!), or in a citrusy marinade for chicken. It has a happy smell, and a cheery colour – what’s not to like?
Salesmen and Cold Callers: The Persepolis Rules of Engagement
We thought we should get a few things straight. Salesmen today just don’t seem to understand how to play the game. So we’ve written it down, in the hope that it will save us some Nurofen money and everyone some time.
So you want to sell us something? If you are going to do it in person, in the shop like, you’ll need an awful lot of luck. Here’s our ten golden rules:
1) Absolutely NO telecoms or electricity supply reps past the lintel, please. They induce a nervous tic in the shopkeeper. Have you any idea how irritating you are and how much your product bores us?
2) Do not swagger in with a “How you doin’ today?” unless we are already acquainted. This pseudo matey stuff is a dead giveaway for what you are about, and makes the hair on the back of our necks prickle.
3) If the shopkeeper is having a bad day, they will not want to play, and will immediately ask you what you are trying to sell. Watch his body language too: if the shopkeeper rushes behind his till, you are making him feel nervous. Denial at this stage is useless (you know, the “Oh, I’m not trying to sell anything, just trying to improve your life/the planet…” line) and you will get very short shrift. Just smile and cross them off your list graciously.
4) If the shopkeeper is feeling playful, he or she will indicate it and you may proceed to converse. A sardonic grin usually means the shopkeeper is either bored or looking to draw blood, but if he uncrosses his arms and smiles warmly, get cracking with your patter. You do not know how long this window of opportunity will last, so keep it light and brief.
5) Religious and political reps are only ever admitted for their entertainment value. If you are not funny, forget it.
6) The question “Is the owner around?” will always be met with the answer ‘no’. If the person whom you have addressed isn’t the owner, it is insulting. If he is the owner, the question carries an unbearable burden of which we would rather not be reminded.
7) We do actually buy lots of stuff literally off the backs of lorries and vans, but never metaphorically ‘off the back of a lorry’. If you see what we mean. Nor will any other shopkeeper worth his special-offer-this-week-only salt. Nicked stuff has to have come from somewhere. Possibly another shop. It’s wrong. In fact, if you catch us at a bad moment, we may even turn you in ourselves.
8) Lady sales persons with very high heels and impossibly polished nails scare us: so do men in immaculate suits. As a rep you should look smart, but if you look too smart you have the shopkeeper at a disadvantage. And you also run the risk of looking like a health/tax/trading standards inspector.
9) Sales personages with dirty finger nails will not be entertained. Even if they are giving away free chocolate.
10) Tea or refreshments will only ever be offered on the second visit. IF you are lucky enough to be invited to make a second visit. And no, you can’t just use the loo.
If you want to do this over the phone, you will need even more luck. It brings out the imperious in us. Here’s our top five tips:
1) When-oh-when will telesales companies learn only to employ the articulate? Mumbling, lazy enunciation or poor pronunciation are no-nos. In any language or with any accent.
2) For goodness’ sake don’t read stuff at us. For starters, when we interrupt or ask you a silly question, you will get all flustered and lose your place. And secondly, if you are insufficiently interested in the product that you are trying to flog to learn what it actually is – well then you shouldn’t be working there.
3) Mornings are always a bad time to ring. Shopkeepers have better things to do. Ring too early and we’ll have you for breakfast. Early afternoon is a safer bet.
4) If it is a survey, be clear about how long the thing will take. Occasionally it behoves us to indulge you, but if it is too long we will just get the ache and hang up.
5) Begging calls are bad news. We already give to two charities on a regular basis. There ain’t enough in the pot to go any further. So don’t call us because then we just feel mean having to tell you ‘NO’.
What? You still standing there? Gosh, you are determined. On the positive side: if you want us to put up a poster for an event, as long as it’s nothing too controversial the answer’s usually yes. And if you are selling something we actually like – books, food, fun things – then we’re a pushover…
Nowrooz, or the Persian New Year, falls this year on March 20th at 16:15:28pm. This is also, of course, the time of the spring equinox, the first day of spring. The timing is crucial – it is worked out according to the lunar calendar.
This year will be 1397 – the years are counted from the date of Mohammed’s flight from Mecca to Medina. However, just as with Christmas, Nowrooz is quintessentially a pagan festival. It has its origins in the way back in the mists of time, when the generally practised religion in Iran was Zoroastrianism, and there are strong elements of superstition woven into the customs surrounding it. On the eve of the last Wednesday of the year, for example, Iranians the world over light fires which they then jump over, addressing the flames as they go, shedding their bad deeds/luck and taking strength from the fire, purging themselves for another year.
Iranians decorate for the New Year – they prepare a special spread of items representing the regrowth and prosperity that they hope will come. There is the ‘HAFTSIN’ – the seven ‘S’s – seven items beginning with the letter S – you may choose from: SIB (apple), SIR (garlic), SAMENOU (a sweet paste), SOMBOL (hyacinth), SUMAK (a spice), SENJED (the fruit of the oleander), SIRKEH (vinegar), SABZEH (herbs), and SEKEH (a coin). The ‘sabzeh” is grown from wheat or bean sprouts a couple of weeks before the actual day. They will also have live (gold)fish to represent new life and loadsa sweeties (to bring sweetness into their lives)The NOWROOZ table will be set with painted eggs, mirrors, candles, and a copy of the Koran. It is awfully pretty.
On the actual day it is important to start the New Year as you hope to go on – pink and scrubbed, in new clothes, relaxed and happy, with a clear conscience and surrounded by your very nearest and dearest. As the clock strikes you hug and congratulate everyone, and then eat some of the vast number of sweetmeats in front of you. Gifts and money are given, especially to children, money being distributed by the elders from the pages of the Koran. In Iran there is then a period of great festivity – businesses and schools close for two weeks, and the time is spent visiting friends and feasting.
Finally, on the thirteenth day after the New Year, the sabzeh (which should now have grown quite high) is tied by the members of the family, as each one recites their wishes for the coming year, and then tossed into moving water. Oh, and (in case you were worried) the goldfish are released into ponds or proper aquariums. That’s it. Have a good one.
A Guide to the Strangely Two Dimensional World of Middle Eastern Bread
Firstly let’s get one thing straight – if you want Hovis, sliced, or baguettes, or a crusty cob…you’re in the wrong shop.
Middle Eastern bread is flat. Mostly very flat, although some of it is allowed a little frivolous leavening. Every village, every household almost, has a secret traditional bread recipe – there are squillions of varieties of naan (as we say in the trade). And it is eaten with nearly every meal.
They are less prone to going mouldy than they are to drying out, so once you have opened your bread, keep it well wrapped up. All flat breads freeze beautifully.
This is just a wee listy-poos of the ones we sell at Persepolis…
Lavash: the most popular form of Iranian bread – usually very big and oblong. Tastes and looks like cardboard to the uninitiated. This is versatile stuff tho’ as it may be eaten cold or toasted (don’t overdo it on the toasting front as it turns to a crisp very quickly). And it is great for ripping, dipping, wrapping, dunking and fixing the wobble on the table. We have several varieties:
Hand-crafted tanoor bread (usually in a big pile at the front): we don’t have this all the time as the baker is very lazy, so buy it when you see it. Usually around £2.49
Machine made lavash: smaller sheets, and cheaper: we have two sorts again, a plain one and one with saffron. £1.19/£1.39
Taftoon: slightly thicker than lavash, and usually amoeba-shaped. You need to warm this bread through – really lovely with dips and cheeses, and it also makes a good pizza base. £1.19 a pack.
Barberi: the thickest of the lot (although still a bare half inch thick). Persian ciabatta, for want of a better description. Spongy when cold, perfect when warm. Lovely bread for soups and winter suppers. The (female) shopkeepers favourite. Usually around £1.59. This baker is also very unreliable, so we can’t guarantee always to have it in stock.
Noon Sangak: Persian stone-baked wholemeal bread. Yummy, but a bitch to keep fresh. So we don’t – you will usually find it in the freezer. We fly ours in from Iran. From £1.99 according to pack size.
Khobez: Arabic round bread. Hollow inside like pitta, but bigger. And round. Not very nice cold – jolly nice hot. There are two sizes and we do sometimes get the wholemeal in as well when we think there are enough customers for it. Try splitting it and roasting a whole chicken inside. 59p/79p at the time of scribbling.
Pitta Bread: you don’t really need us to tell you about this, or how useful it is. No freezer should be without a packet of this skulking therein – from unexpected parties to lazy suppers it’s a dream. Fry it to switch continents and make great nachos. 30p a pack or 4 for a £1. Silly money.