I’m a fan of Greg and Lucy Malouf’s food books. They have written five, two of which are favourites I turn to whenever I need inspiration: Turquoise, about food and travel in Turkey; and this latest, Saraban- A Chef’s Journey through Persia. All of their books have great visual appeal, great recipes and great writing.
Opening Saraban I feel like a child at Christmas, except, unlike a child’s fleeting devotion to any gift, no matter how wonderful, my devotion to this book will be long-lasting. It is a feast for the eyes. Coppery pages, traditional designs, and cut-outs at the beginning of sections that tease with the magic to follow, magic often bathed in turquoise, sea green or warmed by earth tones of brown and tan. Smiling faces. Luscious food. Windows framing paths ahead.
The recipes Greg Malouf – the chef – offers send me out to purchase ingredients not in my kitchen, anticipating the aromas and tastes to come.
For the writer in me, the words in Saraban weave the strongest spell, such as here, at the beginning:
“We arrive in the early afternoon, when the sun is at its hottest. After the long, dusty drive we are beginning to understand a little of how it must have felt in the old caravan days, to be part of a camel train moving slowly across the burning desert, with only the low silhouette of distant mountains to hold the eye and the shimmering promise of a far-off oasis to rekindle hope in the heart.”
Hope is rekindled every morning with breakfast and, fittingly, recipes begin with bread. Barberi is “huge oval flaps … enjoyed for breakfast around Iran with clotted cream and honey …” Those “oval flaps” are delicious and easy to make. Further on is a recipe now a dinner treat, Tahcheen-e morgh – Baked Yoghurt Rice with Chicken. Dense like a cake, it’s filled with chicken, yoghurt, rice, and moistened with saffron liquid and orange-flower water.
When I read the section on “small dishes” I remember an Iranian man and smile. I once taught English as a Second Language to immigrant students, including this young man, at an Ontario college. In my memory he is always smiling when I see him, despite having had to flee his country for another life. Like so many of my students he had little yet always brought a gift of food to share after our English lesson, a thank you for helping him with this new and difficult language.
“A small dish”, he would say.
One small dish that he and I shared – offered in this book – is Borani badenjan – Eggplant and Crushed Walnut Dip. His mother made it for him as a child. We scooped it up as they once did, with pieces of golden bread.
Sometimes he brought soup, one similar in taste to Eshkeneh – Persepolis Onion Soup with Soft-poached Eggs. There were no eggs in his soup but the onions and the rich broth filled the cubicle in which we worked with the flavours of both our homes.
The Maloufs are eloquent about food and its connections: “Wherever we have gone, food has been a key to unlocking doors into people’s lives, and we hoped that it would work a similar magic in Iran … Middle Easterners are famous for their hospitality, and Iran proved to be even more welcoming than other countries we had visited … We left Iran having made good friends and feeling more aware of what we all have in common rather than of our differences. And this surely is what the future must feel like.”
I hope so.
Saraban – A Chef’s Journey through Persia, by Greg and Lucy Malouf. Hardie Grant Books – 2010, www.hardiegrant.com.au. ISBN 978 174066 8 620. Photography by Ebrahim Khadem Bayat and Mark Roper.