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Vittles 3.10 - Persian Supermarkets
A beginner’s guide to Iranian food, by Amira Arasteh
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When Vittles started I was adamant that it should cover diaspora food shops, an area my own writing had long neglected in favour of restaurants. I’m not sure we always used to privilege restaurants in this way ─ when I look through ‘Food Lover’s London’ by Jenny Linford, one of the first books to take the influence of immigration on how London eats seriously, food shops are given just as much space, if not more, than restaurants themselves. I guess there’s something utilitarian about food shops that defy exotification ─ they generally don’t have interesting or ‘meaningful’ names, there’s no decor or uniform, there’s no attempt to placate the Western palate. Like the best restaurants, they generally don’t spend too much time looking outside of the community they intend to serve.
Over the last four months Vittles has covered Turkish supermarkets from the point of view of Greek produce, the snacking potential of East Asian supermarkets, Polski skleps, Latin American and Brazilian supermarkets, the memories evoked by Nigerian food shops, Balkan supermarkets, and the twin poles of London’s most famous markets: Brixton and Borough. Today’s newsletter by Amira Arasteh on Persian food shops will probably be the last guide I publish before I change Vittles’s remit, but it is one of the most interesting in that ─ like the food of the Balkans in relationship to Greece ─ it is constantly defined by the food of diasporas who have more foothold in the London market. Hence most Iranian produce goes not through Persian food shops but through the bigger ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘Turkish’ marts.
But as Amira mentions, there are some specialist shops in London and because of the (of course) absolutely unquestionable quality of Iranian produce, the best Middle Eastern shops are probably full of Persian barberries and saffron anyway. One shop not mentioned in today’s newsletter is Persepolis in Peckham, a shop I had previously mainly pegged just as a restaurant that attracts a surprisingly monolithic crowd given the area (see also, Ganapati), but has become more important to me as a food shop over the last few months, with their big bags of ghormeh sabzi mix and cooking limes that are difficult to acquire anywhere else. And if you enjoy their patisserie, then I recommend travelling to the source, at Park Royal in west London, where the most extraordinary scene of Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese wholesalers and patisseries are hidden in open sight. But that is a newsletter for another time.
A beginner’s guide to Iranian food, by Amira Arasteh
I’m going to be honest with you: the fact that I cooked at all during this lockdown is worth celebrating. I am notorious for always eating out – my average pre-pandemic fridge contents consisted of a bottle of tonic water and a leftover tub of butter. The closure of restaurants meant I had been experimenting with cooking as a novel way of keeping myself alive. Like everyone else this meant a marked increase in pasta dishes, but an unexpected side effect of lockdown has been reconnecting with Iranian cooking, the food of my childhood.
My parents moved to the UK from Iran in their late teens to study and ended up staying here after the revolution. Dishes like ghormeh sabzi (lamb and herb stew), gheymeh (lamb and split peas) and proper Iranian kebabs, perfectly shaped, grilled on charcoal and accompanied by saffron-topped rice, grilled tomatoes and a healthy sprinkle of sumac, were mainstays of the dinner table alongside roast dinners and fish and chips. So far, I’ve tried my hand at cooking tahdig (the glorious crispy-topped rice dish), as well as some of the stews and kebabs. I am learning about the different dishes that, despite having satisfied my gut and taste buds, I had shown little interest in learning about for the past 26 years.
Iranian food is less integrated into Western culture than other Middle Eastern cuisines. While the Arabic food of the Levant – hummus, shakshuka, baba ghanoush – has become familiar in the UK, the uniqueness of Iranian cuisine is not so well known. Most of us know what baba ghanoush is, without thought, but do you know kashke bademjan (grilled aubergine and kashk – a fermented by-product typically made with yogurt whey)? No one describes hummus as a ‘savoury dish made from mashed chickpeas’ each time it’s mentioned, but Iranian food still requires one-sentence explanations.
The cuisines are also more than superficially different. For example, hummus does not exist in Iranian cooking; it might be found on menus to appease customers but we do not have meze within our meals. There are some similarities between Turkish and Iranian food – but Iranians use far more saffron and no za’atar, with a greater use of sourness and bitterness from fruit and herbs. You might find more similarity with cuisines to the east rather than the west – those of Pakistan and India, for example, where the Mughal empire left its influence – but unlike many South Asian cuisines, Iranian food is not spicy
Even though our food hasn’t quite broken through, there is still a significant Iranian population in the UK. Iranians typically settled in north and west London – before the 1979 revolution happened many Iranians already lived in these areas due to studying at London universities. Persian language schools soon sprung up, and many of those who have stayed since 1979 wished to remain close to some form of community. My own parents lived in Gloucester Road while studying and resided in Primrose Hill afterwards, but less affluent Iranians and those seeking asylum after the revolution moved to the outskirts of London, such as Ealing, or to other cities. It’s important to note that many Persians did not think they would still be living in the UK today – people had hoped to ride out the revolution and wait for the political situation to change. Perhaps this is a reason why the culture is less integrated into the country and city; Iranian people had not planned to move their lives and their culture elsewhere.
The trickiness of getting my Persian food fix during quarantine forced me into learning how to cook, but London’s Persian restaurants are starting to reopen. My family’s favourite, Tandis in Haverstock Hill, does delivery for the lucky north London lot. Kateh in Little Venice is another popular spot, as is Hafez in Bayswater – my parents’ old haunt from ‘the good old days’. Richmond is also home to a hidden gem, Diba, and there’s an unlikely restaurant scene around East Sheen, while, of course, there’s the whole of Ealing (and a significant portion of Finchley).
The fast food elements of the cuisine – sandwiches and pizza – can still be found both west and north. Caspian Sandwich Bar in Ealing holds some nostalgia for Iranians who reminisce about their high school lunches with each bite. Kuku sabzi (a herb-based frittata-style patty) and kuku sibzamini (potato patties) are home comforts and make great sandwiches the next day. Caspian Lounge (no relation to the sandwich bar) in Finchley is where you can find Iranian pizza. There is something amusing that in every true Iranian pizzeria you’ll find two menu options, guaranteed: ‘makhloot’ (meaning ‘mixed' with ground beef, various types of sausage - not pork, obviously - mushroom, bell pepper and onion) and ‘makhsoos' (meaning ‘special’ with the same ingredients as ‘makhloot’ but without the ground beef). Blasphemous moment: Iranians add ketchup to pizza. For that, I apologise.
Editors note: I would like to officially retract this apology
Ketchup aside, the main difficulty in cooking Iranian food in London is getting the ingredients. I won’t lie to you, most Persians will have stocked up ten suitcases’ worth from their last trip to Iran. Or maybe that’s just my parents. The key is in the herbs and spices mainly, some of which you can get from generic Middle Eastern stores but some which are a bit more particular. Most dishes use lamb: there’s no lamb like Iranian-style lamb, whether it’s braised, as chops, whatever. We do it good. But realistically, you’re fine with getting this from your local supermarket or butchers.
Otherwise, here is what you need and where to find it:
Asal Iranian Supermarket
434 Edgware Road, Marylebone, W2 1EG
If you’re closer to central London and in need of your Iranian kitchen cupboard staples, head to Asal supermarket at the top of Edgware Road.
Bahar Iranian Supermarket
349 Kensington High St, Kensington, W8 6NW
I like to call this spot Little Persia as it sells everything that will make you think of home… or consider a serious career as an Iranian chef. Family-owned and run, Bahar sells a variety of herbs and spices, Iranian snacks and key ingredients. It even sells Persian rice cookers so you can create the gorgeous, golden, crispy topping that is tahdig.
Pebble Bread serves not only sangak, but taftoon and lavash as well. As if finding this bakery in north-west London wasn’t good news enough, order before 3pm and the bakery will do next-day delivery.
Melbury & Appleton calls itself a ‘one-stop online shop for hard-to-find ingredients for the home cook’. This London-based, independent, family-owned company sells ingredients from a variety of cultures’ cuisines and stocks Persian ingredients, including barberries and ghormeh sabzi mix.
This is used to season or marinate every single meat and chicken dish in Iranian cuisine – we even sprinkle it on the top of our rice dishes. Yes, you can find saffron in Tesco but there are different grades of the most expensive spice. Saffron can cost more than gold per gram, if you’re dealing with the highest quality. Iranians often bring back these spices from their visits to Iran or choose to seek true Iranian saffron. As about 90 percent of the world’s saffron production comes from Iran, you can find these stronger grades (known as ‘sargol’, the red tips only) in various Middle Eastern stores.
Advieh (Persian spice mix)
You can find the full variety of Persian spices at most Turkish or Middle Eastern supermarkets, including advieh (a blend of cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, cumin, caraway, coriander, cloves and cardamom). Persian dishes use herbs and spices to add layers and depth to a meal, as opposed to hotness – therefore, Iranian cuisine is perfect for anyone who can’t handle so much chilli heat. Advieh, in particular, is added in addition to saffron and turmeric to season meat and rice dishes.
One of the few ingredients that needs little translation, sumac is reasonably easy to source, particularly as it is added to falafel and used frequently to garnish hummus. Like saffron, there are different standards so take this into account depending on the advanced level of your cooking. The sumac currently in my kitchen is from Tesco and, let me tell you, I can taste the difference. The essence is there but the strength in tangy flavour is not. If you can’t find an Iranian supermarket, a Turkish one would definitely have a decent version. If you want to truly do Iranian cuisine justice, it’s worth the hunt.
Dates and pistachios
You can find dates in most supermarkets but it’s worth checking where they’re from. I’m not saying this from a nativist point of bias either; date palms originated in the regions around the Persian Gulf and Iran produces around 950,000 tonnes of dates annually. The same goes for pistachios. The pistachio tree is native to Iran and the country is historically known for its pistachios.
Pomegranate molasses are an essential should you be making dishes like khoresh-e fesenjān (a walnut and pomegranate stew, traditionally with chicken). It’s important to use pomegranate, rather than another berry substitute to get that tangy tone to the dish. You can find actual pomegranates in most supermarkets but most Iranians will want to source Iranian pomegranates, knowing the taste from home. Iran is the second largest producer of pomegranates worldwide, again with the fruit originating from the region.
Limoo amani (dried cooking limes)
Formally known as ‘limoo amani’ in Farsi, this is a dried lime used for cooking purposes (as opposed to drinks and garnishes). Their flavour is strong and very citrussy but also smoky and bitter, as they’ve been preserved. It really depends on your taste as to whether you like these but even if you don’t like to eat them, you’ll still enjoy the flavour they add to dishes when cooking.
We have four main types of bread in Iran: sangak (a wholewheat leavened flatbread), taftoon (a leavened flour bread), barbari (a thicker flatbread) and lavash (a softer, thinner leavened flatbread). Bread is such a staple in Iranian meals so it will definitely feel like home or get you into the Persian cooking mood if you have this on the table.
Well, it’s impossible to make zereshk polo (a rice dish with barberries, served with chicken) without your zereshk, isn’t it? These dried red berries decorate the rice, adding that sharp sweetness to the dish. And guess what? Iran is the largest producer of zereshk.
Sabzi literally translates to ‘greens’, meaning all kinds of green leafed goodness. It's very common to find them in Iranian dishes, ghormeh sabzi having it in abundance, but also just to have raw, leafy greens on the table to accompany each meal. My mother brings back suitcases full of freezer bags to keep us going throughout the year but you could create your own. You’d need dried parsley, leeks, green onions, coriander and fenugreek leaves so it can be a little time-consuming or tricky to source from your regular supermarket. You’d have zero problems at one of London’s Iranian supermarkets though.
Since I’ve mentioned ghormeh sabzi about ten times, here is my lockdown recipe for it. You can use the dried ghormeh sabzi mix you get from Iran or Iranian supermarkets, and because it is quite strong it replaces the need for both garlic and fenugreek. Also, the last Saturday of November is International Ghormeh Sabzi Day – mark it in your diaries, I know you won’t want to forget.
The illustration was done by Reena Makwana https://reenamakwana.com/ . Reena was also paid for her work.