Ink on my Apron: A very Iranian invitation
Food seems to be the medium of choice favoured by Shahnaz to convey her message of love to not only her own family but also to neighbours, relatives, and colleagues of her children and this, to me, is what Ramadan is really about.
Four weeks of Ramadan with Ink on my Apron
For a woman who states that her love for god and poetry is second to none, it seems only natural that a soothing sense of harmony and rhythm prevails in Shahnaz Abbas’ kitchen. It’s a laidback Saturday afternoon in Sharjah – one of those summer days that seems to stretch endlessly, luring even the laziest home cook into trying their hand at something new. Shahnaz, however, will be sticking to her tried and trusted repertoire and is clearly someone who needs no coaxing when it comes to cooking and entertaining.
As her daughter Forough reels off an ambitious menu of what her mother will be preparing today, I glance doubtfully at the clock. It has just turned a few minutes past noon and I helpfully remind my hosts that the brief is just to recreate one dish that sums up Ramadan for them. In what I will soon learn is true-to-form gracious Iranian fashion, both ladies dismiss my comment with a loosely concealed amusement and inform me that it really is “just a simple meal”. It also happens to be the day after Nowruz or the Iranian New Year and Forough gives me my first real initiation into Persian culture as she leads me to a beautiful Haft-sin (seven foods beginning with the letter sin) table in their living room complete with sabze (lentil sprouts grown in a dish); samanu (wheat germ pudding); seb (apple); sirkey (vinegar); sumac; seer (garlic) and senjed (dried fruit). Sombol, recognised as the flower synonymous with Nowruz completes the arrangement along with painted eggs and traditional confections.
We make our way to the kitchen, which displays no sense of activity and I smile to myself thinking that unless a diligent army of church mice have silently been at work, it really will be nothing short of a miracle if Shahnaz is able to pull off what sounds like an elaborate feast in an hour or so. Things roar to life within minutes of Shahnaz stepping into what is clearly her territory. If I had expected a frenzied clanging of pots and pans and the general sense of panic one would associate with cooking at breakneck speed, there is none of that. The matriarch of the Abbas household begins expertly multitasking between the stove’s many burners, making what appear to be animated impromptu decisions in Farzi with her daughter.
Shahnaz and Forough give new meaning to the term pulling out all the stops and a glass of fruit juice is thrust into my hands to “keep me going” while the preparation process is underway. Forough seems to enjoy taking a backseat and playing the reliable role of sous-chef. Her attention turns towards chopping sprigs of dill and cloves of garlic for the baghali polo. Green fava beans are removed from sealed freezer bags and allowed to thaw.
Forough measures out a few cups of basmati rice, which are then given a thorough wash until the water runs clear. I scoop a handful of grains and take in a good long whiff of what I always associate as the smell of the burlap sacks in which rice was preserved in my grandmother’s fusty storeroom in Kerala. If there is one thing I know about Iranians, it is that they pride themselves on having rice-making down to a fine art and this fragrant dill and broad bean rice has gained off the charts popularity across the world. The grains of rice are fluffy and separate and always offset by delicate aromatics or herbs, serving as the perfect side act to the hearty gravies and meaty stews.
My focus soon moves to what is clearly to be the centrepiece of our “low-key” spread – a chicken gravy that is being watched by Shahnaz like a hawk. While the dish in question doesn’t seem to have a name, Forough assures me that it is “easy, tasty and traditional”. Two whole chickens have been pre-soaked in a salt and vinegar bath. Shahnaz gives them a quick sear till they acquire a lovely golden brown colour on both sides after which they are laid to rest in a pot with quartered onions, thickly-sliced zucchini, and carrot rounds, chunky wedges of bell pepper and a knob of ginger, which I’m informed is not traditional. An inconspicuous spice blend is tossed into the mix and my sniffer dog instincts immediately kick in. On demanding what it is, Forough casually replies, “Oh, just some spices my mother likes to add some flavour, you know.” Some relentless questioning as to the exact proportion of powders reveals a spoon each of paprika, coriander seeds, black pepper, cumin, and Omani lemon have been ground to result in this potent flavour bomb.
Interestingly, this will be my first insight into how the Persian food Shahnaz cooks today bears strong Indian and Emirati influences with respect to the spices and aromatics she uses. The family moved to the UAE almost thirty-two years ago and as part of the country’s diasporic community, they now “enjoy all sorts of food since we live in a multi-cultural society.”
“Pure Persian food,” I am reminded by Forough, “doesn’t use much in the way of spices other than salt, black pepper, saffron and the occasional pinch of turmeric.” Apparently satisfied with the seasoning, Shahnaz pours a good glug of water over the chicken and vegetable mixture and places a lid over the pot, which will be allowed to simmer and work its own magic for a good forty-five minutes to an hour. The Iranians, I realise, could definitely teach the world a thing or two about low and slow cooking.
Now that the bulk of the work seems to be done, I get chatting with Forough. A little probing as to how the featured dishes for today were chosen elicits a sheepish grin and she admits that while her mother contemplated making another delicacy called abghoost - famous in the southern city of Abadan where the family hails from and synonymous with the Holy Month – this dish is a personal favourite of hers and she’s a chicken lover through and through.
Part of abgoosht’s appeal during Ramadan can be attributed to the fact that after a tiring day of abstaining from food, it acts as a nourishing one-bowl stew complete with meat, whole heads of garlic, peeled shallots, skin-on spuds, kidney beans, boiled chickpeas, and tomatoes. The mixture is allowed to simmer for the better half of a day. The stock is subsequently strained and serves as a soup into which bits of sangak bread are allowed to soak while the solid components are mashed and eaten separately. Incidentally, abgoosht is the one thing her father will eat day in and day out during Ramadan, resulting in it being a permanent fixture at the family’s Ramadan table.
As for specific fasting rituals, Shahnaz clucks and makes a praying motion with her hands saying, “In Iran, we eat very little when we hear the azaan. There is not a big Iftar like in the UAE. We have some dates, bread, and feta with mint, then we pray and come back to have dinner.” Having said that there doesn’t seem to be anything casual about any of Shahnaz’s spreads and each member of her brood here in the UAE seems to have a personal favourite, which she takes special joy in cooking. Forough looks forward to a layered rice, meat, potato and tomato dish topped with fried onions and saffron that is cooked in a deep moulded dish and then flipped out in the manner of a cake to retain its shape. Phirni – a creamy refrigerated rice and milk pudding with hints of cardamom - is another treat of her mother’s enjoyed during the month.
Forough’s daughter Sama loves her grandmother’s harees – a Ramadan delicacy featuring a special variety of wheat that is cooked in a pressure cooker with meat and then mashed with the back of a wooden spoon till it attains a porridge consistency. Served with ghee, cinnamon, a sprinkling of sugar and a dollop of clotted cream, this seems to be the ultimate exercise in indulgence.
With all this talk of food, I can’t help but wonder what Shahnaz’s most enduring memories of the month are. Her eyes sparkle and she says, “Suhour. That is what remains close to my heart. My mother was a single parent to seven children and she would wake us up for a pre-dawn meal of harees or rice pudding. Sometimes we ate rice with gravy. After this, we’d pray and go to school.”
The nostalgic spell is broken with a jolt as we all realise that the boiled chicken is ready for the next step. Three ladles of saffron-infused water are added to the mix and the chicken is then removed and shallow-fried with some sticks of cinnamon. This is then added to the vegetable and broth mixture with two tablespoons of concentrated tomato paste and allowed to simmer for a few minutes.
Somewhere along the way, I realise Shahnaz has also put together a brinjal-based fried dish called kashke bademjan topped with yoghurt whey and dried mint that serves as a delightful accompaniment. Forough steps back to critically survey her own handiwork - a rustic salad with a rather unconventional secret dressing that features ketchup. Lunch is ready to be served.
The best meals are not just ones partaken at other people’s homes but those where you are thoroughly embraced as family. I am completely at ease by this stage and offer to help set the table. We sit down to eat. Once satisfied that she has served us hearty mommy portions, Shahnaz looks at us and with a benevolent “Bel afiya” or “Enjoy your meal”, she encourages us all to dig in. Never one to be shy, she looks particularly pleased when I request seconds and ensures I get the biggest piece of chicken. I only make a slight show of feigning fullness, but this is a game I am no stranger to.
Tahdig or the burnt crusty underside of the rice - that is enjoying its moment on the global map - scraped from the bottom of the pan has also been served. I am interested to learn from Forough that unlike Middle Eastern cultures where it’s considered rude to serve this portion – the implication being that you’ve served the last portion of rice from the pot – every Iranian knows this is the good stuff. The bit that everyone fights over and is causing the world to sit up and take notice.
Food seems to be the medium of choice favoured by Shahnaz to convey her message of love to not only her own family but also to neighbours, relatives, and colleagues of her children and this, to me, is what Ramadan is really about. For a part-time poet, it’s no surprise that she chooses her every word with care and Shahnaz looks at me and says, “All human beings are good. It doesn’t matter where they are from or what religion they follow. I love everybody as long as they have good hearts.”
Recipe for Shahnaz Abbas’ Chicken Gravy
2 kgs chicken, curry cut and pre-soaked in salt water and vinegar
3 tbsp vegetable oil of choice
3 or 4 small purple onions, quarters
1 zucchini, sliced into thick rounds
1 bell pepper, roughly diced
2 carrots, sliced into thick rounds
1 knob ginger
2 tsp mixed spice (1 spoon each of paprika, coriander seeds, black pepper, cumin, and Omani lemon powder)
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp salt
1 Maggi stock cube
1 tsp saffron soaked in 3 ladles of hot water
2 sticks of cinnamon
2 tbsp tomato paste
1. Soak the chicken in a bath of salt and vinegar for a few hours and then wash thoroughly.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over a moderate heat and then give the chicken a good sear on both sides till it turns golden brown.
3. Place the seared chicken pieces, along with all the vegetables, ginger, mixed spice, turmeric, salt and Maggi stock cube in the same pot. Add enough boiled water to cover all the ingredients completely. Allow this mixture to come to a rolling boil and then cover with a lid and allow it to simmer on the lowest flame for 45 minutes to an hour.
4. Remove the lid and spoon in the saffron mixture.
5. In a separate heavy-bottomed pan, heat oil and sauté the cinnamon sticks until they release a fragrant smell. Remove the chicken pieces from the pot and shallow fry them batch by batch in the oil.
6. Add the vegetables and tomato paste to the pan along with half the broth. Allow this to simmer for about 10 minutes and then serve.
All photographs courtesy of Jehan Nizar
Jehan Nizar is a food blogger and a lifestyle features writer at www.inkonmyapron.com.