Nush-e Jan! “The New Food of Life” review

Najmieh Batmanglij, the “guru of Persian cuisine,” wrote the first edition of Food of Life back in 1986 as a way for her to pass down Persian cooking (and culture) to her sons. More than twenty-five years later, “Food of Life” is still going strong and has been given a beautiful update. This anniversary edition includes 330 classical and regional Iranian recipes as well as an introduction to Persian art, history, and culture, new recipes adapted from sixteenth-century Persian cookbooks, added vegetarian options for most recipes, master recipes with photos illustrating the steps, an overview of the long legacy of Persian cooking, and color photos of most recipes with presentation suggestions. A beautiful green ribbon bookmark makes it easy to find your place.

In Iran, cooking is not a solitary act meant only to put food on the table, but one that brings family and friends together to laugh, tell jokes and stories, and recite poetry. This expanded edition of “Food of Life” is rich with Persian poetry (written in Farsi as well as translated into English) that complements various ingredients, recipes, and lifecycle events. You’ll find witty retellings of Mulla Nasruddin that combine food and humor, as well as excerpts from the Thousand and One Nights and early Persian literature. There are also detailed descriptions of various holidays in Iran, as well as the traditional Iranian wedding ceremony with suggestions on how to plan your own. Gorgeous illustrations including miniatures, manuscripts, and reproductions from bas-reliefs provide a glimpse of Persian culture throughout the ages, including lavish court feasts. The food photography is also beautiful, featuring traditional Persian sofrehs and accents. For those new to Persian cuisine, a wonderful list of sample menus is included that covers main meals, Persian holidays and lifecycle events (you’ll even find a suggested Persian-American hybrid Thanksgiving menu featuring sweet and sour stuffed turkey and pumpkin khoresh).

The recipes are clearly laid out (vegetarian substitutions are printed in green in the margins where applicable) and easy to follow, and I appreciated the thorough glossary of ingredients, terms and Persian cooking techniques, the bilingual English-Farsi list of ingredients and common trees, plants and flowers, as well as the updated list of Iranian stores and restaurants (including internet stores). Though there are certain ingredients that will have to be mail ordered (golpar, grape syrup, dried Persian limes, dried rose petals, mahlab, etc.), most recipes call for ingredients that should be readily available at your grocery store or butcher. Persian cuisine tends to use a large variety of fresh and dried herbs and seasonal vegetables, making it a great way to use up produce from your farmer’s market or CSA. I particularly loved the opening chapter of appetizers and side dishes; I like to make two or three and serve them as a light dinner. There are many healthy, tasty yogurt-based dips and salads such as yogurt, cucumber and rose petal dip, yogurt and spinach dip, and yogurt and white broad bean salad as well as cheese, walnut and herb dip, olive salads, and light veggie salads. Stuffed vegetables also play an important role in Persian cooking; I loved the vegetarian version of the quinces with rice stuffing (delightfully sweet-tart from the grape molasses, balsamic vinegar, and lime juice), the stuffed eggplants with walnut and onion stuffing, and the potatoes stuffed with eggs and fresh herbs.

Kukus, or open-faced omelets, are another versatile staple that can be served as a snack, appetizer or main dish. They can be served hot or cold and hold in the fridge for several days, making them perfect for a quick leftover meal with a salad. I loved the apple, raisin, and date omelet: I used Fuji apples (but left out the optional cayenne), and I loved the hint of rosewater in the batter. I also tried the pistachio kuku with its side salad of heart of Romaine and dill; I would have never thought to make an omelet with nuts (you grind them with sugar in the food processor first, so there are no large chunks), but it was a very pleasant discovery. Instructions are also included for finishing the omelet in the oven rather than the stovetop (I found that my Le Creuset 10″ cast iron skillet was perfect for this).

Another revelation was the fish baked in yogurt with walnut and dill topping. The yogurt kept the fish wonderfully moist, while the walnut topping made with fresh herbs and bread crumbs added a wonderful crunch. There are numerous variations for kababs including lamb, veal, fish, and organ meats, as well as an incredibly thorough chapter on rice dishes, chelows and polows with fantastic step-by-step photos on how to prepare the tahdig, the golden crust at the bottom of the rice pot that is the most prized part, with no fewer than seven variations. There are even instructions on how to make Persian rice in a rice cooker, a handy touch for busy modern cooks. Polows are one of my favorite things to make as I regularly have many spices and dried fruits on hand, and the many variations using seasonal fruits such as apples and quince make for lots of happy exploring.

As a baker, I particularly enjoyed the chapters on desserts, pastries and candies and breads. One of my favorite discoveries was the Armenian sweet bread; I found I had all the ingredients on hand (I used ghee in place of butter) and substituted cardamom for mahlab, and the three resulting loaves looked just like those pictured (see above for photo). Due to it being a very rich dough, the bread does not rise much, but the moist crumb was delicately scented with cardamom and just sweet enough (I used pearl sugar as a garnish). It also freezes well for last-minute company. Chapters on preserves and pickles, drinks (including tea, coffee, and flavored syrups), and snacks and street foods round out the offerings.

This beautiful anniversary edition of “Food of Life” captures the essence of Iran both ancient and modern, and the book brims with poetry, grace, and the joy of a good meal with family and friends. This is a beautiful tribute to Persian cuisine and culture; the scent of saffron and rosewater seems to rise from its pages, and I find myself coming back to its recipes and stories again and again. “Food of Life” holds a place of honor in my cookbook collection, and I hope it becomes one of your favorites as well. Nush-e Jan!

(Review copy courtesy of Mage Publishers)

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