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The Legendary Cuisine of Persia by Margaret Shaida

Margaret Shaida has written an important, seminal work on the cooking of Iran titled The Legendary Cuisine of Persia.

Shaida was born in the United Kingdom but married an Iranian and went to live in that country for 25 years. It was here that she learned Persian cooking techniques from her extended family. She also became obsessed with the Tehran markets and the beautiful produce they offered.

A measure of the esteem with which Shaida is held as a writer is the fact that the legendary Alan Davidson wrote the introduction to this fine book.

The book represents one of the best surveys of this important cuisine that we have read. Shaida includes much information on the cultural history of Persia (Iran) as well as many insights into the techniques required for reproducing the recipes in the home kitchen.

And the recipes are just SO tempting. We want to cook every single one. There is something about Persian cuisine that is exciting, exotic and enticing. Whether it is the many versions of subtly perfumed rice, the complex khoreshts (stews) with their juxtapositions of meats, nuts, spices and fruits, the hearty soups, the koofteh that are lightened in a variety of ways including the addition of rice, potato or chickpea flour, the egg and vegetable dishes and the range of pickles and preserves they are all dishes that we want to master.

The book is divided into twenty-two chapters that start with three addressing the history and culture of the country. The first two recipe chapters are for bread and rice - placing these two foods at the pinnacle of the cuisine. It is almost too difficult to pick out our favourite recipes as they are all good however the following are worth trying to get an understanding of why we think this cuisine ranks alongside the great cuisines of the world such as French, Thai and Chinese.

The most important technique to master is the cooking of rice. This is explained in five pages of detail in the Rice chapter. Of course, there is not just one rice recipe. Different approaches are called for depending on the occasion and the accompaniments - but there are some key rules which are clearly explained. There is also a master recipe provided where the rice is parboiled and then steamed, but there are also recipes for baked rice and boiled rice and many recipes for rice with fruits such as âlbâloo (sour cherry), barberry and dried apricot.

And then come the wonderful khoresht recipes. We love the cubed leg of lamb simmered with onions and herbs and then finished with rhubarb. But, perhaps, the jewel in the crown of the khoresht recipes is the duck with walnuts and pomegranates. This is the classic fesenjân that takes its place in the pantheon of the world's greatest dishes. Make sure that you use freshly-picked walnuts as they soon become rancid and lend an unpleasant bitter flavour to the dish. While this recipe does take some time to prepare it is worth every minute spent. The key is to fry the walnuts until they become quite brown as this provides both the dark, rich colour of the sauce and also contributes to the unique flavour. The duck is quickly fried and then simmered in duck stock (made from the carcass), the fried walnuts are then added and then some pomegranate paste or juice to provide a pleasant sweet-sour undertone. Little meatballs that have been fried can also be added. (We also like to make a simple version of this dish that doesn't use the duck but just uses the meatballs.)

This book is an essential addition to every food lover's library and should be a constant companion in the kitchen while you explore this intriguing cuisine.

Note that the book won a Glenfiddich Food Book of the Year award in 1993, but the recipes are as fresh and relevant now as they were the day the book was published.

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If you are into Persian cooking you might also like this reprint and redesign of another top rating cookbook from Persia.

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