Cuisine | A Persian Staple with a Twist
by LEILA DARABI
05 May 2012 18:34
[ life+style ] In college, at the end of my occasional weekend visits, my father would send me back to the dorm with a warm kuku sabzi, wrapped in foil to keep in my mini-fridge as a healthy study snack.
For those unfamiliar with the dish, kuku is a Persian frittata and sabzi means green (as in the color) or greens (as in vegetables). Kuku sabzi is made by finely chopping a mountain of fresh herbs and cooking them with spices and just enough eggs to bind them into an aromatic green sponge.
It tastes much better than it sounds. The difference, I often tell my friends, is the proportion of eggs to other ingredients. While omelets are mostly eggs filled with stuff, kuku is mostly filling held together by eggs, a subtle but crucial difference.
Skeptical at first, my hallmates learned to love kuku sabzi, placing orders when I went home to bring back "more of that good spongy stuff."
Like its egg-based cousins the tortilla, omelet and frittata, kuku can take infinite forms. Until my twenties, however, I had only ever tasted kuku sabzi. Similarly, when it came to khoresht, Persian stews served over rice, I could list only a handful of the most classical dishes.
In a diaspora, the collective imagination defines the homeland. And that definition tends to be strict.
The people making Persian food for me -- my father and his sister, my empathetic American mother, the small cluster of Iranian families in their social circle -- cooked to fulfill nostalgia, to evoke a sense of home in smells and in tastes. They craved the food their mothers (and mothers-in-law) had prepared, holiday meals, the standards.
An Iranian-American friend once told me that while visiting family in Tehran, she had sampled traditional dishes made with low-cal, low-fat substitutions. "People are modern. They change it up!" she said. "They make khoresht with ground turkey instead of lamb."
I have never been to Iran and therefore have never tasted such progressive variations. I've had plenty of accelerated versions -- rice quick steamed rather than soaked overnight, broiled chicken in lieu of an elaborately prepared stew. But never radical departures from the established palette.
The diaspora craves not variety.
At the end of my freshman year, my father retired and decided to move back to his country. My steady kuku connection gone, I spent the rest of my academic career grazing strange processed foods when up all night studying. Just like everybody else.
Years went by, during which I had kuku maybe once a year, often for Persian New Year. As cookbook author, Najmieh Batmanglij, points out in her recipe, "The green herbs symbolize rebirth, and the eggs, fertility and happiness for the year to come."
Eating kuku always made me miss my father, as the unique scent and flavor combination triggered sensory recall. This, too, might be why I never considered the existence of alternative kuku: loyalty to childhood memories; the sense that my Iranian-ness had been jettisoned when my father left and might be further diluted by any departure from the orthodox.
Then one evening a few years ago, my Farsi teacher hosted a Shab-e Yalda party, to celebrate the longest night of the year. She invited students and friends and served dried fruit and nuts. We stayed up late and, as is the tradition, told each other's fortunes by opening a book of Hafez poems and letting the opening lines illuminate the year to come.
She also served a cauliflower kuku. Cauliflower! It had never before occurred to me that one could stray so far from the herb sponge. Timidly I tried a piece. There has been no looking back, and no end to the variation since. I know now that cauliflower kuku is nothing new, just a recipe never served in my home where we stuck to the absolute classics. I've grown to think of it less as a betrayal of kuku sabzi and more as a distinct dish possessing a flavor combination all its own.
Today, cauliflower and feta kuku (with tons of cumin) is one of my favorite dishes to make for a dinner party or potluck. This weekend I hosted a brunch and made two, one with half cauliflower, half Brussels sprouts -- a suggestion I discovered online.
There are several tricks I've learned from practice, consulting the experts, online research and Najmieh Batmanglij's phenomenal book New Food of Live: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking Ceremonies, which boasts a number of excellent kuku recipes, gorgeous photos and interesting historical tidbits.
These include:Adding baking soda. For an extra fluffy kuku, add one teaspoon of baking powder and one tablespoon of flour for every six eggs or so.
Starting on the stove and finishing in the oven. It's not done unless the top is golden brown.
Being creative. Don't be rigid in your definitions!
Enjoying the dish with friends and family. Persian food is meant for social gatherings.
And, finally, saving the leftovers. Kuku is great the next day as a room temperature snack. As my dad would stay, you never know who might drop by.
Homepage photo: Mes Petites Recettes de Cuisine blog, which also provides the classic recipe in French.
Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau