Immigrant Food Stories: A Persian Quince Stew, A Supper Club & A Cookbook from When It Rained Bombs

Persian Quince Stew | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-11 Quince Stew – Other photos from my last trip to Iran in August ’15

Immigrant Food Stories, a Feast of Togetherness for Dark Days

It was a rainy Saturday night early in November. There was the smell of cardamom and butter in the air. Windows were condensated after hours of boiling rice and stewing meat. The speakers of Alice’s record player were connected to my phone, that played songs of which only I could understand the words. Others were distracted from the melodic tunes by the food and the conversation. Around a long table topped with pale rose, red Autumn leaves, quinces and pomegranates, there was a cheerful group of eight people who were chatting the cold, rainy night away. With a glass of Syrah in our hand, we were feasting on the colorful and aromatic dishes, in a company that was just as vibrant and stimulating.

We were from Iran, Italy, The US and Sweden, with some German background. The food was Persian, fragrant and seasonal. This was the Persian Autumn Dinner that I hosted at Latteria Studio, as a trial for my supper club. It was only a couple of days before the US election. And I could’ve never imagined that 3 months later when I finally wrote a recap of that evening, we would be standing where we stand now.

This post is a part of the Immigrant Food Stories; the contribute many fellow food bloggers are making against hate and fear of the other, particularly to Trump’s dumb and cruel muslim ban (that thanks to a healthy judiciary system, has been halted). I am touched by these people’s stories, and willingness to narrate how we are all similar at the end of the day. Make sure to check out the links below and to look for #ImmigrantFoodStories on instagram, twitter and facebook, and please share your own immigrant food stories too!

If you have followed Lab Noon for a while, you’d know that this whole blog is a long, ongoing immigrant food story. It’s the tale of my Iranian culinary heritage combined with what I learn everyday from the spectacular food culture of Italy, where I immigrated a decade ago. What you might not know is another food story; the food stories of wars, the food stories of sanctions, the food stories of shortage, instead of abundance.

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Bombs, Coupons and a Cookbook from “Rosa

I was born in 1985, right in the middle of eight years of Iran-Iraq war. I still remember as if it was just yesterday when the bombing siren went off, and what I now associate as the most horrifying voice in the world, announced the beginning of the bombing and the minutes we had in order to run to shelters. As terrifying as the siren was, the running and hiding seemed like a big, collective game to us children. A game that our parents were often too concerned and worn out to play with us.

Food and other essentials were rationed during the war in Iran. A grocery coupon system was applied so that all families could have to them, without having to obtain their food and other goods from the black market (which was also very active). The aisles in the super markets were often half empty, and the queues in front of shops that sold with coupons were very long.

I had long forgotten about the grocery coupons and the long queues until some weeks ago, when I received a small, but heavy parcel from my mom. It was the two huge volumes of “The Art of Cooking” by Ms. Rosa Montazami, the bible of cooking in Iran. The book is a vast collection of Iranian and international savory and sweet recipes, so important that for decades it has been gifted to young brides to help them cook well in their new home. Continue reading

Persian Delight, Easy Turkish Delight/Lokum as Christmas Edible Gifts from the East & a Yalda Celebration

Persian Delights - Rosy Candies for Christmas Edible Gifts | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-title-01

I. Christmas Flavors from the East

Would a Christmas with Middle Eastern flavors sound outrageous or alternative to you? What if I told you that your Christmas at times — tastes and smells like the feasts and celebrations of the East, and it has been so for centuries? Warm spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves that evoke the spirit of Christmas, form the flavor pallet of so many ancient and modern Middle Eastern recipes. Many roast or braised meats that we serve on Christmas are enriched with dried fruits such as raisins, plums, dates and apricots; a normality in many dishes from the East.

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Winter feasts, regardless of their location or origin, celebrate togetherness in order to survive the dark. There’s often dry fruits and nuts in the festive dishes, mainly because fresh fruit was not available in the cold season. In the medieval ages spices, figs, dates, nuts, turkish delights, and even sugar were luxury goods that were imported to Europe from the Middle and Far East. So naturally, they were consumed in banquets and feasts. The medieval Christmas has left a footprint of Middle Eastern flavors in the Christmas dishes of northern Europe, and consequently, North America and Oceania. As for Italy, apart from Sicily, Naples and other Southern parts where the dominations have permanently inserted some Middle Eastern flavors to many dishes, the rest of the country does Christmas with little or no warm spices.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you might remember that in Iran we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we do celebrate Yalda, a celebration of the Winter Soltice. Although Yalda is a laic festival based on ancient seasonal traditions, it is similar in some ways to Christmas, which I talked about in details here. Eating nuts, dry fruits and Turkish Delights is one of these similarities. 

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One of the sweets that we always serve on the Yalda table along with nuts, pomegranates and —oddly enough— watermelon, is Baslogh. Also known as Lokum, Rahat Lokum (راحة الحلقوم) or more commonly, the Turkish Delights. The Turkish-ness of these sweet, gooey, soft and fragrant candies however can open a never ending debate. They are common in all the Balkan region and the Middle East, and we must admit that choosing the name Turkish Delight has been an incredibly clever marketing tactic, that has opened the way of these festive sweets into the western shops and even literature. 

Turkish Delights are featured in the Chronicles of Narnia, as a sweet temptation of an evil witch that uses them to get information from a boy who loves the candies. The amazing Diana Henry (food writer and author of many books) on a podcast on Channel 4 Food Programme digs deep into the Eastern flavors for Christmas celebrations and a very interesting part of the podcast is dedicated to Turkish Delights. 

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II. Persian Delights: More Delicate, Easy Turkish Delights

No matter the name, these rose scented candies have been present all this Holiday season in my kitchen, beside my tea, all over my apron, in my travels and also in my cooking events! I knew I wanted to make a blog post about them as an edible Christmas Gift (my type of gift, remember this post?), as well as making them for the Christmas Pop up Kitchen we held on December 18th at Latteria Studio. Last weekend I went to Milan to make these Persian Delights with Alice aka A Gipsy in the Kitchen and we filmed it live on Facebook (in Italian). This post is my contribute to the virtual Yalda Celebration of the Persian Food Bloggers, so do check out other Iranian recipes for the festive season at the bottom of this post.

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There really is something fairy tale-ish about these sweets. They’re incredibly soft, yet they have a satisfying texture too. My version of this recipe is super delicate, as I have reduced the sugar amount. After many tries (including some embarrassing failures), I finally realized how to perfect the gummy effect by using a lot of gelatin sheets. The key is to use the double dose of gelatin for the amount of water in the indications, as we’re making a solid candy, not a jelly to be eaten by the spoon.  Continue reading

For the Love of Books, Apples & The “Art” of Food Blogging; A Review of Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn

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The three chapters of this post are interconnected, but if you only want to read my review of the Pride and Pudding cookbook jump directly to Part.III. Enjoy!

I. The Original ‘Sin

The more time has passed from school years, the keener I am to appreciate Autumn. You see, I used to absolutely hate the arrival of September, the end of Summer, and the beginning of school.

My school years back in Iran were not easy. Yes, my best friends are still the ones I made during school, and yes, we have plenty of stuff to laugh about at the slightest remembrance of any silly thing that we did back then, but the school I went to was very much of a Pink-Floyd’s-The-Wall sort of school, to make you get the picture. 

Our whole educational system —particularly my school— was very focused on scientific subjects such as mathematics, physics and biology. Arts and sports were neglected to the point of disappearance. Everything out of this tight circle was considered a hobby, not much worthy of a teenager’s precious time.

That’s why my range of hobbies was quite wide. I spent half of the afternoons of each week at the English school for many consecutive years, (which was incredibly educational, and much more fun that you could imagine). Apart from that and private music lessons (at which I helplessly sucked), during those years I took various courses of drawing and painting, which later led me to choose Graphic Design as my major at University. It was a rather radical decision for that moment in time, one that my mom still remorses just as much as I’m grateful for it (she still dreams of a doctor or an engineer). 

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Looking back, I don’t find it surprising at all. After all, the thing I cared most about when filling my notebooks with scientific content was the neatness, the harmony of colors and size of the writing, and the fact that when I flipped through pages, it must have evoke an “Ooooh” sound, as for what a beautifully written notebook.

Good editorial design, beautifully created books and magazines, and harmonious compositions of text and images just sing to my soul. The visual presentation of a text is for me just as important as the content, if not more so. This plays an important role in my choice of cookbooks. Don’t think I’m shallow; a cookbook to me is a source of inspiration, not just in the kitchen, but also in design. That’s why the only cookbooks I purchase new with the intention of keeping them forever, are the ones that are well-designed books, with interesting recipes. Others can be borrowed, bought on kindle or second hand.

II. Apple, the [Un]Forbidden Fruit

Another quick flashback to school days will bring us closer to the core of this piece: my mom’s obsessions with healthy school snack. She was extremely against any junk food, that’s why I was not allowed to take any money to school. She always baked simple cakes at home (such as this one); an afternoon activity that evolved a lot of fun in the kitchen and licking some batter off the bowl. My school snack was a piece of cake and some fruit; almost always an apple.

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I had my soft and moist cake during the first break, and the apple on the second one. So that it also worked as a natural toothbrush. Although I knew that my mom’s home-made cake was a precious thing, I couldn’t help craving for chips, or digging my fingers in cheetoz bags that left them all orange and cheesy, or longing for really terrible cold cut sandwiches that somehow tasted like a noble food when wolfed down at the backyard, where other greedily hungry teenagers couldn’t find you.

I have grown up with apples. In Iran we begin the new year with red apples, as they’re part of our famous “7 S’s” table. Later in Spring rosewater apples hit the market; a small and fragrant variety of apples I have had only in Iran. And we knew Summer was ending when the green, crunchy and slightly sour apples appeared on our tables. These are still my favorite type of apples.

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Miss Foodwise's Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-Adam and Eve

Often we neglect the common, ordinary apple as a fruit we can find anytime, anywhere. But apple’s story is tied to human’s story. From the Garden of Eden to Snow White, discovery of gravity to modern technology, apples have always been present in mythology, religion and pop culture. Although maybe it’s worth saying that the most (in)famous of these stories that features apple as the forbidden fruit, is a big historical misunderstanding. In fact, the apple is not mentioned at all in the Genesis section of the Bible and neither in Quran*. The only fruit mentioned in that section is the fig, which leaves Adam and Eve use to cover their nakedness. But since in the medieval west the fig was too exotic to be recognized, the common and familiar apple became the forbidden fruit. However, Michelangelo has painted a very clear fig tree on Sistine Chappell’s ceiling. 

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The apple’s story is so fascinating that drink writer Pete Brown has written a book called The Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit. He has done an outstanding research on this fruit, which was not born in Britain, as is commonly believed. As Brown explains clearly, it has been scientifically proved that the apple grew in Kazakistan for the first time. Not so surprising considering the fact the Almaty means the location of Apples, and Alma-Ata, the other pronunciation of the name of the city means the father of the apple in Turk languages. Alma, (apple) is also a common girl’s name in the whole Silk Road region. 

*Biblical and Quranic narratives, Wikipedia.

III. Pride and Pudding, “A Very Tasty Masterpiece” by Miss Foodwise

I am almost sure that Regula Ysewijn aka Miss Foodwise was the first food blogger I came upon and I started following seriously. At that time I was very obsessed with my diet and did not know much about the food blogging world. I had just debuted my presence on Instagram. Beautiful, dark photos inspired by the Dutch masters, intriguing historical recipes from the great Britain, and the stories behind them, tuned into a faithful reader of hers.