Recipes: The Saffron Tales tell a different story of Iran
Human rights campaigner-turned-food-writer Yasmin Khan is on a mission to change perceptions of Iran – and she's starting in the kitchen. She tells Keeley Bolger about the flavours and fragrances that bring Persian cooking to life
YASMIN Khan is taking Iran's image to task. A former human rights campaigner-turned-cookery writer, Khan spent much of her childhood in Birmingham, where she was raised on slow-cooked stews and pomegranates – mealtime mainstays from her family's Persian heritage.
Her passion for Iranian food is such that she took to crowdfunding site Kickstarter to get her first book The Saffron Tales – about Persian cuisine – off the ground.
"You ask the average person what they think of Iran, and it's bombs and chador-clad women," explains Khan, whose family hail from northern Iran.
"If you never heard about our music, our beautiful nature, our really cool artistic stuff, if you only heard about one aspect of a country, why would you know anything else? That's why I wanted to write the book; because I felt there isn't anything that showed that."
Clearly lots of people agreed with her; Khan achieved 100 per cent of her funding target within 24 hours, proving there's an "appetite to find out what Iran is like".
"Food is such a great window into a culture," adds the writer, who travelled extensively around Iran, taking in Tehran, Tabriz and Gilan, while researching for the book.
"We can all relate to sitting down over a good meal and enjoying it. It was so important to show the common thread of our humanity, from us in the UK to the people in Iran. That's what this book is about."
Growing up with a nutritionist mum, who "always cooked us a big meal", Khan and her family were spoiled at mealtimes.
"Iranian food is all about really fresh and bright flavours," she enthuses. "They use loads of fresh herbs, lots of citrus and nuts to flavour foods.
"It's not overpowering. It's delicate saffron or dried limes, or cinnamon or rose water... these evocative scents mixed with nuts and dried fruits. It's that sweet and sour flavour that best epitomises Iranian cooking."
Try these recipes for yourself:
:: FRAGRANT MIXED HERB AND FLATBREAD SALAD
(Serves 4 as a starter)
100g Persian flatbread (or toasted tortillas or pitta bread)
50g walnuts, roughly chopped
100g feta cheese, crumbled
25g bunch mint, roughly chopped
25g bunch basil, roughly chopped
25g bunch tarragon, roughly chopped
3tbsp pomegranate seeds, to garnish
For the dressing:
2tbsp balsamic vinegar
3tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/4tsp golpar (optional)
1/2tsp sea salt
1/2tsp black pepper
Using a pair of scissors, cut the flatbread into small jagged pieces and place them in a large bowl. Toast the walnuts in a small pan over a medium heat for two minutes. Add them to the bowl, along with the crumbled cheese and chopped herbs.
To make the dressing, whisk the balsamic vinegar, olive oil and golpar (if you are using it) with the salt and pepper. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and then get your hands in there, giving the whole thing a good stir to evenly distribute it.
Leave the salad for 10 minutes for the flavours to soak into the bread, then taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with a generous sprinkling of pomegranate seeds just before serving.
:: CHICKEN STEW WITH SPINACH AND PRUNES
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
8 chicken thighs, on the bone, skin off
200ml good-quality chicken stock
1/8tsp ground cinnamon
Sea salt and black pepper
1/2tsp saffron strands
A pinch of sugar
2tbsp freshly boiled water
Juice of 1 lime
Juice of 1 orange
Pared zest of 1/2 orange, sliced into thin strips
11/2tbsp flaked almonds, to garnish
Heat three tablespoons of oil in a large casserole pot and fry the onions over a low heat for 25 minutes, until they are soft and beginning to caramelise. Add the garlic and fry for another two minutes.
Turn up the heat and add the chicken. Cook for a few minutes to brown the chicken on all sides. Lower the heat, then add the stock, turmeric, cinnamon, a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of black pepper. Cover with a lid and cook for 35 minutes.
Meanwhile, make a saffron liquid by grinding the saffron strands with a pinch of sugar using a pestle and mortar and then adding the boiled water. Leave to steep.
In a large pot or wok, cook the spinach over a high heat until it has wilted and then place in a colander to drain. You'll probably have to do this in a few batches, unless you have an extremely large pot. Let the spinach cool and then squeeze it dry with your hands. Roughly chop and set aside.
After the chicken has been cooking for 35 minutes, add the chopped spinach and the lime and orange juice, along with the orange zest and saffron liquid. Place a lid on the pot and leave to simmer for 10 minutes.
Fry the prunes in one tablespoon of oil until they just start to plump up and caramelise. Add them to the stew and cook for a final five minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and pepper to your preference.
Toast some flaked almonds in a small pan over a low heat for one minute, until they start to go a golden brown colour. Sprinkle the toasted nuts onto the stew just before serving.
:: The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan is published in hardback by Bloomsbury, priced £26.