The Mother of Cuisines

There are several claimants to the title of World’s Premier Cuisine but the most influential cuisine ever created, one that has offshoots in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, is that of Persia. Around 550 BC, the Persians overcame their allies/masters, the Medes, and began a millenium of grand achievements. Among these, of course, was not defeating the allied Greek city-states — the Greeks did themselves in a few years later and Alexander the Great conquered Persia in the 330s BC. Alexander was quite taken with the Persian way of life, something which upset some of his fellow Greeks. 

Persian feast from

The Greeks were a pretty rough-hewn people compared to the Persian invaders they resisted and could not compete in certain cultural areas. Herodotus has a little to say about Persian dining:

Of all the days in the year, one’s birthday is held in the most honor. On this day they claim the right to serve a larger feast than on any other day. The more fortunate among them serve the meat of oxen, horses, camels, and donkeys roasted whole in ovens, while the poor serve the meat of small animals such as sheep and goats. They eat few main dishes but consume many desserts, and the latter are not served as one course, but at intervals throughout the meal. The Persians in fact say that the Hellenes are still hungry when they finish eating, since nothing worthwhile is served after the main dinner, and they add, if something extra were to be served, the Hellenes would not stop eating so soon. [The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories]

So, right away, a culinary invention: dessert!

After the death of Alexander, his generals squabbled over leadership of the conquered area. Seleucis finally prevailed over his rivals circa 300 BC. Native Persian rule was restored by the Parthians about fifty years afterward. Parthian Persia lasted 500 years. During this period, the Persians pushed against India in the East and Rome in the west. Meanwhile, Persia had introduced a number of new food items.

Dried fruit market at Tabriz

Perians were particularly interested in fruit (probably for all those desserts) and brought peaches from China and developed oranges and lemons from the native citron. Dried fruits, such as raisins, were a specialty and used in all kinds of recipes. Spices, particularly cloves, cardamom, and pepper, were imported from Asia. Rice became a staple, the Persians developing various aromatic, non-sticky strains. Wheat and both leavened and unleavened breads were very important to the Persians. These items were traded west — Romans liked peaches, disliked lemons. All this was in addition to native Persian ingredients such as saffron, pomegranates, and basil.

The Parthians gave over to the Sassanids in the 3rd Century and Persian culture reached a peak period. Incessant war with Byzantine Empire took its toll, however, and left both nations vulnerable to Islamic Arab armies who, after 650, ruled.

Moroccan lamb tajine with almonds and prunes

The Arabs hadn’t much of a culinary history but they quickly came to enjoy Persian food and carried the cuisine west into North Africa and Spain and north and east into central Asia, then back south into India. A Persian cooking vessel, the tajine, became the favored device of North African cooks. In Tunisia, a tajine is an herbed omelet similar to the Persian kookoo sabzi. In Morocco, a tajine is a stew cooked with spices and meant to be served over rice. This sort of dish had been developed in Persia as khoresht (or any of many other local names) and was taken into India by the Moguls where it was named biryani.

Tunisian tajine and Persian kookoo with dried barberries and cilantro

The muslim invaders of Spain found a dry, undeveloped land that they quickly transformed by building irrigation channels and walled orchards for the fruit trees that they brought from the east along with rice and spices:

In the court kitchens of Córdoba and Granada, cooks could now produce the dishes of high Islamic cuisine. There were the pilaus, made by frying rice or thin wheat noodles and then simmering them in an aromatic liquid until it was fully absorbed. Another family of dishes consisted of delicate dumplings (albondigas) of meats pounded with seasonings. And there were the most characteristic meat dishes: meltingly tender spicy stews. Flavored with a variety of herbs and spices, these stews were cooked in earthenware pots nestled in circular holes in charcoal-heated masonry bench stoves. Some were green with spinach and coriander. Others were golden with saffron. And the most complex were flavored with cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, almonds and raisins and thickened with eggs or breadcrumbs.

Shortly before the Moguls began their expansion, European powers invaded the New World. Cortez found that Mexico had its own culinary tradition. From Prescott:

His meals the emperor took alone. The well-matted floor of a large saloon was covered with hundreds of dishes. Sometimes Montezuma himself, but more frequently his steward, indicated those which he preferred and which were kept hot by means of chafing-dishes. The royal bill of fare comprehended, besides domestic animals, game from the distant forests, and fish which, the day before, was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico! They were dressed in manifold ways, for the Aztec artistes, as we have already had occasion to notice, had penetrated deep into the mysteries of culinary science.

Cortez (the Killer) was a relatively enlightened and far-seeing conqueror. He saw that gold was not going to support his venture by itself and began investigating local agriculture. Cacao beans were being used as currency and Cortez shipped quantities of chocolate and native vanilla back to Spain where they remained royal perogatives for decades. Even after chocolate and vanilla escaped the royal grasp, they never spread out of Europe and were pretty much relegated to desserts. Much more important was the export of native tomatoes and chili peppers to Spain which then spread east. Meanwhile, Cortez introduced peaches, almonds, oranges, grapes, rice, and olives:

The importation of a European fruit or vegetable was hailed by the simple colonists with delight. The first produce of the exotic was celebrated by a festival, and the guests greeted each other, as on the appearance of an old familiar friend, who called up the remembrance of the past, and the tender associations of their native land. [Prescott]

At around the same time, Spain’s Portugese allies were landing on the west coast of Mexico where they off-loaded cargoes of cinnamon from their Sri Lankan holdings. They took back chili peppers and tomatoes, thus transforming the cookery of South East Asia.

In 1962, Mexico’s great writer, Octavio Paz, became his nation’s ambassador to India where:

…he quickly ran across a culinary puzzle. Although Mexico and India were on opposite sides of the globe, the brown, spicy, aromatic curries that he was offered in India sparked memories of Mexico’s national dish, mole. Is mole, he wondered, “an ingenious Mexican version of curry, or is curry a Hindu adaptation of a Mexican sauce?” How could this seeming coincidence of “gastronomic geography” be explained?

Well, by now you know the answer — the link between East and West (and the New World) was Persia. A mole is a preparation of ground spices or a sauce or a finished dish made with a spiced sauce. (Chocolate is only used in a few mole dishes.) The east-west sequence is khoresht/tajine/Spanish estofadas/mole while west-east goes khoresht/biryani/regional curries/mole. When a Sri Lankan curry features the New World’s tomatoes and turkey, you are looking at true fusion cooking.

Chicken: mole, estofada, tajine

Chicken: khoresht, biryani, Sri Lankan curry [recipe links below]

Recipes and credits: khoresht, biryani, sri lankan curry 

There are a good many other Persian influences on Mexican cuisine. Persians were (and are) fond of sharbats = sweetened fruit juices, and Mexico has its agua frescas. Need I add that intermediary North Africa has its own fruit drinks? And there is Spanish rice which has its Persian antecedents. But you can easilly find more correspondences. There has been a recent surge of interest in Iranian cooking with celebrity chefs picking up on the topic. And here’s some more stuff:

Rachel Laudan, “The Mexican Kitchen’s Islamic Connection”
Many, many links to recipes and sources from Pars Times.
Recipes, including a pomegranate khoresht and kuku, from Najmieh Batmanglij.

Batmangli’s Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies
My Persian Kitchen
Javane’s Kitchen discusses the spice mixture advieh, the Persian version of Indian masala or Moroccan ras-al-hanout.
KShar has a huge series of YouTube videos on Persian cooking including this rice tahchin that I mean to try sometime.
Donia Bijan, Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen

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