For this month’s interview, I was fortunate enough to talk with Azita Mehran, creator of Turmeric and Saffron, a food blog devoted to Persian cuisine and recipes. Filled with delicious-sounding dishes that are sweet as well as savory, her blog is one that I’ve been a fan of for quite some time. Turmeric and Saffron is written in a conversational style that leaves me feeling less like I’m reading printed words than spending time in the kitchen of a friend, watching as she prepares meals that photograph so beautifully, I can almost smell them. I’m grateful to Azita, not only for talking with me on subjects like seasonal cooking and raising U.S. appreciation for Persian cuisine, but also for introducing me to several recipes that I must soon attempt, and for having given me reason to pick up my poetry-reading again.
Flavorful World: You’ve lived in New York for a number of years. Which New York City restaurant(s) do you feel have consistently offered the best representations of Persian cuisine, and why?
Azita Mehran: I would recommend the Shalezeh Restaurant on the Upper East Side in NYC for their good food and helpful staff. Also, I’d recommend Mirage Persian Grill on Long Island for consistently offering delicious food and good service at great prices.
FW: Name three food item staples that are always present in your kitchen, and of the three, which you feel has the most versatility as far as lending itself to the widest variety of dishes.
AM: There are many food item staples in my kitchen that are hard to choose from. However, the top three that I never run out of are basmati rice, walnuts, and rose water. Rice is a major staple in Persian cuisine and the most versatile out of these three items. Polow (rice) can be served plain with a touch of saffron or layered with a variety of ingredients such as mixed fresh herbs, fava beans, green beans, lentils, chicken or lamb. You can also make sholeh zard (saffron rice pudding) and fereni (rice pudding) for dessert.
FW: Autumn is upon us now, and cooking trends tend to shift from warm weather fare to things better enjoyed as the climate cools. Excluding soups and stews, what is a food or cooking style that you look forward to working with each Fall?
AM: I’m looking forward to cooking or baking with pomegranates, quince, pumpkins, butternut squash and apples.
FW: What is your favorite/most common use for turmeric when cooking? What is your favorite/most common use for saffron when cooking?
AM: Almost all Persian stews start by frying some chopped onions and I usually add a generous amount of turmeric powder to a hot and sizzling pan of golden brown onions, give it a good stir and fry it for a minute before adding in the other ingredients, such as meat or vegetables. Saffron on the other hand is used in most rice dishes, joojeh kabab (chicken marinade) for its aroma, flavor and gorgeous golden yellow color.
FW: What is a dish that you enjoy eating, originating from a culture other than your own, that can be prepared utilizing no more than four ingredients? What makes this one a favorite?
AM: Pan-seared salmon with pesto – it’s simple, healthy and nutritious.
FW: Regarding your stated passions for cooking and poetry, pick your favorite piece of Persian poetry and construct a meal to represent it on a plate in food form.
AM: I would choose the following poem titled “The Chickpea” by the great Persian poet Rumi, translated by Colman Barks. I would like to present to you a bowl of hearty Persian stew called Ash Reshteh made with chickpeas, beans, lentils and lots of fresh herbs and noodles and cooked slowly on low heat. All of the ingredients, dried and fresh, hard and soft, of all colors and textures simmer in a large pot on low heat for an extended time till they soften and blend together completely; become flavorful, aromatic, edible and fulfilling.
A chickpea in a pot leaps from the flame,
out from the boiling water,
crying, “Why do you set fire to me?
You chose me, bought me, brought me home for this?”
The cook hits it with the spoon into the pot.
No! Boil nicely, don’t jump away from the one who makes fire.
I don’t boil you out of hatred.
Through boiling you may grow flavorful and nourishing, and united with vital human spirit.
I don’t inflict suffering out of spite.
Once green and fresh, you drank rain in the garden;
you drank rain for the sake of this fire.
FW: On your blog you cite a Huffington Post article that touches on how underrepresented Persian cuisine is in the United States? What do you think would be the best means of raising its profile on the national stage and bringing more Americans aware of it?
AM: By food writers making a greater effort to introduce the largely unknown Persian cuisine to the western culture and to address any misconceptions and generalizations that might be associated with it. Also, better relations between Iran and U.S would help as well.
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits?
AM: “Love and Food Is All You Need.”
FW: When you aren’t cooking and/or eating delicious foods, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
AM: Listening to music, reading poetry and photography.
*Note to readers: Further exposure to Azita Mehran’s gorgeous food photography and mouth-watering kitchen creations is mandatory for any person seeking to enjoy memorable meals. Her blog is a great place to get started with that, but is far from being her only online presence worth checking out. You can follow Turmeric and Saffron on Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter, and ‘Like’ it on Facebook, to make certain you never miss out on what’s cooking.