Middle Eastern Cuisine

Like their non-Jewish neighbors, the Jews of Baghdad and Persia cooked great rice dishes, flavored with herbs.

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Rice is the dominant grain in Persia and the Persians are the world’s greatest rice cookers. No other cuisine produces such a variety of unconventional rice combinations. Fruits and vegetables are both used in combination with rice. Spice seeds are added to provide crunch and texture; herbs are generously added to rice dishes to complement egg and dairy foods, and there are sweet rices eaten with meat. What other cuisine has the ingenuity and adventurous spirit to adorn rice with a sweetened mélange of cherries, dried orange peel, and almonds?

In the Persian stew, khoresht, small amounts of meat and poultry are glorified with a variety of chopped herbs. Herbs both well known and esoteric are added by handfuls to their recipes. All of these herbs and spices are used in Persian cooking: basil (rayhon), black pepper (felfel), cardamom (hail), celery (karafs), chive (tareh), cinnamon (darchin), coriander (tochme gishneez), cuminseed (zeere), dill (shevit), fenugreek (chambaliley), leek (tareh faranghi), marjoram (golpar), mint (nano), oregano (osha), parsley, large‑leaf (jafaree), saffron, savory (marzey), scallion (piaz cheh), sumac (sumac), tarragon (tarchum), turmeric (zardchubeh).

Onion, but not garlic, is ubiquitous. The Persians in antiquity thickened their savory or sweet dishes with powdered walnuts, and the idea (disseminated through conquest) was taken up with alacrity by the Arabs and Romans. Fesenjan, a world class stew of walnuts, pomegranate and meat or poultry, is extraordinary.

Persian Jewish food, with its preoccupation with herbs, vegetables and moderate amounts of meat, is a relevant cuisine for our day. Cooking without excessive reliance on fats and oils is a hallmark of the Persians.

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Copeland Marks has written numerous cookbooks, including The Great Book of Couscous and The Exotic Kitchens of Peru.