The A to Z of Calgary’s Persian cuisine offering
These days, Iran comes up more in conversations about politics rather than about food, which is a real shame. Iran is home to one of the world’s most ancient cuisines, and Iranians, or Persians, as those in the diaspora often refer to themselves, have great pride in their rich culinary heritage. For a cuisine stretching back to antiquity, it is impossible to highlight all its distinct, beloved dishes, but we will cover some of Calgary’s most authentic and tasty Persian eats.
One of the earliest known Persian cookbooks dates to the 16th century and contains six chapters dedicated to rice dishes. Indeed, rice remains one of the cornerstones of Persian cooking. Cooking rice Persian-style is a skill—the goal is slightly salty, fluffy rice on top of a crispy golden rice layer on the bottom of the pot, known as tahdig. In Calgary, Termeh Café Restaurant serves up countless rice dishes. Every weekend, at their Signal Hill location, diners feast on mouth-watering lamb shank on a generous bed of dill rice. This combination is known as baghali polo ba mahiche and is popular at weddings in Iran. Baghali polo is a
mixed rice dish cooked with broad beans and an extraordinary amount of dill. Persian cooks do not shy away from using herbs to their fullest extent! Mahiche refers to the lamb shanks, which are flavoured with turmeric and saffron, then simmered to falling-off-the-bone tenderness. Another uniquely Persian rice dish is tachin, a hearty baked dish of rice smothered in yogurt and saffron. Termeh’s version is available every Thursday, and is filled with tender chicken and barberries, a tart berry frequently used in Iranian cooking.
Royal Kabab Express Ghormeh Sabzi
Iran also has a long history of breadmaking going back to ancient times. There are many popular breads in Iran, but one of the hardest to find in Calgary is sangak, a long flatbread traditionally baked using hot pebbles. Tired of eating frozen sangak, Calgarians Homayoun Hodaie and Mohsen Rohani opened Eclipse Bakery this year and offer fresh sangak every weekend baked by Rohani’s wife, Nikoo Rad. Their sangak is perfectly soft and chewy with a crispy crust and generous smattering of sesame and nigella seeds. Calgary’s wholesale Shamsane Pita Bakery supplies specialty groceries like Caspian Supermarket and Shaheen Grocery Store with their taftoon and lavash breads. Both are flatbreads, although taftoon is a little heftier and Iranian in origin, while lavash is papery thin and common in many Middle Eastern countries.
Accompanying all that bread and rice is a plethora of stews, kebabs and thick soups. Chelow kabab is Iran’s national dish, a platter of Persian-style rice and kebabs. House of Kabob offers an excellent selection: there’s tender, juicy kabob kubideh made of ground beef, kabob barg with generous pieces of beef striploin, and jujeh kabob, which features chicken marinated in saffron. Equally delicious chelow kabab can be found at Royal Kabab Express, an unassuming joint tucked into Calgary’s Hillhurst neighborhood. Here, the saffron scented rice is sprinkled liberally with sumac, giving it a tangy kick.
Nutty Saffron’s Saffron Ice Cream
But to those in the know, Royal Kabab Express also serves up a shining version of khoresh-e ghormeh sabzi, a traditional, beloved Persian stew with an immensely distinct scent and flavour. Khoresh means ‘stew’ in Farsi, Iran’s national language, and khoresh-e ghormeh sabzi is generally made of a combination of herbs (think parsley, cilantro and green onions), kidney or pinto beans, dried Persian limes, lamb or beef, and most importantly, fenugreek. Fenugreek imparts a flavour that is difficult to describe, a mildly bitter almost smoky flavour, while the simmered herbs add additional layers of complexity and earthiness. Try it for yourself—you will never forget its unique taste.
In addition to stews, Persian cuisine also features ‘thick soups,’ which are texturally somewhere in between regular soups and stews. These traditional thick soups are known as ash, and one of the most popular is ash reshteh, which is made of numerous herbs, chickpeas, kashk, a form of dried whey, and reshteh, which are Persian wheat noodles.
House of Kabob’s Kabob Kubideh
Ash reshteh is enjoyed as part of Persian New Year (Nowruz) celebrations as its noodles symbolize an auspicious year ahead. Caspian Supermarket makes ash reshteh in house year-round and finishes it with copious amounts of fried onions, mint, and garlic. As ash reshteh demonstrates, Persian cuisine makes frequent use of yogurt products. Some common dishes include mast-o-khiar, a light dip of cucumbers, yogurt, and dill, and kashk-e-bademjan, a delicious eggplant dip with onions and kashk. Yogurt is also enjoyed as a fermented, carbonated drink called doogh, which is served cold and flavored with mint or rose petals.
For those with a love of sweets, don’t worry, Persians are no slouches when it comes to dessert. In fact, cookies were first baked in ancient Persia. Nutty Saffron is a home bakery that offers a dazzling array of traditional cookies ranging from chickpea flour cookies known as nan-e nokhodchi to soft, cardamom rice flour cookies called nan-e berenji. Other desserts include bastani, a Persian ice cream flavored with saffron and rose water and mixed with pistachios and morsels of clotted cream. Nutty Saffron’s homemade bastani is lightly sweet, refreshing, and filled with heaps of pistachios.