I estimated that there were no less than twenty thousand shops in Cairo… Every sort of rare goods from all over the world can be had there: I saw tortoise-shell implements such as small boxes, knife handles, and so on. I also saw extremely fine crystal, which the master craftsmen etch most beautifully… I saw the following fruits and herbs, all in one day: red roses, lilies, narcissus, oranges, citrons, limes and other citrus fruits, apples, jasmine, basil, quince, pomegranates, pears, melons of various sorts, bananas, olives, myrobalan, fresh dates, grapes, sugarcane, eggplants, fresh squash, turnips, radishes, cabbage, fresh beans, cucumbers, green onions, fresh garlic, carrots, and beets… In Old Cairo they make all types of porcelain, so fine and translucent that you can see your hand behind it when held up to the light. From this porcelain they make cups, bowls, plates, and so forth…They also produce a glass so pure and flawless that it resembles chrysolite, and it is sold by weight.”
- Nasir Khusraw, 11th century Perisan poet and writer
The above is a collection of exerpts taken from the Safarnama, or Book of Travels, generally considered one of the earliest works of true travel writing in existence. In the year 1046, 965 years ago this past weekend, Khusraw set out from his home in Persia on a seven year journey that took him throughout the then known Islamic world, visiting ten major cities, and overall traveling 19,000 kilometers – nearly 12,000 miles – traveling first north along the Caspian Sea, then down to Mecca (his original goal), then up to Cairo, Jerusalem, Medina and other cities, using Mecca as a base to which he returned four times over the years, and finally back to his home in Persia. Throughout his journey he kept a diary of his impressions of the cultures, peoples, architecture, food, and more – it is the most complete glimpse of that world from a millennium ago that exists.
In honor of that piece of writing, we focused on the flavors of traditional dishes from Persia, our style, of course.
The most traditional of the evening’s dishes, though still altered in form, individual cauliflower kukus, nice and puffed and brown, served up with a mildly hot jalapeño oil alongside.
I think this might have been the hands down favorite of all three evenings, and a surprise for many who first looked at it askance. A chilled soup – the base a chicken stock made with the chicken bones from the next dish, onion, red bell pepper, bay leaf, salt and black peppercorns, cooked down until it was intensely flavored. Mixed with thick yogurt, diced peeled cucumber, crushed garlic, chopped scallions, mint, dill, oregano, thyme, and tarragon, toasted and chopped walnuts, a light splash of rosewater, salt and pepper. The amazing herbal aromas and flavors just bowled us all over. You could make a vegetarian version simply using an intense vegetable stock as the base.
I’m calling this my Persian Chicken Blintz and you can’t talk me out of it. This one came in a close second amongst the evenings’ favorites. The classic dish, chicken stewed with almonds, raisins, tomatoes and spices served over couscous. Here, a chicken mousse made of grinding dark meat chicken (boned out thighs, the bones being used in the stock above), which I then whipped with eggs and cream until smooth. Into that I added chopped garlic, toasted slivered almonds, yellow raisins, par-boiled peas, a splash of honey, nutmeg, cumin, cinnamon and salt. I wanted to wrap it up in a crepe of some sort, but something that added to the flavors, and thinking about the couscous I thought of semolina crepes, which led me to rava dosa, a South Indian specialty of semolina and rice flour crepes flavored with lots of chopped green chilies and cilantro. Perfect! I made the batter thinner than it usually is by mixing in some beaten eggs and water, which allowed for a more crepe-like texture (usually rava dosa are cooked until browned and crispy). I wrapped scoops of the mousse mixture in the crepes, blintz-style, and then brushed them with butter and baked them until they turned lightly golden and I was sure the filling was cooked through. Served them up with a simple salsa of peeled and diced plum tomatoes with their juice, finely chopped ají amarillo and dried apricots, some cilantro and salt, all warmed together.
We couldn’t not have a polow, or pilaf as we might better know it. To make the polow I cooked grated onions and carrots until lightly golden, then added in a good scoop of bitter orange marmalade, basmati rice, fresh fava beans and vegetable stock, and cooked that all together until the rice and beans were cooked through. A little salt and pepper, nothing more. The lamb loin, cubed and marinated for the day in olive oil, lemon juice, onion, garlic, cinnamon, oregano, bay leaf, cumin, hot paprika and salt, then braised for about an hour and a half in its marinade (basically, I put it on to brown and then braise just before people were sitting down to start the evening’s dinner).
And, we finish up with a Date and Pistachio Tart, made in the style of an Engandiner Nüsstorte, a Swiss dessert, except without the top crust (so I cut back on the dough part to 2/3 of the recipe), and with a mix of chopped dates and pistachios filling in for the walnuts.
And to think, there are only seven years worth of journeying and meals to follow Mr. Khusraw through….