Day 88: Iran
Driving up to a home in the Pacific Palisades, I ask Mr. Meatball, “When’s the last time we were here?” “Man,” he says, “I don’t know.” Tonight we’re having dinner at our very good friend Dara’s parents’ house. Dara was one of the old, original Los Angeles crew, along with Ultimate Manilow and Car Accidents Bernstein (from the Vegas stretch, here, here and here of Man Bites World), and Kevie. Those three have all since moved to New York, which I did briefly as well before being wooed back by GirlfriendBites. We all shared a common love of food, which still carries through to this day, with Kevie even going to culinary school and eventually becoming the general manager of a very popular New York restaurant. We all take food very seriously, and whenever any of us fell into any money, we’d wind up blowing it on some expensive meal somewhere. So now, while I’m in Los Angeles eating live octopus with Mr. Meatball in Koreatown, they’re eating fried brains in Astoria. But of all my friends, Dara is the one who would probably enjoy what I’m doing the most, and in all likelihood, if he was still in L.A., would have joined me for every single meal. But at the end of this whole project, the meal he may regret missing out on the most? The one he set up himself. A home cooked Iranian meal by his mother Ami, enjoyed by his father Ken, his sister Layla and a couple of guys from the old crew. So Dara, this one’s for you.
Also joined tonight by Meatball’s boss Shana, we ring the doorbell, then are greeted with big smiles by Ken and Ami. The evening begins in the kitchen with a round of scotch, as Mr. Meatball says to the parents, “this is the most civilized I think we’ve ever been in here. Most of the time we were here, it was during high school, there were a lot more people and you guys were out of town.” Ken laughs as we remember stories of shelves collapsing, pottery falling and expensive TVs being damaged. “I always told Dara,” explains Ken, “that I don’t care about the stuff being damaged— as long as you are okay,” which disappoints me, since it means we could have broken way more things at those parties growing up. We all sit in the living room and begin with some appetizers, including the very rare and extremely salty Caspian white fish roe, cured in salt and imported directly from Iran. “Ninety-five percent of Iranians don’t like it,” says Ken. The salt is pretty aggressive and you can definitely taste the ocean in it, but it balances out really well on a piece of bread with some squeezed lime and green onion. Mr. Meatball and I like it a lot— but it’s certainly not for everyone. There are also two dairy products on the table which have strong similarities to Greek food— a yogurt, cucumber and mint sauce (a la tzadziki) and a cheese which Ken describes as “Like a Persian feta.” The food is delicious, but we’re warned not to eat too much, since there is a lot more coming.
Having switched to white wine, we sit at the dining room table as an amazing amount of food is brought out before us, including two different types of tahdeeg, the crispy bottomed Persian rice. As Dara always said, “Persian restaurants never make the rice right. The crispy bottom is the best part and they never make enough of it. It’s always just a bunch of rice with a tiny amount of bad crispy parts.” Ken adds, “Restaurants need to make a profit. They don’t have time to make these kind of home cooked meals properly. They just serve lots of kebab.” The tahdeeg with lima beans and the tahdeeg with currants are really something to behold. Ami uses a special technique to make it perfecty, which involves water, yogurt and oil on the bottom of the pan, and using a towel to cover the lid (“When the moisture begins to evaporate from the rice, I wrap a dry towel around the lid to absorb the moisture so it doesn’t return to the rice. That’s how it stays fluffy and the grains stay separate”). How each part works, I’m not totally sure, but the rice is brown and crispy at the bottom, with great flavor and texture, while the grains of rice above have kept their individuality, with no stickiness or guminess whatsoever. “The tahgdeeg can almost be a meal all by itself,” Ami explains, “but you want to use plain rice for the stews, so that the rice won’t overpower them.”
And there are a lot of stews. Fesanjoon, chicken with a thick walnut and pomegranate sauce, has a dense, compacted flavor which straddles the line between sweet and savory with absolute precision and puts to shame the restaurant versions that Mr. Meatball and I have had before. A stewed veal with eggplants and tomatoes is the kind of comforting dish you could eat every single day, and the lamb with green vegetables and dried limes is absolutely superb. The dried limes have an incredibly compressed flavor, and are cooked whole in the sauce. You can eat them, peel and all—but watch out—they are a formidable bunch. Some people find them too intensely sour and simply enjoy the rest of the dish without them, but I personally love cutting them into quarters and eating them in bites with the rest of the sauce, veggies and meat. These Super Limes are so powerful, I think my tongue actually created new taste buds just so they could accommodate all the flavor.
A Persian salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and mint is a lovely refresher between bites as all the flavors begin to mix on the plate, forming something truly delightful. I spoon on some home pickled pearl onions and garlic as Ken explains why pickled goods are so important in Persian culture. “Iranians believe that vinegar is a cure-all.” Are they right? Who knows? But if you bite into a few of these pickled garlic cloves, any cold you might have will promptly get the crap kicked out of it. I move on to the final dish, which has been hiding from me at the other side of the table: smoked, cured whitefish. Ami places some on my plate along with a couple more servings of the crispy rice, as all are meant to go together. Dara once shared with me what he calls “salty, salty fish”, which is a very potent whitefish which has been salt cured for a long time and is pretty darn rare in the U.S. “This fish we are having,” says Ken, “is somewhere between the salty fish and a fresh fish. It has only been smoked and cured for maybe a couple of weeks.” Shana, whose parents are New York Jews, immediately says “My mom would love this.” It is miles ahead of most smoked whitefish I’ve ever had, and has an incredible range of salty, smoky and fishy flavors which never dominate or overwhelm each other.
We raise a glass in thanks to our amazing hosts, toast once more for Dara, then sit in the den as Ami and Ken refuse to let us help clean up, then a few minutes later, bring us dessert. With Persian ice cream from Mashti Malone’s (topped with chopped pistachios and some kind of icy rice), Persian chickpea cookies, fresh mangoes, fresh raspberries and some delightful tea made in a double boiler, Meatball, Shana and I are in a very happy food place. Ken comes in and says “I don’t know what kind of music you like, but I know what I like,” then puts on a DVD of Bob Dylan and George Harrison together in concert, playing in surround sound. With the music blasting, we lean back comfortably and enjoy the ideal close to a absolutely delicious and tremendously enjoyable evening. The music, tea and dessert have all come together together to lull us into a calm, happy and genuinely relaxed place as we look back on yet another great meal from yet another great family. “The only thing that could have made this better,” adds Ken, “is if Dara could be here to enjoy this as well.” Amen to that.
Food Breakdown: Scotch, wine, appetizers, salad, pickles, 3 stews, 3 kinds of rice, fish, fresh fruit, 2 desserts, tea
Distance From My House: 10.7 miles
THE OFFICIAL MENU
Ashpal (fish eggs – Dad can give you better description)
Yoghurt with shallots, cucumber & mint leaves
Bread, feta cheese and Sabsy Kordan (fresh green vegetables)
Salad Shirazi: (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, mint)
Ghormeh Sabzie (stew: lamb shanks, black eyed beans, dried lime, garlic, parsley, mint & three different other vegetables)
Fesenjoon (stew: chicken, ground walnut & Pomegranate paste, angelica ground)
Ghaymeh baademjoon (stew: veal, white lentils, dried lime, eggplant, tomato, saffron)
White rice – plain rice for the stews with saffron and Tah Deeg (crusty rice)
Baghalli Polo (mixed rice: lima beans, fresh dill, Tah Deeg )
Zereshk Polo (mixed rice: sour currants, orange (narrenge)slices, roasted, pistassious, saffron, cumin, sugar)
Whole Smoked White Fish
On the side: Pickled Garlic (vintage 2007) !
Assorted Persian cookies
A bowl of Pomegranates with a touch of salt & angelica ground.
Persian Ice Cream & faaloodeh (saffron ice cream with pistassious)