The Ardabil Carpet comes from the city of Ardabil in the north of Iran (formerly the seat of the Safafid empire in Persia) close to the coast of the Caspian Sea and not far from the great carpet center of Tabriz. There are actually 2 Ardabil Carpets –– the largest sits at the Victoria &Albert Museum in London, acquired for them by famous artist and designer William Morris –– so precious that a special enclosure was constructed to protect it from the light (the slightly smaller version of the carpet is in California –– its border was cannibalized to repair the V&A carpet). It is no wonder that the phrase "Persian" and "carpet" are linked in a bond of art, quality and tradition, but Persia was so much more.
When I hear the word Persia, I think of great art and culture. Tragically, when I hear the word Iran I think of a broken country.
The Ardabil carpet as displayed at the V&A in London
It’s terrible that what is great about Iran is nearly buried in the swirling sands of extremism. Persia’s influence on art, science and even food is rather impressive.
Frontispiece of Voyage du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l'Orient, 1739 ed.
Tales of the Savafid Dynasty (1501-1722) spread to the West in great part through the writings of French Jeweler, Jean Chardin whose Voyage du Chevalier Chardin en Perse et autres lieux de l'Orient recorded his 1673-77 travels in Persia.
“The Persians are the most civilized of the peoples of the East, and what the French are to Europe, they are to the Orient... Their bearing and countenance is the best-composed, mild, serious, impressive, genial and welcoming as far as possible. They never fail to perform at once the appropriate gestures of politeness when meeting each other... They are the most wheedling people in the world, with the most engaging manners, the most supple spirits and a language that is gentle and flattering, and devoid of unpleasant terms but rather full of circumlocutions.”
Persia influenced the art and cuisines of countries all over the Middle East into Russia, China, India and even Europe as they traded, invaded and visited other countries and were themselves invaded or visited during their long long history. You can see their influence in world design just looking at their metalwork and pottery.
Savafid copper basin
Aiguière. Bronze coulé, Iran, 16th century. Musée du Louvre
17th century Savafid dish with vegetal decoration Musée du Louvre
Plate decorated with two pomegranates, v. 1500, Musée du Louvre
Savafid, early 1600’s, British Museum, (Chinese elements with Persian ‘dandy’)
But there was more than art and good manners, Chardin observed all aspects of Persian culture including what they ate on their marvelous tableware often set on top of cloths set over the magnificent carpets. He marveled at the produce of the country and thought that their “saffron was the best in the world... Melons were regarded as excellent fruit, and there were more than 50 different sorts, the finest of which came from Khorasan. And in spite of being transported for more than thirty days, they were fresh when they reached Isfahan... After melons the finest fruits were grapes and dates, and the best dates were grown in Jahrom.”
Seen in art of the period and 19th century recreations, fruit was what was served at any important gathering. Chardin noted that there were more varieties of fruit in Persia than in Europe –– at banquets in the capital of Isfahan, there were more than 50 kinds of fruit.
Recently, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the effects of arrival of New World chilies on the Old World –– rice has certainly affected the cuisines of many nations but started the migration much, much, much earlier.
Rice is thought to be as old as time, originating in Pangaea in the early Cretaceous period (130, 000,000 years ago – before the continents separated). The ancient wild ancestor of our rice was growing wild in Africa, Asia and even Australia. More familiar cultivated rice goes back as much as 9000 years in China and India.
Rice came to the Middle East as early as 1000 BC –– judging from archaeological finds and reflected in the rice section of neighboring Bahgdad's 10th c cookbook of ibn Sayy ar al-Warraq, rice was being enjoyed in a variety of ways. In the Baghdad cookbook, it was often made into a spiced porridge “ in the Persian style” with meat or vegetables or a dessert with fruit. Thanks to the give and take that occurred with the Persian Mughal Empire in India –– Persian rice dishes came to India through that doorway (the Mogul emperor Baber conquered India in 1526 bringing with him Persian cuisine that took root and flourished) –– they cross-pollinated. The word biryani comes from the Persian word, birian.
Barbad Plays for Khusraw by Mirza Ali, 1539-43 – maybe a rice plate in front of the man in red in the backround?
Today, modern Persia/Iran enjoys rice dishes that often combine meat vegetables or fruits. One of my favorites is called Albaloo Polow, a direct descendent of ancient pilafs and biryani. It is spectacular –– cherries and rice baked to form a crispy crust on the bottom and perfumed with saffron. It is great as a side dish or the main, meatless event. I could eat it for dessert. When the Creative Cooking Crew said rice was on the menu this month, this is what I knew I wanted to make –– I had eaten it many times but have never tried to make it on my own so I looked for expert help. I adapted the recipe from one on My Persian Kitchen that used fresh sour cherries and not canned because I had frozen cherries and love them madly. Canned or jarred are just not as good. I also used brown rice because I like it better than white -- personal preference. My only change in the recipe would be to use a non-stick pan to make it. The fabulous crust is tough to get out of the pan in a piece. Also, I halved the recipe so what you see is smaller than the full recipe.
4 cups of fresh or frozen sour cherries (or jarred in light syrup)
1/3 cup of sugar
2 cups of basmati rice (I used brown basmati)
4 tbsp of butter
1 tbsp + 1 tsp of Advieh (recipe follows)
2 tbsp of yogurt
2 pinches of saffron
1/2 c of pine nuts, toasted or sliced pistachios
parsley for garnish
Wash rice a few times, sloshing it with your hands each time until the water looks clear (this removes the starch from the rice).
Add some salt and let the rice soak for a few hours or overnight. Drain when ready to use.
Place the pitted sour cherries in a pot, add the sugar on top. Simmer till the cherries give up their juices.
Drain the cherries in the colander. Reduce the juices by about 1/2 depending on the amount the cherries have given off. It should be a bit thick and maybe 1/4 c.
Place 2 T of butter in a pan with the juices. Let it melt. Add 1 T of Advieh and a pinch of saffron and stir, remove from the heat. Add the cherries –– make sure they are coated with the juice.
Bring 6 cups of water to a boil.
Add sugar and saffron to a mortar or spice grinder and grind until saffron turns into a powder.
After the water has boiled, take 2 T of the hot water and add it to the saffron and sugar powder. Then salt the boiling water.
Place the rice in the boiling water and cook, covered, medium low for about 10 minutes for white rice and 20-25 minutes for brown –– you want it just cooked, not soft.
As your rice is cooking, place yogurt in a mixing bowl, add saffron water to it and mix well.
Once your rice is ready drain in a colander, rinse with cold water to stop additional cooking.
Add about 4 to 5 tablespoons of rice to the yogurt mixture.
Cover the bottom of the pan with a thin layer of water and about 1 T of oil (I think a non-stick pan would be great for this). Put in the rice with yogurt and saffron, spreading evenly over the bottom of the pan. Pour more rice on top.
Then place half of the sour cherries on top. Give it a gentle stir to mix the sour cherries with the rice making sure not to disturb the yogurt layer. Repeat with the rest of the rice and cherries.
Finish with a layer of rice and make sure that the surface is lumpy. With the handle of a wooden spoon, make some holes –– again making sure that you don't disturb the bottom layer, where the rice and yogurt mixture has been placed.
Cover and cook on medium high for 10 minutes to begin the crust.
Pour the cherry juice over the rice.
Wrap the lid with a cloth to absorb the steam and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour on low (you can sort of see that it is browning if you peek in at the side, pulling away the rice with a knife). When done, up-end the rice on a platter and sprinkle the pine nuts or pistachios on top with herbs –– mint or parsley will work well.
1 t cinnamon
1 t nutmeg
2 drops Aftelier rose essence or 1 t rose petals
1 t cardamom
½ t cumin
Mix together and reserve.
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