Book Review ‘Sofreh At’ameh’

Naser-al-Din Shah

Naser-al-Din Shah

After the Safavids (1501-1722 AD), it was not until the last years of the 18th century that efforts were made to reunify the country. The leader of one of the northern Turkmen tribes managed to bring disparate parts together under one rule and formally acceded to the throne of Persia as Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar in 1796. At a time of great international upheaval and rivalry between the then superpowers, Britain and Russia and to a lesser extent France, the Qajars occupied a country strategically and geographically important to all three. Their jostling to gain more influence at the court was mostly achieved by the presence of their diplomatic and trade missions. By the time Naser al-Din Shah, the fourth Qajar king, came to power in 1848 the establishment of mission hospitals as part of the diplomatic legation had become the norm. The British, the Russians and the French where all trying to get their man (Dr Cherebrin for the Russian and Dr Dickenson for the British) appointed as the official physician to the king but it was the French Dr Tholozan who got the position and served Naser al-Din Shah till he retired approximately 30 years later.

Written in 1883 by Mirza ‘Ali Akbar Khan Aashpazbashi the head cook at the court of Naser-al-din Shah, ‘Sofreh At’ameh’ is a cookbook that claims to include the ingredients and the cooking instructions for Persian dishes of the time. In his short introduction, Mirza ‘Ali Akbar Khan says Dr Tholozan, having failed to find such information elsewhere, asked him to write down the recipes in order to better understand the king’s diet and the eating habits of the Persians.

Dr Joseph Désiré Tholozan

Dr Joseph Désiré Tholozan

I suspect it is because of the fact that ‘Sofreh’ was written for a European doctor that more care was taken to present accurate details, more so than I have come across elsewhere in similar books.
In addition to the introduction, the book contains eight chapters and a conclusion in its 85 hand written pages. Dr Tholozan is said to have taken the manuscript with him to France when he left Iran.

What Aashpazbashi has done goes far beyond a simple cookbook. He gives us a complete breakdown of the daily consumption at the court starting from the morning cup of tea and working through the day until bedtime; before breakfast, breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacks, appetisers and amuse bush, dinner, after dinner digestives and late night snacks. He also provides the reader with a list of recipes for religious food offerings and the food served to the sick and the unwell. The book ends with a list of kitchen utensils, equipment, dishes, cutlery and crockery, platters and serving dishes, etc. as well as officials and staff responsible for various parts of the kitchen operation, providing food and drink to the court.

‘Sofreh At’ameh’ is a handbook, a set of instructions for parts of the daily life taken up with food and eating. Every item mentioned comes with guidance as to how to prepare, cook and serve it. Even the frequency of washing hands before and after each meal is mentioned. Perhaps the only exceptions are tea and coffee which are simply referred to but no detail is given as to how to brew them or which varieties to use. Although it is the food served at the court that the book is dealing with, nevertheless, it provides a window to peek through and find out about the cuisine of the time. It also includes a large number of regional recipes, the origins of which are indicated in the name.

Breakfast is by far the simplest and lightest of the meals. It starts with a hot drink accompanied by biscuits or bread and cheese. It is followed, a little later, by cold sherbets and fruit. Lunch is much more elaborate and includes what we might now be called appetizers or starters, مفردات, and main courses, مرکبات. Whether the starter was served first before the main course or at the same time is not specified. The tradition of beginning the meal with a small piece of flat bread wrapped around some cheese and fresh herbs has survived to the present day. Other elements making up this part of the meal include thick yogurt, clotted cream, fruit and nuts.

Describing dishes that make up the main courses of lunch, Aashpazbashi provides the recipes for each. Traditionally, one component was aash, kind of thick, viscous soup. In the summer it could be light, for example cooked with herbs and yogurt. In the colder months of the year, this would turn into a hearty dish, sometimes a meal by itself. The book includes 24 different aash recipes.

Rice is a prominent element in the lunch and dinner menus. It could be served as plain white rice, chelo چلو, or cooked with other ingredient polo, پلو. We have three recipes for chelo and 33 recipes for polo.

Served with plain white rice we have the sauce, khoresh خورش , which is a delicious combination of herbs or vegetables and meat each with its own subtle mix of spices and tastes. Khoresh is mentioned in Pahlavi texts of the pre-Islamic, Sassanid era in Iran. ‘Sofreh’ includes 37 recipes for khoresh.

In addition there are recipes for omelettes, kebabs, meatballs, stuffed vegetables, dishes made with dairy products, jams, pickles, fruit, fruit juices, ice creams and sorbets, sweets, etc 384 in all. To demonstrate Aashpazbashi’s attention to detail, suffice it to say that he offers the reader six recipes for salts served at the table.

In spite of the detail, recipes only mention the main ingredients and provide a rough guide as to how to prepare and cook them. There are no indications as to the quantities needed or the time and heat required to cook each dish. The first recipe in each category gives a fuller description and the following variations to the theme are only mentioned where they differ from the original. In terms of variety of ingredients and spices and cooking methods, the recipes are very similar to their present day versions. The only difference is in the sweetness of some dishes or snacks which seem to be excessively sugary for our tastes.

The book is written with a degree of pride and dignity reflecting the author’s awareness of the importance of his position as the royal cook. The fact that throughout history many members of successive royal families were killed by poisoned food is an indication of the heavy burden of trust and responsibility born by the royal cook not to mention the duty of pleasing the king and courtiers with delicious food. Aashpazbashi appears to have discharged both aspects of his position admirably well.

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