Nurollah

illumination-text-205The second book of cookery I have chosen to demonstrate the development of Persian cuisine by the time we come to the end of the 16th century is Maddat ol-Hayat written by Nurollah Nuri Natanzi, the cook to the court of Shah Abbas the First. In the introduction, he claims to be a descendent of Bavarchi and says that in writing his cook book, he is following Bavarchi’s lead.

It is interesting to note that he mentions other cooks who are famous for certain dishes (Ostad Hoseyn Khan-e Kababi, Ostad Fulad-e Beryani) including Shah Abbas himself who is said to be an expert in cooking several dishes. Here again talking about the king as an equal, a fellow cook, is an indication of how lofty he perceives his own position to be.

His recipes are shorter and less descriptive and expect a thorough understanding and knowledge of cookery on the part of the reader. At the beginning of each chapter he describes one or two main recipes in greater detail. For most of the rest of the recipes in the group, he only explains the main differences to the extent that some are only one or two lines long. He says many dishes are well known enough not to need inclusion in his book. The recipes he has chosen are the more refined and less peasant like. His selection clearly indicates the path along which Persian cuisine progresses through the 17th to the 20th century; a number of thick soups, a large variety of rice cooked with other ingredients, a reasonably diverse number of stews to be eaten with plain white rice, a host of side dishes and kebabs, omelettes, etc.

The book is divided into six chapters with an introduction and an epilogue. In the introduction he says there are only five groups of dishes in Persian cuisine and the sixth chapter is devoted to his own creations. There are 122 recipes 62 of which are rice dishes. In fact the main emphasis is on rice, many of the other groups of food which Bavarchi mentions do not feature here although he does refer to some of them in passing. Whereas in Bavarchi plain white rice is only ever served with a combination of omelettes and kebabs, Nurollah suggests serving it with stews which is the norm now.

Preparation and ingredients:
Nurollah holds cleanliness in the kitchen as essential and advises that the cook should keep his tools and appliance very clean. For the food to taste delicious, ingredients especially meat should be washed carefully before cooking.

He is much more adventurous in his choice of meat. Although lamb remains the favourite others such as venison and young deer are also used. As for poultry, after chicken the list is endless. Unlike Bavarchi, he uses either meat or poultry as a rule but there are a few recipes where both are required. There are only a handful of dishes cooked with innards or offal in this book.

Nurollah identifies five varieties of fresh fish and suggests a different way for preparing and cooking each. The fact that he has access to fresh fish from rivers and seas in the north and the south of the country, confirms the by now well established tradition of sending the best produce from each province to the court.

The same applies to the spices at his disposal. Many more exotic imports such as nutmeg, cardamom, cloves and some unfamiliar others like sonboleh and davaleh are regularly added to the food as appropriate although turmeric is still not included among them.

The list of Vegetables, pulses and leaves remains essentially the same as in Bavarchi but Nurollah includes many more herbs and fruits in his dishes. As for aromatic ingredients, quite unlike Bavarchi, he includes them very infrequently. Gum mastic is mentioned in only one recipe and musk in three. Rose water is also used sparingly.

Cooking techniques:
Although recipes are summarised to the extent that it is difficult to decipher how the meat is cooked, it is safe to assume that in the majority of cases it is cooked in water first. However, what is new in Nurollah is the way he cooks his lamb beryan. A young lamb is skinned and cleaned thoroughly inside and out. It is rubbed with salt and left for 24 hours before being brushed with yogurt. The rice for this dish is par-cooked and placed in a pot in the tandoor. The lamb is hung from the top of the tandoor, suspended over the pot containing the rice and the tandoor is sealed. The juice from the lamb drips onto the rice and helps cook it to perfection. The fire heating the tandoor should be regulated such that both the lamb and the rice cook evenly and are ready to be served at the same time. The same process can be used to roast birds over the rice but fat from a lamb’s tail needs to be hung on top of the bird. In both cases the animal can be first stuffed with a mixture of dried prunes, chopped onions, green sultanas and ground spices.

As mentioned earlier, Nurollah suggests several way for cooking fish each appropriate to the variety. For example for Qazlan, he suggests rubbing it with salt, dipping it in a batter made with flour and vinegar and frying it in oil. Yellow fish from river Aras in the extreme northwest of the country, is to be fried first before cooking it either with barberry juice and ground walnuts, or with fried onions, crushed pistachios, good vinegar, sugar and saffron. A fish called “shahi” is stuffed with chopped onions, barberries, green sultanas and spices then barbequed. Sturgeon is to be cut into chunks, put on a skewer and barbequed or cooked in the oven. For cooking a kind of red fish sent from Shirvan (now in the Republic of Azerbayjan) Nurollah recommend roasting in the oven. He says once the rice is put in the tandoor to cook, a copper tray should be placed on the pan containing the rice. On it, thin crisscrossing twigs should be placed. Having washed and rubbed salt on the fish, it should be cut into big chunks and placed over the sticks. The tandoor should be sealed to allow both the rice and the fish to cook.

Commenting on Shah Abbas’ skill as a cook, Nurollah attributes a method of cooking called Yek Aabeh to him. This involves cooking a whole small lamb, already deboned, in water with chopped onions skinned chickpeas and a substantial quantity of hot spices. The water is measured carefully so as when the lamb is cooked there is enough stock left to cook the rice in.

He offers a recipe for stuffed cabbage leaves which he says is not well known in Iran but quite common in Rome, a reference to Ottoman Turkey. It is the earliest and the only recipe for stuffed leaves I have come across and differs from the modern Persian version which is sweet and sour. There has always been a doubt over whether stuffed vine leaves originated from Iran but the above reference seems to indicate otherwise.

Presentation:
To demonstrate how important the appearance of food is, Nurollah cites a culinary proverb which says “(even if you) cook badly, dish out well”, i.e. even if the food is not cooked well the art of the cook is in presenting it in the best way possible. However, most of his recipes only include rudimentary instructions as to how the food should be served.

Although he includes red, green and black rice in his book they are treated as individual dishes served with the same coloured sambusa and not purely as decoration as in Bavarchi. In the garnishes for the majority of his rice dishes he uses a colourful combination of shredded almonds, pistachios, green sultanas, with occasional addition of figs, chestnuts and dates.

Texture
There is not much to differentiate between the two books in terms of texture. The ingredients are cooked thoroughly and the garnish provides the crunch. The larger number of rice dishes in Nurollah’s cuisine and fewer thick soups might point to a change in culinary fashion and preference.

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