LONDON Dec 17 London restaurateur Bijan Behzadi
wants to show the world Persian cuisine is more than just mounds
of rice and kebabs and says food from his native Iran should be
taken as seriously as French or Italian.
Most Persian restaurants outside Iran cater for a diaspora
craving a taste of home: above all chelo kebab - literally "rice
and grilled meat" - the ubiquitous comfort food akin to fish and
chips to the British or mac 'n' cheese for Americans.
At least one restaurant in London also serves "kaleh pache"
- sheep's "head and foot" boiled in its own broth - a brunch
favourite for anyone who enjoys a steaming plate of brain,
tongue and eyes.
It is a love-it-or-hate it concoction that divides Iranians
and makes no pretensions to being haute cuisine.
"London has been transformed in the last 20 years. It's the
best place in the world for food now," Behzadi told Reuters in
his restaurant in a leafy back street of London's Maida Vale.
"But most of the Iranian restaurants haven't changed. We
like to eat a lot and pay a little."
Having run a succession of Italian restaurants and worked
with London-based Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli,
Behzadi opened Kateh in 2011 to show off the regional subtleties
of food from Iran, a vast country that stretches from Pakistan
to Turkey with snow-capped mountains and scorching deserts.
"Iranians, unlike the French or Italians, don't have the
familiarity of regional food," Behzadi said.
"If you're from Milan you're aware of Calabrian or Tuscan
food, but if you're from Tehran you have no idea about the rest
Behzadi found one of the best sources for regional cooking
was a book of recipes collected by European diplomats and their
spouses who travelled Iran in the early 20th century.
Written in English by travellers with a keen eye, the book
revealed many recipes which have been forgotten in modern Iran,
such as Dezfuli salad from southwestern Iran, which puts a twist
on a common Iranian salad by using pomegranate instead of
tomatoes alongside onions and cucumber.
In other dishes, Behzadi has taken traditional recipes and
used different ingredients.
For example, he adapted "mahi gerdepich", a dish popular in
northern Iran where fish from rivers and the Caspian Sea are
stuffed with a paste of walnuts and apricots and then grilled.
In the Kateh version, Behzadi has substituted the
northern-style fish with baby calamari - mostly eaten in Iran
1,000 km (600 miles) to the south of the Caspian where it is
fished out of the warmer waters of the Gulf.
WALNUTS AND POMEGRANATE
Another classic Iranian recipe with a difference is Kateh's
version of fesenjan - chicken in a rich, sweet and sour gravy
flavoured with two key Iranian ingredients: walnuts and
pomegranate - many people's favourite Persian dish.
Behzadi uses poached pheasant rather than chicken, returning
the dish closer to its roots in Iran's Gilan province where the
original recipe prescribed wild duck from a Caspian Sea lagoon.
Kateh - the name comes from one of the many ways Iranians
cook rice - still offers the more traditional Persian dishes,
but its insistence on organic produce means its meat, such as
the tender lamb baarg kebab, is tastier and pricier than the
chelo kebab at most other Persian restaurants.
Behzadi hopes Persian food, at least in London, will improve
in quality in a way that Italian food did in the 1980s, when the
English view of Italian restaurants was red chequered table
cloths, raffia Chianti flasks and reheated pasta.
"When I came to London in the 1980s, Italian food was in the
doldrums, but people brought new things to it."
A three-course meal at Kateh costs 25 to 50 pounds ($40-80)
per person, excluding wine and service.
Chargrilled stuffed baby calamari:
Makes 6-8 baby calamari
250 grams fresh walnuts soaked in water for a few hours and
Juice of half a pomegranate
1 tablespoon pomegranate paste
Zest of 1 small orange
5-6 dry apricots finely chopped
Salt, pepper to taste
Wash and clean the baby calamari and remove all tentacles.
Put all other ingredients into a mixer until it becomes a paste.
Stuff the baby calamari with the paste.
($1 = 0.6110 British pounds)
(Editing by Michael Roddy and Alistair Lyon)