Our experience working with the Iranian community to represent their culture through food was an adventure full of great people and fantastic food. Quick fact for those who may not be familiar with this: Iran, also known as Persia, is a country located in West Asia. It has an extremely rich history and distinctive cuisine with signature spices (hello saffron). We went on a journey to a few locations and walked through several menu items, and each one was special, held interesting food heritage and was of course, oh-so delicious. First stop was visiting a local, family-run restaurant in West Edmonton called Taste of Persia where we met up with Iranian Heritage Society of Edmonton’s board member, Reza. He introduced us to the family behind the food and we started cooking.
Day 1 at Taste of Persia included the Iranian pavilion’s brand new menu item called Dolmeh Felfel, which are stuffed bell peppers in a savoury tomato based sauce. Reza shared with us that the Iranian Pavilion was one of the original pavilions at the Heritage Festival, dating back to 1987, and they have perfected sharing their kebabs (we will get to these later), so adding this new menu item is a big deal! This dish can be served either warm or cold (we ate it both ways and can attest that both ways are winners), and is often served atop stuffed grape leaves (dolma). So what makes these stuffed peppers unlike the rest? In our opinion there are a few secret ingredients which really create that unique taste. The herb blend that’s mixed with the rice has all of the typical herbs you might assume would be involved, but there is also tarragon- which gives it a little extra something. We also love the way that the lentils create more texture (and protein) than a rice only filling. The other part we love most is how saucy they are. Stewing them in lots of this spiced onion/tomoto broth is what really makes them special- and we poured it all over our finished peppers with no regrets.
Taste of Persia also shared one of their signature menu items- the chicken kebab (joojeh kebab). Now, we know there are many varieties of chicken kebab out there, but this golden hued version is more than just meat on a stick. Why, you wonder? Well, there are 2 pretty special *secret* ingredients involved in marinating this chicken. The first is that very well known and sought after spice- saffron. If you’ve used saffron, you know how precious and flavourful it is. Saffron is a spice that comes from the stigma (delicate threads) of the purple flowers from the Crocus sativus plant. It is said that it takes 75,000 of these flowers to make 1 pound of saffron, and much of the process must be done by hand- sooooo now you know why it’s so very expensive. Good new though, a little bit goes a long way. Reza shared with us that 65% of the world’s saffron is made in Iran! A great plan to find good quality saffron here in Edmonton is Shaheen Grocery and Bakery. Now, aside from the saffron there is another major flavour maker involved……. Not onion, but onion JUICE! When you grate onion (which is often done in other dishes such as the koobideh kebab), onion juice is reserved for cooking and used in dishes like this one. They shared that it also tenderizes the meat and is more potent than just using chunks of onion. You can really tell what a difference these things make when you taste the final product- tender, melt In your mouth, flavour explosion. After all of that food, we had just enough room for the baklava and tea that was brought out to us. We were so grateful to meet this lovely family (mother, father, son & daughters) all working together in this restaurant that makes authentic, high quality, Persian food. Thanks to the whole crew for sharing their kitchen and teaching us a little bit more about their culture. We are glad that we can take a quick drive to the West side and enjoy your food any time we like- give them a visit, you won’t regret it!
Day 2 took us to the home of one of the founding board members who was involved in supporting the Iranian community to first participate in Heritage Festival. Though he has *just* recently retired from the board, he is still supporting the youth and other members to keep the community traditions and involvement in the Festival alive. Reza hosted us in their outdoor setup with the Koobideh Kebab making crew to teach us this world renowned recipe. Ok folks, we had no idea how much work it takes to get that special texture you find in these savoury bites of meat. They grind their own meat, which is a mixture of lamb & lean beef, and involves a 2 (or sometimes 3 step) process. Then there is the onion…. which you want to be super fine, as no one wants to bite into a big chunk of onion (well maybe there is a time and place for this, but not here!). Once the onion is shredded, you need to squeeze out all of the juice, as this is not going to help the meat mixture get the right consistency (too much liquid). Let’s just imagine for a moment the amount of onions that these guys are squeezing to make thousands of kebabs….wow…. Kudos to you all! Once the onion is added, back it goes through the grinder again!
What you are left with is an almost play dough like texture, which allows for the meat to be shaped around the skewers. So let’s talk skewers for a moment. They are referred to as swords, and that is just what they look like- long metal ‘sticks’, and there are 2 varieties. One that gets used for things like the chicken kebab, and it has a sharp point at the end and a thinner blade. This is designed intentionally so it can pierce the meat. The other has a dull point at the end and a thicker blade, which is used for the Koobideh kebab, as you don’t pierce pieces of meat but rather shape the meat around the skewer. They are also very long, as they are designed to be able to sit atop a charcoal grill or bbq, and suspend the meat above the coals, which is a unique cooking process that makes all the difference. Now these kebabs aren’t traditionally eaten on their own- they come in a pita with all of the fixings. Reza shared how to make their Magical Yogurt Sauce, which is a delightful blend of yogurt, vinegar, dry mint, sumac, paprika and seasoning that enhances the flavor of any red meat BBQ. Take a peek at how it all came together here:
Pro Tips from Reza & the Taste of Persia Team:
- When making the joojeh kebab, marinate your chicken for *at least* half a day, a full day being even better to soak up all of the yum.
- The secret ingredient that makes the tomato sauce so tasty for the Dolmeh Felfel is turmeric!
- The Koobideh meat mix is definitely better when using a cut of lamb that has some fat in it. The fat in the meat will drip off when you grill it, but it helps give the meat more flavour and a better texture. He recommends lamb shoulder.
- Every region uses a slightly different meat mix ratio (beef to lamb) for their Koobideh, like 50/50 or all lamb, but they go with 60/40.
- When making your salad for the kebab toppings, mix the lettuce with the onions and sumac. Sumac comes from a fruit and it’s citrus properties cut the sharpness of the onion, and mixing it up this way gives a more even, uniform taste in your final dish.
- When choosing your yogurt for the sauce, don’t go with something thick- you want a yogurt that is more liquidy to get that nice drizzle.
A huge thanks to everyone involved in showcasing Iran; we enjoyed 2 days of eating great food and learned so much about traditional cooking methods. One thing that really struck us was how much work goes into making these kebabs- especially the Koobideh kebab; the amount of love that goes into creating something that we may take for granted. Check out the Iranian Pavilion at the Heritage Festival where they will be serving up these special dishes and several others- like the infamous saffron ice cream (which we have dreams about because it is THAT good). Don’t forget that there will be cultural entertainment to enjoy while you eat, and you can try to take a peek at their magic methods on the grills- they do everything authentically at the Festival- no shortcuts here! Try these dishes at Heritage Festival, and then give it a go at home; we have already become addicted to the yogurt sauce, and hope you find a way to bring a little taste of Iran into your home.