Aliya Ferguson

Taste Persia, from the comfort of home

Naturopath and foodie Aliya Ferguson shares a few of her favourite Middle Eastern recipes.

I think we generally fall into two camps: the “eat to live” people and the “live to eat people”, says Aliya Ferguson, author of Aliya’s Vibrant Life. I definitely fall into the latter and was tugging at my mother’s skirt in the kitchen before I could talk. For me, the kitchen is the place where the magic happens, and – coming from a Middle Eastern background – cooking and preparing food is not only an essential, but also a hallowed event.

My father’s mother, Bibi Fadhila, lived with us growing up and she always rose early to plan and prep the daily main meal: a considerable affair, as my family is rather colossal. She would lay out a tablecloth or sufra on the floor and we would sit together peeling and chopping, taking the leaves off stalks of herbs and stuffing vine leaves and vegetables with exotic mixes of lentils, dried fruits, rice and meat. And the flavours! The pleasure! Some of her dishes would just make your eyes roll back in ecstasy. I can honestly say that I have been hooked ever since.

I love to cook all types of food. But, the cuisine of my heritage is without a doubt my favourite. Even though I have never had professional culinary training, I have ended up cooking and creating the food from my childhood pretty much for the last decade. From giving cooking classes to hosting dining events and even banquets, I have found my kismet. It has also been a way to revive my grandmother’s spirit; although I lost her in physical form when I was 21 years old, she is very much there in the kitchen with me, wagging her finger and bossing me around with that playful twinkle in her eyes.

The flavours and aromas of Persian food are not only delightful and unusual, but also intoxicating and addictive. – Aliya Ferguson

The dishes are simple enough to make, but the alchemical process that transpires when combining the prescribed ingredients is really special. Persian food is generous, feasting food; it’s for sharing with loved ones and is surprisingly economical and healthy.

There is a constant play on sweet and sour that is so satisfying. Herbs are used as vegetables, which makes the aromas so incredible. I have chosen to share one of my favourite winter meals, consisting of three dishes: Koofteh Berenji is a delectable meatball dish made with lamb, rice, herbs and lentils and then poached slowly in a tomato, saffron and apricot broth. We must have rice of course – the quintessential Persian rice with tahdig. It consists of a golden, crispy, buttery crown that sits atop hillocks of fluffy white rice (you will never cook rice any other way after this, trust me). No Persian feast is complete without a yoghurt accompaniment, and this spinach and walnut version, called Borani Esfenaj, is one of my favourites and is fabulous on toasted sourdough the next day (if you have any left, that is!).

Persian Rice with Tahdig

Taste Persia, from the comfort of home - Persiam Rice with Tahdig

Serves: 8 – 10

2 cups of high-quality basmati rice
4 tbsp salt
1 tbsp light olive oil
3 tbsp melted butter
30g salted butter, cut into 8 cubes
2 tbsp natural yoghurt
2 tbsp saffron water, see note below

To garnish:
Slivered pistachios or slivered toasted almonds
40g zereshk or barberries
10g butter
1 tsp sugar

Place rinsed rice and two tablespoons of salt into a medium bowl and cover with four cups of water. Stir gently to dissolve the salt. Let it stand for one to four hours. Drain the rice in a fine-mesh strainer or sieve.
Bring eight cups of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil in a 20cm non-stick pan (if you have) over high heat.
Add the rice and boil briskly for five mins; begin timing this from when the rice is added to the pot and not from when it starts to boil again.
Drain the rice in a large, fine-mesh strainer and rinse and dry the pot well to remove any residual starch. Brush the bottom and one inch up the sides of the pot with one tablespoon of oil and a little melted butter.
In a bowl, mix one cup of the par cooked rice with two tablespoons of melted butter, two tablespoons of saffron water and two tablespoons of yoghurt and stir until combined. Spread the buttered rice mixture evenly over the bottom of the prepared pot, packing it down well using a potato masher.
Scatter the rest of the rice in the centre of the pot on top of the rice base (it should look like a hill). Poke eight equally spaced holes throughout the rice mound, but not into the yoghurt rice base. Place one butter cube in each hole.
Cook over medium-high heat until the rice on the bottom is crackling nicely, about 3- 4 minutes. Wrap the pot lid with a clean dish towel and cover the pot tightly, making sure the towel is secure on top of the lid and away from the heat. You are doing this to stop condensed steam from gathering on the lid and then dripping back down into the rice.
Reduce the heat to low and continue to cook until the rice is tender and fluffy and the crust is golden brown around the edges, 35 to 40 minutes depending on the quantity of rice and the quality of the pot.
Note: A quality, heavy based non-stick pot will ensure that the rice comes out perfectly every time. If you don’t have one, then expect to lift out the fluffy rice and then scrape the crispy bottom out, placing the “shards” of tahdig around the rice.
If you have a non-stick pot, you should be able to just tip it out into a dish.
To garnish – melt the butter in a frying pan, add your barberries and fry gently until they start to puff up – add a sprinkle of sugar and stir for 1 minute as they caramelise. Dress the rice with the barberries and the pistachios or almonds.

Taste Persia, from the comfort of home
Aliya Ferguson

Wilted Spinach, Yoghurt & Walnut Salad

Taste Persia, from the comfort of home

Serves 4

800g fresh spinach (baby spinach preferable)
A handful of fresh mint leaves, chopped
400ml thick natural yoghurt
50g chopped walnuts
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground white pepper
2 garlic cloves finely minced
Chilli flakes or pul biber (Aleppo pepper)
2 tbsp brewed saffron

Make a couple of hours before serving.
If you are using baby spinach, then all you need to do is pour boiling water over it in a bowl, press down gently until it is all submerged and cover with a plate for 5 mins. If the spinach is ‘grown up spinach’ then you will need to steam it in a pan on the stove with a couple of inches of boiling water until it is all wilted down; it would be too tough if you just used the boiling water method.
Once the spinach is cooled down, chop it up finely.
Save some of the walnuts for garnish, but mix the rest with the yoghurt, mint, salt, pepper and garlic, leaving it for a couple of hours to allow the flavours to develop. When ready to serve, drizzle the brewed saffron over the top and sprinkle with the walnuts and some chili flakes or pul biber.

Taste Persia, from the comfort of home
Aliya Ferguson

Koofteh Berenji
Rice Herbed Meatballs in a Tomato Apricot Broth

Taste Persia, from the comfort of home

Serves 4 (2 meatballs each)

For the sauce:
3 tbsp oil
20g butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 vegetable/chicken stock cube
10 dried apricots, finely chopped or whole.
2 litres water

For the Meatballs:
500g minced lamb or beef or a mix
1 onion, chopped
1 tsp turmeric, cumin & coriander each
1 tsp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper
3 tbsp dried mint (you can find this at Atlas Trading Company)
2 tbsp dried tarragon & dill
1 egg
2 tbsp chickpea flour
100g Thai jasmine style rice
80g yellow split peas (Chana Dhal)

Parboil the rice and lentils – add to the water at a rolling boil and boil for 10 minutes
Make the sauce first by heating the butter and the oil together and then frying the onions gently until golden.
Add the turmeric and tomato paste and cook for two minutes before adding the apricots, water and stock cube or fresh stock. Bring to the boil and turn the heat down to a simmer.
For the meatballs, place all the ingredients, except the rice and dhal into a food processor and blitz until thoroughly combined. You will have a sticky paste!
Mix in the lentils and rice with wet hands. Divide into eight sections and roll into large meatballs. You can also make them smaller if you wish.
Place the meatballs into the hot broth, which should almost cover them. Cover the saucepan halfway and leave to simmer on a low heat for an hour or until the sauce is reduced to your liking and the meatballs have cooked through. Adjust the seasoning to taste.

Words and images: Aliya Ferguson

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