My cousin Rudine was in town this week. His parents are Iranian but he grew up in Paris. Let’s just say that with this background, the man knows from good food. Like any good Persians, we got together and went out for —wait for it — Persian food. To my surprise, Rudine taught me a few things I didn’t know about the right way to go about our meal.
There are only a handful of Persian restaurants in New York, so the choices are slim. After some discussion, we decided on Ravagh, an affordable, unassuming establishment on East 30th Street favored by Iranian rug merchants in the area. The menu at Ravagh is big, with lots of khoreshes, the Farsi word for stew, to choose from. Rudine had a plan:
“We’ll start with small plates of stew so we can taste a lot of things.”
The food arrived and our table was crowded with plates of khoresh, dips, and salad in bright red, orange, and yellow. Rudine requested that the stews be served on top of a layer of tah-dig, the crispy disc of golden rice at the bottom of the pot. Making tah-dig is an art, and they’re an essential part of a family meal.
We ordered the classic stew Ghourmeh Sabzi, parsley and scallions simmered with chunks of beef, red kidney beans, and limoo omani, tangy dried Persian limes. This is probably the only way I have ever enjoyed kidney beans. Our other stew was Khoresh Gheymeh, beef, yellow split peas, and limoo omani in tomato sauce.
Also on the table were Mirza Ghasemi, a charred eggplant blended with eggs in tomato and garlic sauce, and Kashk-Bademjan, cooked eggplant in tomato sauce topped with yogurt. Kashk is a thick, creamy fermented whey, a beloved Persian ingredient with a taste somewhere between yogurt and sour cream. It can be found at Middle Eastern food stores.
We ate something I’d never had before, Salad Olivieh, a salad with Russian origins that was so popular it spread all throughout eastern Europe and into Central Asia along with Russian immigrants. The Iranian version mixes diced chicken with eggs, peas, carrots, and lots of mayonnaise.
“Everyone has a different way of making these classic dishes. It varies depending on the family and the region, so you can’t order a dish and expect it to look the same as what you had growing up,”
my cousin explained. We agreed that everything in the first course was really good, with subtle flavors and fresh ingredients.
Although I was already full, Rudine announced that it was time to order kebobs.
“But what about all the food that’s still left?” I asked.
“You can take it home in those things you have here, doggie bags,” Rudine replied with disdain.
“I never take doggie bags!” I said, which is true, unless I happen to be carrying my own tupperware container. It’s the excess packaging that I hate, and frankly, I almost never leave leftovers when I go out to eat.
“Let’s move on. I’m a big meat guy, the kebob is my favorite part. Everyone makes stews at home, but what you really go out for is the kebobs.”
Bring it on!
Rudine ordered a sampling for my benefit, one Chicken Shish Kebob, one Khoobideh Kebob of chopped beef, and one Lamb Shish Kebob. Along with the kebobs was a pile of saffron rice. Of course, we couldn’t eat the meat without something crunchy and green, so we also got a Shirazi salad, of diced cucumbers, tomatoes, red onion, and parsley, pretty much exactly like what most people know as “Israeli salad.” Accompanying all of this was a jar of sour Persian pickle is a salsa style, known as torshi, and mast-o-khiar, or yogurt with mint and cucumbers. We had all the elements of a Persian feast.
Seeing only one lime wedge with the meat, I requested more, and when it came I squeezed lime juice all over the kebobs, along with a few tablespoons of sumac, the dried red berries that taste like lime.
“Uh, the lime is just for the chicken, not for the meat. You put the sumac on the meat, not the chicken,” Rudine explained patiently.
Well, there’s where those different interpretations come in. Najmieh Batmanglij, the renowned Persian cookbook author who lives in D.C., makes a basting sauce for kebobs with lime juice and melted butter, so I’m sticking with it. Unfortunately, not all the lime juice in the world could save the alternately tough and bland meat, although the chicken was excellent.
When the check came, I offered to pay, as it’s my hometown, and I’m older.
“No, I’ll pay. I would never let a woman pay, but thanks for the offer.”
The taarof hit me like a pot of khoresh. Taarof is the Persian cultural custom of putting others above oneself. It’s a subtle and complicated system of manners that’s often confusing to Westerners. I knew I was out of my league here, so I surrendered. Oh yeah, right, this guy is not just my younger cousin, he’s a full grown man of the world with Persian customs, and there is no way in hell that he would let a woman pay for a meal.
“What if my husband James were here, would you let him pay?” I asked.
“No, I would fight with him over the check.”
I wonder if he knows that an American man wouldn’t fight very hard, and he’d probably end up paying anyway.
We rolled toward the door, stuffed and happy. We ran into another Iranian friend of Rudine’s near the door, who confirmed that Ravagh is his favorite Persian restaurant in the city, and that most of the food is good, but that you don’t come there for the kebobs.
“London. That’s the place to get good Persian food.”
Rudine agreed, and even though it’s my town, he escorted me the twenty blocks to my subway stop.