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Persian food: Cuisine from the Cradle of Civilization

Persian food: Cuisine from the Cradle of Civilization

A Flavorful, Simple Kabob Dish

I like to write about cuisines from all lands. There are few mainstream American dishes that are not at least influenced by immigrant cuisines.

For some reason, I am feeling like discussing dishes from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen over the next several weeks.

Iran, historically known as Persia, has some of the oldest written recipes. Aquifers and oases allowed more variety of edible plants and agriculture than found in most parts of the stereotypically arid Middle East. Ancient ingredients of the region include walnuts and pomegranates.

A classic dish of northern Iran is Kebab-e Torsh. This is as retro as it gets: hunks of lamb marinated in a mix of ground walnuts and pomegranate, then skewered and grilled. With the addition of herbs and aromatics, it has a great complexity of flavor that rivals modern haute cuisine.

Be sure to get actual pomegranate syrup rather than grenadine. Go to a Middle Eastern market or specialty store to find pomegranate syrup or molasses. The first (and ideally only) ingredient should be pomegranate concentrate. Most of the exotic ingredients I purchased for this column came from Ariana Halal Market (607 San Mateo Blvd. NE, Albuquerque). Tell Mohammed, the proprietor, that Mo sent you.

So, is it kebab, kebob, kabob or kebap?

Trick question. All those terms refer to cooked meat. Translation and transliteration are difficult when dealing with languages with no common alphabet. Use whichever you like and someone will tell you you’re wrong.

Americans use the term loosely for anything on a skewer, but “shish” is really the word that should have been appropriated, as it is Turkish for skewer. The real question here is whether to use wooden or bamboo, or invest in metal skewers.

Disposable skewers are cheap, but need to be soaked before use and can leave splinters in your food. Dry skewers can catch fire and drop food into the flames. Stainless steel skewers are ideal. They transfer heat into the center of pierced food and are easier to handle. Since steel skewers are usually flat in the cross-section, there is little risk of the meat pivoting and cooking unevenly.

Pita bread, lavash or sangak are traditional breads for this dish. All are among the easiest breads to make and take very little time to make. If you are not confident in your baking skills, these breads are available at any Middle Eastern market.

I garnish the plate with a drizzle of walnut oil and a sprinkle of finely chopped parsley and sumac. Pickled vegetables go great with this dish.

Nooshe jan! (Farsi for “bon appétit!” according to omniglot.com)

Kebab-e Torsh:

Grilled lamb skewers with pomegranate and walnuts

Serves two, with rice and a vegetable

This recipe is best when marinated overnight, as the acids tenderize the lamb, but a quick marinade, especially under vacuum, will work.


Food processor or blender

Gas or charcoal grill


Large bowl (or vacuum marinator) for marinating


1 pound boneless lamb (leg is the easiest to find)

1/2 cup pomegranate syrup, concentrate or molasses

1 cup walnut pieces, toasted

4 cloves garlic

1/2 bunch cilantro or parsley, plus 1 tablespoon chopped fine as garnish

1/2 cup olive or canola oil or blend

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons black pepper

1 tablespoon ground sumac or lemon zest plus more for garnish

Trim the lamb of fat and silverskin, then cut into one- to two- inch cubes.

Toast the nuts over low heat or in the oven and let cool. To toast in the oven, spread the walnut pieces in a single layer on a sheet pan and bake for eight to 11 minutes at 325 F. Nuts can be toasted in a pan on the stovetop, but require careful attention to avoid burning. Stir constantly over low heat.

In a blender or food processor, grind the nuts finely. Add the garlic, herbs and spices and puree until smooth. Continue to blend and add the oil slowly.

When the mixture is emulsified, pour over the lamb and let marinate under refrigeration for two to 12 hours. If you are using wooden or bamboo skewers, soak the skewers while the meat marinates.

For a great side vegetable, slice summer squash lengthwise and marinate in lime juice, salt and olive oil.

Heat a propane or charcoal grill and start cooking long-grain rice seasoned with saffron and sumac. If you don’t have a grill or it is too windy (it happened to me) use a stovetop grill.

Thread the cubed lamb on the skewers, leaving at least a half inch between chunks.

Toss ripe Roma tomatoes in a touch of oil, pierce once with a fork and place on the grill away from direct heat. Let the skin char lightly. When the tomatoes collapse under their own weight, they are done.

Grill the kebabs until the outside is just charred and the interior is rare to medium-rare (140 F to 155 F).

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Steve “Mo” Fye is an Instructional Tech in the Culinary Arts program at Central New Mexico Community College and has been known to giggle after making a low-fat, gluten-free, low-cholesterol dish and eating it with a sauce he knows will blow his diet for days.

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