Bittersweet: Persepolis returns to normal

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In Bittersweet, a new column on GlobalPost, Matt McAllester writes about how food connects us and the people who cook it to faraway lands. McAllester is also the author of "Bittersweet: Lessons from my Mother’s Kitchen."

NEW YORK — As the protests grew on the streets of Tehran last month, Iranian-Americans poured into Persepolis restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side to share their excitement. To swap news from home. To imagine returning to a country no longer controlled by a theocracy.

Ardeshir thought they were nuts.

“I was telling them, ‘Wake up, use your brain, it’ll never happen,’" said Ardeshir, one of the owners of Persepolis. (Ardeshir is not his real name; he wanted to be able to speak frankly without being harrassed by officials on his visits to Iran.)

“You’re talking about the government that has their own army,” he continued. “The [vigilante Islamist group the] Basij is their own army. They get paid to protect the government, not to protect you and me.”

Persepolis is one of the best-known Iranian restaurants in New York and so it is a natural meeting place for Iranian-Americans when there’s something big going on back home. And that’s what happened in mid-June when the protests against perceived flaws in the presidential election erupted. Other customers, sympathetic with the protesters they were seeing on television, came too.

“In the beginning I was getting lots of Americans,” Ardeshir said. “They said, ‘We’ve never been here but we heard about Persia. We’ve come to see what’s going on.’" As the protests intensified, he had "lots of Iranians coming. They want to talk to each other to express their feelings.”

And then the government cracked down. Protesters were shot dead, beaten, imprisoned and mainly kept off the streets. The Iranian-Americans who came to celebrate at Persepolis stayed home.

“I don’t see them now because they realize the honeymoon is over,” Ardeshir said.

As the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities have gone quiet, so has Persepolis. By the time I went there at the end of June, the place was charming but subdued, as if there was nothing in particular happening in the home country of the owners. There were a couple of Iranian families at larger tables but the rest of the customers seemed to be non-Iranians.

The food, however, was as Iranian as anything I’ve ever eaten in Tehran. The menu is purely traditional and so it instantly satisfied my craving for the Persian dish I prize above all others: khoresht fesenjan. Khoresht means stew but fesenjan is more of a smooth curry-like dish than a chunky, sloppy Irish stew-like thing. And it’s heavenly. Finely chopped or ground walnuts give the fesenjan sauce its texture and pomegranate syrup creates a sweet but not overwhelming taste that envelops the chicken, duck or meatballs in the dish. I’m a chicken guy, myself, and happily it’s chicken in the Persepolis fesenjan.

I first had fesenjan when I was a teenager at the home of my Iranian friend Richard. His mother, a Scot married to an Iranian, had learned to cook fesenjan in Tehran. Years later when I began to visit the country, I ate it in a restaurant opposite the old American Embassy, as well as at the home of my translator, whose lovely mother made a meatball version. Before I even looked at the appetizers I had decided on fesenjan as my entree.

But before the fesenjan, we began with a piping hot round of baba, an eggplant puree with Persian goat’s cheese, fried onion and walnut and a fresh, simple shirazi salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, parsley and a citrusy dressing.

My wife had a pomegranate margarita; I had a pomegranate martini. Which is something I thought I had invented about two years ago at home until I realized that I was years behind the curve of Persian cocktail development.

With the fesenjan we ordered the taj kebab, a combination of chicken breast and lamb. The chicken is the winner: marinated in saffron and onion it was tender and delicious. The lamb was a little too gamey.

With each entree you can choose from four different sorts of Persian rice, which is — and I’m about to alienate all of India, China and various other nations — the best rice in the world. We had polo baghali, which is basmati with dill and fava beans, and polo albalo, basmati with sour cherries. There was a sweet, salty butter flavor to every mouthful of rice.

If, at any point, the sweetness of any dish grew too intense, I would simply add a teaspoon of the magical torshi — a finely chopped mixture of pickles whose tartness is a match for any fruity overload and is well worth the $5 it costs.

That sophisticated yet muscular battle between sour and sweet is, I think, at the heart of Persian cooking. It may be a reflection of a country that seems so often pulled between competing forces: the regal history of Persia and the clerical severity of contemporary Iran, the bloodletting of the Islamic revolution and the current yearning for peaceful change.

Even Ardeshir, the steadfastly pessimistic owner, acknowledged a degree of internal conflict. “I got excited myself for one day,” he conceded, when talking of the protests. “And that’s it. I went back to reality.”

Persepolis. 1407 Second Avenue, New York, 212-535-1100.

More GlobalPost dispatches by Matt McAllester:

A restaurant for Yugoslav nostalgia

A craving for boar in Baghdad

Read excerpts from Matt McAllester's book, "Bittersweet: Lessons from My Mother's Kitchen."

Introduction: wartime cravings

Part 1: Feet in Nepal, head at home

Part 2: Hardship Cooking

Part 3: Souring on war

Matt McAllester's website has recipes and additional photos.