LONDON: London restaurateur Bijan Behzadi wants to show the world that Persian cuisine is more than just mounds of rice and kebabs and says food from his native Iran should be taken as seriously as French or Italian.
Most Persian restaurants outside Iran cater to a diaspora craving a taste of home: above all chelo kebab – literally “rice and grilled meat” – the ubiquitous comfort food akin to fish and chips to the British or mac and cheese for Americans.
At least one restaurant in London also serves kaleh pache – sheep’s head and foot boiled in its own broth – a brunch favorite for anyone who enjoys a steaming plate of brain, tongue and eyes.
It is a love-it-or-hate it concoction that divides Iranians and makes no pretensions to being haute cuisine.
“London has been transformed in the last 20 years. It’s the best place in the world for food now,” Behzadi told Reuters in his restaurant in a leafy backstreet of London’s Maida Vale.
“But most of the Iranian restaurants haven’t changed. We like to eat a lot and pay a little.”
Having run a succession of Italian restaurants and worked with London-based Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli, Behzadi opened Kateh in 2011 to show off the regional subtleties of food from Iran, a vast country that stretches from Pakistan to Turkey with snowcapped mountains and scorching deserts.
“Iranians, unlike the French or Italians, don’t have the familiarity of regional food,” Behzadi said.
“If you’re from Milan, you’re aware of Calabrian or Tuscan food, but if you’re from Tehran, you have no idea about the rest of Iran.”
Behzadi found one of the best sources for regional cooking was a book of recipes collected by European diplomats and their spouses who traveled Iran in the early 20th century.
Written in English by travelers with a keen eye, the book revealed many recipes that have been forgotten in modern Iran, such as Dezfuli salad from southwestern Iran, which puts a twist on a common Iranian salad by using pomegranate instead of tomatoes alongside onions and cucumber.
Behzadi has taken traditional recipes and used different ingredients.
For example, he adapted mahi gerdepich, a dish popular in northern Iran in which fish from rivers and the Caspian Sea are stuffed with a paste of walnuts and apricots and then grilled.
In the Kateh version, Behzadi has substituted the northern-style fish with baby calamari – mostly eaten in Iran 1,000 km to the south of the Caspian where it is fished out of the warmer waters of the Gulf.
Another classic Iranian recipe with a twist is Kateh’s version of fesenjan – chicken in a rich, sweet-and-sour gravy flavored with two key Iranian ingredients, walnuts and pomegranate. It is many people’s favorite Persian dish.
Behzadi uses poached pheasant rather than chicken, returning the dish closer to its roots in Iran’s Gilan province, where the original recipe prescribed wild duck from a Caspian Sea lagoon.
Kateh – the name comes from one of the many ways Iranians cook rice – still offers the more traditional Persian dishes, but its insistence on organic produce means its meat, such as the tender lamb baarg kebab, is tastier and pricier than the chelo kebab at most other Persian restaurants.
Behzadi hopes Persian food, at least in London, will improve in quality the same way Italian food did in the 1980s, when the English view of Italian restaurants was red-checkered table cloths, raffia Chianti flasks and reheated pasta.
“When I came to London in the 1980s, Italian food was in the doldrums, but people brought new things to it.”