Persia is a fascinating, contradictory, demanding, welcoming land. More often referred to as Iran, although the names are pretty much interchangeable, centuries of political turmoil not least in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, have left it isolated and misunderstood. A staggeringly beautiful country with landscapes ranging from remote snow-capped mountains to fertile farmland and barren plains, it’s a geographic centre of creative arts, poetry, ceramics, and music but a melting pot of cuisine.
Many years ago taking my first step into cooking and food culture I took an evening course listed as Persian Cooking. We made making fragrant dishes scented with rose water and petals, saffron, pistachio and sweets dripping in syrup. My efforts were much appreciated at home.
This connection with Persian flavours has stayed with me for nearly 30 years, reaching a high point this week when I sat down at a supper club table organised around the food and culture of Mandana Moghaddam. Mandana is a London-based chef and writer whose family left Iran decades ago as the country convulsed through revolution. Her menu and preparation was three days in the preparation and spotlighted many of the country’s most iconic flavours and textures.
Set in a glade, a clearing in southern England overlooking a meadow sliced through with a sinuous path, freshly cut through knee-high grass leading out to woodland and unseeable adventures, the event was a supper club masterclass.
For many of us, this was our first supper club since the Covid-19 pandemic all but wiped out such social events.
Supper clubs are informal gatherings in people’s houses with guests paying for their meal which are usually themed – for example Italian, citrus, gin-infused dishes or the 1970s. You’ll arrive and meet strangers, often leaving hours later as firm friends.
We were welcomed with a flute holding watermelon, mint, honey and I think a quick pour of sparkling water. Our palate refreshed, we shuffled around finding a place to sit. No seating plan meant people around you were chosen serendipitously.
Tables were covered in white table cloths with place settings marked by starched napkins entwined in fine pink thread and topped with a pinky/ purple orchid bloom, giving us a hint of the floral, scented menu we could expect.
Three small glasses full of colour and texture started our poetic journey through Persian cuisine. The glasses held Zeytoun Parvardeh, Doymage and the deliciously unexpected Mast O Mousir, wild shallot yoghurt. This sweet, sour and cooling dish is a popular starter or dip and made with labni (a yoghurt cheese), and minced Persian shallots used for their mild garlic flavour.
Three classic starters
For the main dish I opted for Baghali Polo ba Mahicheh, a lamb shank dish braised for three hours in a saffron and orange zest liquid and served with a dill and broad bean/ fava rice (Baghali Polo) mix. Mandana’s rice was light and fluffy on the top, served with its famous crust and a few extra spoons full of saffron coloured and spiced grains.
The dish was served with a gravy made from supportive ingredients including lime and orange zest and juice and caramalised onions. Although I didn’t see the gravy until after I’d finished eating, I did taste a couple of mouthfuls served in a wine glass. The warmth and sweetness of the onions were beautifully balanced by the acidic citrus, very drinkable but probably better drizzled over the lamb.
Dessert was a cooling, vibrant Bastanieh Akbar Mashti ba Faloodeh. Extremely popular throughout hot Persian summers, these very fine ice noodles were served with a pistachio ice cream and a squeeze of lime juice to tame the dish’s sweetness, particularly the head freezing ice noodles.
DESSERT & TEA
By this time of the evening, tables and faces were lit by candles and moonlight and diners were wrapping lightweight blankets around shoulders as jumpers were pulled on and cotton jackets slipped over summer shirts.
Amidst this gentle movement, tiny trays holding delicately decorated glasses of warming Persian black tea served with Zoolbia were arriving.
Mandana’s final flourish was the Zoolbia, a finely woven, crunchy sweet made with a lightly fermented batter flavoured with saffron and rose water. The batter is squished through a piping bag into hot oil in roughly circular patterns, intricate shapes and messy tangles. If I have these, and never another strawberry jam-stuffed doughnut for the rest of my life, I would be happy!
During natural breaks throughout the evening Mandana read poetry and lovingly described life for Iranians in their private spaces, their homes. She described how food isalways available for invited and enough for unexpected but equally welcome guests, and offered us a fascinating insight into a proud people, their lives, and the tastes and textures of their food.
The supper club was hosted by Gilly Smith host of the ‘Cooking the Books’ podcoast. More suppers clubs are planned so follow Gilly on Instagram @cookingthebookswithgillysmith to learn more.
Mandana is a chef and writer and offers cooking classes. Follow her @athomewithmandana and book a class or a seat at a future supper club table.