LONDON (Reuters) - London restaurateur Bijan Behzadi wants to show the world 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 for 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 ‘n’ 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 back street 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 snow-capped 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 travelled Iran in the early 20th century.
Written in English by travelers with a keen eye, the book revealed many recipes which 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.
In other dishes, Behzadi has taken traditional recipes and used different ingredients.
For example, he adapted “mahi gerdepich”, a dish popular in northern Iran where 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 (600 miles) to the south of the Caspian where it is fished out of the warmer waters of the Gulf.
Another classic Iranian recipe with a difference is Kateh’s version of fesenjan - chicken in a rich, sweet and sour gravy flavored with two key Iranian ingredients: walnuts and pomegranate - 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 in a way that 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.”
A three-course meal at Kateh costs 25 to 50 pounds ($40-80) per person, excluding wine and service.
Chargrilled stuffed baby calamari:
Makes 6-8 baby calamari
250 grams fresh walnuts soaked in water for a few hours and then peeled
Juice of half a pomegranate
1 tablespoon pomegranate paste
Zest of 1 small orange
5-6 dry apricots finely chopped
Salt, pepper to taste
Wash and clean the baby calamari and remove all tentacles. Put all other ingredients into a mixer until it becomes a paste.
Stuff the baby calamari with the paste.
Char grill. ($1 = 0.6110 British pounds)
Editing by Michael Roddy and Alistair Lyon