I grew up in an Iranian household. Everything was pretty normal except for the food. The food was mental.
The garage would be stacked high with pomegranate crates and sacks of parsley, dill, tarragon and weird nuts, and feasts would sprout from nowhere as if Nader Shah himself had wandered in and demanded your parents cook for his army. While my English mum would try to keep life grounded with standard mince and potato fare, my dad would be lurking in the shadows like a cultural headhunter, trying to upgrade my childhood palate with sweet Persian cucumbers, cardamom-topped toffee brittle or gaz—a rosewater nougat dotted with pistachios and one "very secret ingredient" that I would discover later in life was a sticky white substance exuded from a nymph's anus in wild western central Iran.
You couldn't even ask for a plain plate of rice without it being coloured with saffron and presented with a mad flourish of burberries, all served on a decorative tray. It felt like every ingredient in the kitchen would get at least one directive shake into a bubbling khoresh (stew) or fragrant soup, but it always came out tasting different. I was shocked, then, to recently discover that something as mighty, melodramatic and conglomerate as Persian cuisine is only a few slight tweaks away from being an ideal diet for those with gluten and dairy intolerances.
Sally Butcher married an Iranian, and has since become a cult figure of the British-Iranian food scene, with multiple Persian cookery books to her name and a perennially busy, TARDIS-like delicatessen in the heart of London's Peckham, aptly named Persepolis—a place where you can find rose petals and dolmeh alongside shiny electric samovars. She only recently discovered she was gluten- and dairy-intolerant, so I asked her a few questions about her relationship with Persian cooking and why it could be an untapped goldmine for problematic bellies.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Sally! How did you get into Persian cooking and how long have you had Persepolis? I have worked with a lot of Iranians in catering over the years, but only really got into it properly when I got hitched. The shop has been open 13 years, but we have been purveying the pick of Persia to the UK for nearly 20 years.
Why do you think it has become such an institution for Iranians in London? Sally Butcher: Iranians are drawn to us because we treat Persian culture very sympathetically, our prices are honest, and they have heard that there is a mad Farsi-speaking English woman behind the till.
When did you become wheat- and dairy-intolerant, and how did you address it with Persian cooking? I have only had food intolerances for a few years (following a bout of food poisoning), but I was lucky in as much as I am a food writer with an interest in nutrition and I was able to work out what was wrong fairly quickly, unlike some people who go undiagnosed for years. I reckon that most digestive complaints these days are ascribable to unbalanced eating and food intolerance. I realised straight away that modern Persian cuisine, being rice-based, was ideal for my new "diet".
Do you think the lack of wheat and dairy in Persian cooking is a cultural thing? More of a snobby thing, I reckon. The traditional Iranian diet did actually revolve around wheat, which was first grown in north and western Iran and northeast Iraq, and there are whole regions in Iran where they do eat more bread than rice. Ancient cultivars of wheat—emmer and einkorn—first evolved there, and they may hold the clue to the way forward for those of us with intolerances, rather than coeliac disease or allergies. I can actually eat both of these varieties of grain. Anyway, when rice arrived from the East it quickly came to be seen as the food of choice for the rich, and remains key to Persian cuisine. Add to that the fact that, although they do eat plenty of cheese and yoghurt, they rarely cook with either. The diet lends itself perfectly to those with wheat or dairy issues.
What would you describe as a perfect wheat and dairy free Persian lunch? Kookoo. It's a bit like frittata, or a quiche, using chickpea flour in place of wheat. Or āsh: a rich, beany, vegan herb soup.
Delicious. And what about a big dinner? Any number of khoresht, or casseroles, with rice would do the trick. Ghormeh sabzi is the unofficial national dish, a rich casserole of lamb with herbs, dried limes and kidney beans.
Desserts are always tough for those with food intolerances. Although, I've heard cool things about Persian candy floss, pashmak? Pashmak in Iran is manufactured—quite unnecessarily—with wheat flour. But sholeh zard is a good one—it's a saffron rice pudding made with water instead of milk. It's a doddle, and so tasty.
Is it just Persian food that lends itself well to your wheat and dairy free experimentations or can you try it with other Middle Eastern cuisines? I will eat more or less anything—I don't let my intolerances stand in the way of me creating or playing with a good recipe. The Middle Eastern kitchen generally is a source of inspiration for those with food intolerances as, firstly, there are many different types of flour that could be used if you do eat bread (flat breads are much easier to mess with than fat breads) and secondly, the meze style of eating is a great way to sample lots of different foods, many of which are made without wheat or dairy anyway.
Great. I'll tell my gluten-shirking friends to start looking to the Middle East for inspiration. Thanks, Sally!