Just as I was about to hit the power button on my television last night, I got a text from a friend informing me that Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown was doing an episode on Iran. I looked at the time and chose to sacrifice an hour of sleep to be inspired by my favorite travel guide. Here’s a secret: I have been obsessed by the following countries: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan since my youth. This is before 9/11. It was since I visited north India for the first time and I got to experiences cultures that were so different from the cultures of my home town. As a child, I remember hearing stories of my parents visit to Kashmir before all the conflict, before it was so unsafe to visit and longed to visit Kashmir, Pakistan, and the mountains of Afghanistan.
Then we visited the Taj Mahal and I heard the greatest love story of my life. One that introduced be to the ancient world of Persia and it’s connection to my world. It is said that Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of his late wife Mumtaz Mahal. Just like Poe wrote “Annabel Lee” for his love, but just a little more dramatic. Melodrama and intense taste–the two ingredients in the DNA of every Indian. As I watched Bourdain travel around Tehran and to its outskirts, I suddenly became home sick. Accompanying him into mosques from centuries ago that still stand glistening against the dusty backdrop of modern life, I felt connected, grounded.
That’s when it happened–Bourdain said, “I’ve had Biryani in India, Pakistan but here, this is the origin of birian!” Bold exclamation points appeared in mind. How could I not know this? I knew that Afghani and Pakistani biryani was really good, but I didn’t know why. For so long I ate this celestial dish of rice blended with mutton and spices that soften your jaw not knowing of its origin. So being the 21st century teacher and learner that I am, I instantly began Googling Biryani.
It turns out, Birian in Farsi means fried before cooking. Additionally, it was born in Indian when Mumtaz Mahal visited military barracks and noticed the soldiers were under nourished and asked the cooks to prepare a nutritious meal. Thus, Biryani was born. So there, Iran or rather Persia and India are connected by ancient history older than the history of my current citizenship.
I should feel robbed because I used to proudly announce that I was from the birthplace of biryani: Hyderabad. I used proudly describe this dish to anyone who would listen using exact words and complete melodrama. Knowing the truth, however, makes me feel connected and proud like that part of this earth is mine.
Forget the political conflict, forget the women’s rights–for just a moment, and consider the influence each country has on our palate. It’s such a gift to have access to it all thousands of miles away. However, the truth is nothing, I mean nothing is close to eating it in a tiny hole in the wall restaurant in Tehran or standing up eating it in the streets of Hyderabad. There’s something just absolutely breathtaking about the real thing. I haven’t actually eaten it in Tehran, but now it’s a bucket list item. If not Tehran, then at least a measly meal made from a recipe book in my kitchen will have to suffice for today.
N always tells me that not everyone has a palate like me and can’t get into every type of food like I do. It used to upset me when people told me they didn’t like “curry” or couldn’t eat Indian food. The truth is my need to embrace all types of food and really cultures makes me whole. It fills me up.
So thank you Iran and Persia for inventing the best dish I have and will ever eat in my life time. One that not only comforts me, but also deepens my identity. I am a little bit Persia, I little bit Iran, and lot bit India.
Hyderabadi Biryani Recipe:
**Best Persian Restaurant in DC area: Shamshiry in Tysons Corner area.**