Reconstructing a taste memory – almost
When I first started teaching, I had a student from Iran. This was before the Ayatollah Khomeini, the embassy hostages, and all the mess in the Middle East. This student, wanting to share some of his culture with the class, invited us all to his apartment for dinner. Sadly, I don’t remember much about that student but I remember the meal he served us vividly.
I don’t recall that he had a name for the dish but I do remember that it was a revelation for me. What he cooked was basically chicken, braised in a tomato base with lots of spices. Chicken parts stewed in tomatoes with lots of onion, peppers and whole spices – cloves and cinnamon stand out in my mind – and tons of flavor. From what I know now he would have probably called it a khoresht, a stew.
Memory is often the sweetest seasoning
Over the years, I’ve tried to cook something similar on a number of occasions. Often getting close but never quite right. However I didn’t attempt to reconstruct this dish until many years after I’d eaten it, thus I was drawing on taste memories that had undoubtedly been altered by intervening time and meals, not to mention that I had started to cook for myself and become somewhat of a “foodie”. This iteration definitely includes some of that corruption. Foolishly or blessedly, I’ve never tried to find a published recipe for the dish (except today as I was writing this post) – memory is often the sweetest seasoning.
Iran is what was once Persia. I know one of the features of Persian food is that fruit is often included in savory meat dishes. I don’t remember if my student’s offering had any fruit in it but I now regularly add fruit of some sort to my versions of this taste memory. The recipe below may look intimidating because of the number of ingredients but there’s no difficult techniques involved, just chopping and a little sauteing.
Chicken Khoresht (Persian Chicken Stew) à la Curt
5 boneless chicken thighs, each cut into 4 or 5 chunks
3 Tbs olive oil
1 large onion, cut into large chunks
3 or 4 stalks of celery, cut into 1″ pieces
2 Bell peppers, 1 red and 1 green, cut into 1-1/2″ chunks
1 C. okra, fresh or frozen, cut into large chunks
28 oz. can of whole plum tomatoes and juice, roughly broken up into pieces
1-1/2 C water
1/4 C cilantro root (optional)
1/4 C chopped fresh cilantro leaf
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 3/4″ chunks *
2 small or 1 large tart apples such as Granny Smith, peeled, cut into chunks **
1/4 C. raisins ***
6 cloves, crushed
1/2 tsp coriander, ground
1-1/2″ cinnamon stick, left whole
1 tsp thyme, dried
1/2 tsp basil, dried
1 tsp curry powder
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 tsp apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper
Sweat the onions, peppers and celery in 2 Tbs of the oil over medium heat in a large saute pan or dutch oven until softened. Add the garlic and cilantro root and saute an additional minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Add 1 Tbs of oil to what’s left in the pan and saute the chicken over medium-high heat until it loses its pinkness. Return the vegetables to the pan with the chicken and add okra, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and water and bring to a simmer.
Add the spices, herbs, vinegar, salt and pepper, apples and raisins. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the chopped cilantro leaf as garnish.
Serve with white rice.
The following are alternatives or additions to the ingredients in the recipe.
* Sweet potato: Chickpeas, winter squash such as butternut.
** Apple: Quince, firm fresh peaches or nectarines
*** Raisins: Dried cherries, currants, dried cranberries (Craisins), prunes, apricots
Khoresht ingredients vary widely and are often made with lamb. They may include, in addition to or as alternates to the spices listed; saffron, cardamom, ground cinnamon and cumin. The basil and thyme are not traditional but the small amounts I’ve added are subtle.
I’ve seen some khoresht that include eggplant or zucchini instead of the fresh fruit. I’ve occasionally made this with some of the bell peppers replaced with chile peppers for a spicier version but be careful to not take it into the realm of hot chili or curry – you need to be able to taste the spices, fruit and vegetables.
I’ve eaten a Philippino stew that used pork, tomato, bell pepper, plantain and pineapple that was quite good and similar to a khoresht, so experiment with alternate fruits, vegetables and spices if you feel adventuresome.