Monday, 26 September 2011

Persia via Peckham

A few weeks ago we took a little trip down to South East London. My London knowledge is very north-centric but I am routinely tantalised by blogs and reviews and tweets of SE London's burgeoning culinary offerings, but being wrapped up in my studies, I hadn't yet had the opportunity to visit this corner of town and sample it's greatest hits. On a separate note, as we consider our future housing possibilities, it is clear that much of North and East is becoming ridiculously pricey, even for people on pretty decent salaries, so a little cycle down south also served the purpose of exploring the side streets and high streets and asking 'Could I live here?'.

Top of my list was Persepolis – a Peckham cornershop specialising in Persian stock cupboard ingredients, fresh produce and cultural artefacts (shisha pipes, music and much more). Mrs Cornershop is Sally Butcher, who has published a Persian cookbook and is just about to bring out another: Veggiestan. She also runs a dryly comedic and insightful twitter feed that I've been following for a while, tempting me down to SE15 to stock up on rare ingredients. We also called in at Anderson & Co, a fancypants deli on Bellenden Road, a gentrifying strip of Peckham that estate agents will have you believe is some kind of urban shangri-la. And zipped rouund the streets of Peckham, Nunhead, Camberwell and Telegraph Hill. All surprisingly hilly.

So after a delicious slice of courgette cake with lemon frosting and a Square Mile coffee at Anderson & Co...

...we hit up Persepolis. It was beautiful inside: busy, colourful, lots of hand-written notices, many different varieties of pickles – pickles for all tastes and cuisines. Everything was laid out nicely and the selection was incredible. Pretty much any spice you could imagine was in stock, and in generous, well-priced bags. Most impressive was the selection of fresh specialist produce, including breads, vegetables and sweets that you would really struggle to find elsewhere. I just bought dried barberries, dried sour cherries, dried rose petals and a couple of jars of Persian pickled cucumbers, perfect for making Salad Olivieh.

I decided to try out a few of the ingredients in a Persian meal at home, and particularly practice my tahdig – the classic Persian way of cooking rice. I served with a tangy lemon chicken and a simple salad of tomato, cucumber, herbs and pickles. The tahdig can be made various ways and every Persian cook will insist their method is the best. I did a bit of googling to try and work out a relatively straightforward method for my first – it went a little bit like this:

  1. Rinse the basmati rice you need (at least 75g per person – this is pretty tasty, and people will want more!) several times until the water runs clear
  2. Soak for at least an hour in lightly salted water
  3. Drain and place in boiling water - boil until cooked (maybe 8 minutes or so – don't want it to be mush)
  4. Leave to drain; meanwhile, in a thick-bottomed saucepan heat a bit of oil or butter, enough to coat the bottom, maybe add a sprinkling of sugar.
  5. Once the oil is hot, tip in the cooked rice, but don't stir! Just make 4 thin wells into the rice and cover with a tea towel, then a lid (wrap the flapping bits of tea towel into the handle.
  6. Take a few strands of saffron and put in half a cup of boiling water – allow to diffuse for a few minutes, turning the water a light yellow, then pour into the thin wells. Carry on cooking for up to an hour, but 30-40 minutes should be fine.
  7. You will then have a beautifully fragrant rice, with a caramelly, perfumy, crispy base. Mix it up a bit and serve!

I mixed in dried barberries, which I'd soaked in soaked in water and then caramelised in butter and sugar before putting the boiled rice into the saucepan with oil. From googles, it seems like chicken and barberry rice is a classic combination. I used this recipe for the lemon chicken – the sauce was AMAZING. I couldn't have enough of it, so lucky I made too much.

So I'm definitely sold on Persian cooking, and look forward to developing my repertoire further, especially for veggie friends once my copy of Veggiestan arrives. On South East London, I wasn't fully swayed, but having such a brilliant food store nearby is definitely a big pull-factor!

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