Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & beyond, written by Sabrina Ghayour, features some of the best flavors of the area surrounding the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea in over 100 recipes. There is a mixture of traditional dishes and adaptations from cuisines throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. A few highlights include Ras el Hanout Chicken Wraps, Naan Barbari (Persian Flatbread), Mahi Shekampor (Belly Stuffed Rainbow Trout), and Ash-e Anar (Pomegranate Soup with Meatballs). I will also be sharing her recipe for Eastern-Style Focaccia following the review.
Disclosure: I received this book from Interlink Publishing in exchange for my honest review. All opinions and statements are my own. This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase something through the link, I may receive a small commission at no extra charge to you.
Sabrina Ghayour was born in Iran and raised in England. She didn’t grow up in a family of cooks. Instead, she started to teach herself at the age of six, first focusing on Persian cuisine before branching out to food throughout the Middle East. She went on to host supper clubs and create recipes that have been featured in many publications, plus hold cooking demonstrations, cooking classes, and other events. She put together Persiana to share “no mess, no fuss, just simple and delicious food.” I also reviewed Sabrina’s cookbook, Feasts (+ a recipe for Spicy Halloumi Salad), in 2018.
Persiana is a wonderful pick for both new and well-versed cooks interested in Middle Eastern flavors. Many of the recipes have been simplified to make them more easily accessible to the home cook. The difficulty ranges from incredibly easy and perfect for weeknight meals to slightly more advanced. There is a nice balance with appetizers, breads, rice, soups, stews, grilled items, roasts, fish, shellfish, salads, vegetables, and a variety of desserts.
Chapters are divided based on course: Mezze and Sharing Plates; Breads and Grains; Soups, Stews and Tangines; Roasts and Grills; Salads and Vegetables; and Desserts and Sweet Treats.
The photography is by Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton. Nearly every recipe has a beautiful, full page photograph of the finished dish. There are no step-by-step photos, but I didn’t really feel that they were needed. A few illustrations by Susan Brinkhurst of various ingredients such as shrimp and scallions add an artistic touch alongside some of the recipes.
Every recipe includes a headnote with background information, why it is special to Sabrina, and tips. Measurements are provided in US Customary and Metric. Most of the ingredients are available in larger grocery stores, but a few will require a trip to a market specializing in Middle Eastern ingredients or online such as sumac, pomegranate molasses, Aleppo pepper flakes, rosewater, and orange blossom water.
The first recipe I tried was Eastern-Style Focaccia. This traditionally Italian bread has a Middle Eastern twist with the addition of cumin, coriander, dried mint, red chili flakes, thyme, nigella seeds, and sumac. We all loved the bread. Even Claire snuck in a bite while Chad was trying his piece.
Ghayour recommends pairing the Eastern-Style Focaccia with soups, salty cheeses/dips, or using it as the base for a feta and roasted pepper sandwich. As with many fresh breads, this is best the day it is made.
- Sumac is a spice made from the berries of the sumac bush and is common in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking. It is available in berry or ground form. Sumac has a lightly bitter, lemony taste and a deep brownish red hue. There are no good substitutes for the flavor. I have been able to find it in the spice section of some international grocery stores and recently at Whole Foods. Watch the ingredient list and color of sumac. It should be a deep red. Bright red spices may have added coloring and some have added salt. It is also available of Amazon: Sumac 4.0 oz by Zamouri Spices.
- Nigella seeds come from the fruit of the Nigella sativa, a pale blue or white flower originating from southern Asia and northern Africa. These black, triangular seeds are used to top many breads throughout the Middle East to India and northern Africa. They don’t have much flavor when raw, but become more peppery with a smokey flavor when cooked. Nigella seeds are available in markets specializing in Middle Eastern ingredients, larger spice stores, and on Amazon: Nigella 2.0 oz – Zamouri Spices.
I also made Joojeh Kabab (Saffron and Lemon Chicken) with Chelo (Persian Basmati Rice), Pistachio and Feta Dip, Cinnamon and Citrus Almond Pastry Cigars, and Pomegranate Tabbouleh Cups.
Joojeh Kabab is an Iranian poultry dish made by grilling chicken (traditionally poussin) pieces that have been marinated in seasoned yogurt and lemon juice. The chicken is arranged on a baking sheet with sliced onions and baked or grilled until cooked through and slightly charred on the edges. Ghayour simplified the dish and adapted it to the oven in case you can’t use the grill/don’t have one available. I paired the Joojeh Kabab with Chelo, a Persian Basmati Rice with a crisp, salty crust (tahdig) on the bottom.
I made the Pistachio and Feta Dip to pair with the Eastern-Style Focaccia. This was incredibly simple to prepare and packed with flavor. Just a quick whirl in the food processor created a smooth, creamy texture. The addition of a red chili adds a little bit of heat without becoming overwhelming. The longest part was shelling all the pistachios, though you could use pre-shelled to save time. Ghayour found the influence for this dip in Istanbul.
There were so many great looking desserts to choose from, but I settled on the Cinnamon and Citrus Almond Pastry Cigars. Ghayour adapted this recipe from the traditional M’hencha (Moroccan Berber coiled pastry). She created single serving rolls that are easier to assemble. Crisp phyllo rolls are filled with ground almonds seasoned with cinnamon, rosewater, orange, and lime. The almond filling can even be made in advance for those short on time the day they need to be served.
I have heard of Tabbouleh, but hadn’t actually made until I came across Ghayour’s recipe for Pomegranate Tabbouleh Cups. Pomegranates are starting to show up in grocery stores again and they were put to great use in this colorful and flavorful salad. The salad is a combination of bulgar, parsley, tomatoes, scallions, cinnamon, and pomegranate seeds. It is lightly seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper before serving with lettuce leaves.
Eastern-Style Focaccia Recipe
Excerpt from Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & beyond
- 1/2 cup (125 grams) cold sour cream
- 2/3 cup (150 ml) cold water
- 1/2 cup Scant (100 ml) boiling water
- 3 teaspoons sea salt flakes crushed, plus extra for topping (less if using table salt)
- 2 teaspoons superfine sugar
- 1/2 ounce (14 grams) active dry yeast
- 3 1/2 cups (1 pound 4 ounces/550 grams) white bread flour
- 3 tablespoons cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon dried mint
- 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes
- 3/4 cup (200 ml) extra virgin olive oil
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme leaves picked
- 1 teaspoon nigella seeds
- 1 teaspoon sumac
- Mix the sour cream with the cold and boiling water in a large bowl. Add the salt with the sugar and yeast, then blend in the flour, 2 tablespoons of the cumin seeds, the ground coriander, dried mint, and the chili flakes until the mixture forms a rough ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave the dough to rest somewhere warm for 10 minutes to rise.
- Line a large roasting pan with some parchment paper and place the dough on top. Stretch out the dough to the size of your pan, then using your fingers, poke deep holes all over it. Try not to pierce the dough, but you can be pretty tough with it. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and leave the dough to rest somewhere warm for 1 hour (or longer, if you like).
- Once the hour is up, preheat the oven to 400˚F/200˚C. Remove the plastic wrap covering from the dough and drizzle the extra virgin olive oil over it, ensuring it covers every nook and cranny. A silicone brush will aid this process. Sprinkle the entire surface of the dough liberally with uncrushed sea salt flakes, thyme leaves, nigella seeds, the remaining cumin seeds, and the sumac.
- Place the baking sheet on the top shelf of the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown.