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Authenticity - a book and a soup

"When you give of yourself through a dish, you aren't just feeding somebody's physical hunger, but a deeper longing for home, for a safe place to rest." Marsha Mehran/Pomegranate Soup


It's a bit over the top isn't it - that quote? I have just finished reading this book - for book group next week. It's a very easy, pleasant read, and actually well-written in a comfortable, somewhat predictable way. I'm sure that many would say it's 'heartwarming' - like the soup itself. Actually some of it is grim, and some of it is educational in terms of Iranian modern history, Overall though the tone is warm and comforting and therefore just asking for cynical comment. I enjoyed it I have to say, but at the same time I would also have to say that it had a somewhat typical range of stock characters and was also rather idealised, even though I have no doubt that it came from the author's real-life experiences - even traumas.


The book is actually quite old - 2005 - and I have the feeling I have read it before, but I had obviously more or less forgotten the story. As I read, however, there were occasional moments when I vaguely remembered what happened next. Indeed there are not actually very many books that I do remember. Perhaps I read too fast, perhaps my memory is just not that good ...


Anyway I couldn't resist the title as a blog topic, and have been rewarded by finding a couple of interesting if familiar thoughts along the way - hence my title of this piece.


I began my search for recipes with a recipe on the Food 52 website, and this recipe from

Louise Shafia - an American born to an Iranian father and Jewish mother who has written at least one book A New Persian Kitchen about Persian food. One assumes it is authentic, because of her Iranian father. And I owe to her the best description of pomegranate soup that I found in my travels around the net:


"Pomegranate soup starts out like a classic chunky bean soup recipe, with browned onions, garlic, beans, and barley, all cooked in stock. But then all of a sudden, the ingredients screech off the familiar path into wild territory, with cumin, turmeric, dried mint, and most exotic, tart ruby pomegranate syrup, following one after the other into the pot." Louise Shafia/Food52


Hers wasn't the first recipe to come up however. This was from one of those lesser known food blogs - The Spiced Life. I had temporarily forgotten that I was making it my mission to feature these hidden corners of the internet, when they popped up, so I hastened to rectify my error.


Herewith my first detour. On this website, Laura - the creator - calls her version Ash-e anar (Persian Pomegranate soup with meatballs) and when I had finished reading it I found that it was actually an adaptation of Louise Shafia's recipe - the main change being that the meatballs were made of beef rather than lamb - well she lives in Pittsburgh. I don't they think they eat much lamb in America.


Laura, it seems was a history major at university but found she could not settle on one particular country to explore. After a while, she recognised that food was also a passion and so she decided to look at food through a historical (and cultural) lens. The blog was born with the help of her husband, although I suspect she may have given up because her last recipe featured on the Home page Birria de res tacos dates from 2021. I tried to find out more about her, but failed.


However, - and here is my second detour - in the introduction to her last recipe those Birria de res tacos, she had a few interesting things to say about authenticity - and bisons, beginning with this, about when she had found:


"an offhand comment in a New York Times article about “the Birria Boom” (which made me laugh because hanging out here in quarantine in Pennsylvania I had no idea that Birria was booming):


"This means that, yes, somewhere, a white woman is sharing her “authentic birria” recipe made with boneless beef, packaged bone broth, a few shakes of smoked pimentón and some puréed carrots — the dark side of internet fame, for any dish."" New York Times and Laura/The Spiced Life


I know I have ranted about 'authenticity' on and off for the lifetime of this blog, but I must say that like Laura I really bristled at that comment about 'a white woman' - as if white women and actually when you think about it - any woman - yes woman - why not man? - had no right to cook anything that wasn't from her own culture. Laura's retaliation was:


"It is my personal belief that we do the food of other cultures a disservice if we never try to make them to the best of our ability with what we have around (within reason). Just be aware of what changes you are making and why."


Besides, as I have also said many times, what is 'authentic' anyway? I have also mentioned that long ago Italian TV cooking show in which a guy went to little villages and got all the nonnas of the village to cook their version of the local speciality. Every woman's version was different, and probably equally delicious. So much for 'authenticity'.


Oh and those bisons. She had visited somewhere in the vast American plains where bison were being returned to the wild and she had been so captivated by this that she thought to substitute bison meat for the 'authentic' goat in her tacos, saying that


"it honors the spirit of using a hardy animal that works with its environment, rather than an animal that needs irrigation and feed, etc to survive."


Although, just in case you are wondering, she also said:


"is it weird to love bison so much, to the extent of having this picture on my wall, and yet find them absolutely delicious? I’ve decided no. It is all the circle of life."


And I am sure all of us who still eat meat, indulge in the same kind of somewhat dodgy reasoning.


And, of course, these days we have all those celebrity chefs taking 'authentic' dishes and making them their own with some little twist. Ottlonghi, of course, is a prime example, and since we are talking about Pomegranate soup here is a soup that he calls Slow-cooked shin soup with pomegranate and beetroot and which he says is a sort of cross between stroganoff and borscht. There is no claim to any similarity to Iranian Ash-e anar but nevertheless I felt that surely that soup must have been part of the inspiration - remotely anyway.


But back to Laura who had one final word to say on 'authenticity':


"when I was learning to make Indian food and carefully peeling my tomatoes because all of the recipes (at that time in the few cookbooks I had, this was 20 years ago) I saw called for it. I finally asked a friend, who was raised in India until coming to America for high school, college and graduate school. Her maternal grandparents lived here. Anyway, I will never forget the sound of her laughter as she informed me she did not know anyone who took the time to peel a tomato. There is a lesson somewhere in that."


Enough of Laura, back to that soup and a digression back to the book:


"Unlike fesanjan, in which the pomegranate taste is balanced by a robust walnut companion, pomegranate soup relies entirely on the fruit for its inspiration. A shimmering magenta when fully cooked the pomegranate juice gives the broth a sour-sweet taste and is usually enjoyed as an appetiser rather than a main meal. There was no other dish with such a perfect balance of sardi and garmi, in Marjan's opinion, the sard pomegranate and cilantro equalling out the garm lamb and split peas." Marsha Mehran /Pomegranate Soup


Sarni and garmi?:


"Classifying foods as sardi (cooling) & garmi (warming) is a method of healing that has been practiced in the Middle-East for thousands of years by incorporating a mixture of these foods to bring the body back to balance." Salami Nutrition


Which has a vague connection with those medieval notions of the humours and is a little fact to add to the store in your head.


Back to my search for recipes, since, so far, I really only have one as The Spiced Life's recipe is an adaptation of Louise Shafia's. So far nothing other than that very distant relation from Ottolenghi. And nothing else from The Guardian either. No that's not quite fair - and another minor detour.


I did, in fact, find a recipe - by Sally Butcher in an article about a book called Soup for Syria which was published back in 2015 in support of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Alas no picture. Lebanon still has those refugees, and now, many more from Gaza. It never ends does it - man's inhumanity to man?


So I went to my bookshelves, and found that Claudia Roden had nothing to offer and neither did Greg Malouf - not even in his book about Persia - Saraban. However, Yasmin Khan's beautiful book The Saffron Tales (my next first recipe book) did have one, and I found the recipe for her Iranian pomegranate soup (Aash-e anar) on the Kitchn website. Her version was different in that there were no meatballs - indeed no meat at all, and she also had beetroot - so maybe Ottolenghi wasn't so far out after all. She also had mung beans rather than lentils or split yellow beans which were the usual legume addition. Mind you a few went for pearl barley - or was that instead of the rice? Obviously it's just one of those soups, like minestrone, which might have a few basic ideas, but which is entirely in the hands of the cook on the day, according to what she feels like and what she has to hand.


So one final version from a rather beautiful blog called Turmeric and Saffron - Ash-e Anar - Persian Pomegranate Soup with Fresh Herbs and Mini Meatballs. The meatballs are indeed mini which reminded me that I had seen a photo of one version with very large meatballs, so obviously anything goes - even if you are genuinely Iranian as the author, Azita, of Turmeric and Saffron is. Looking at the ingredients I would say that this is indeed a fairly traditional recipe - except for those tiny meatballs.


Soup is indeed a comforting thing and in my book of the day, our heroine, Marjan finds solace at a desperate time in her life, in making that soup:


"She mixed the herbs in a bowl with ground lamb, onions, and seasoning, the meat squishing between her fingers, feeling like warm mud inviting itself between bare toes on a hot summer's day. The familiar rhythm of mixing was soothing, and by the time she added the meatballs to the pot of hot broth, her hopes were singing once again." Marsha Mehran/Pomegranate Soup


At the beginning of each chapter of the book there is a recipe - doubtless authentic, although looking at her recipes for baklava and for dolmades - both of which are pretty familiar to me - I think I prefer the versions that I use - Tess Mallos for the baklava and Claudia Roden for the dolmades. But then their versions are Greek and Turkish, so of course they are different.


As I said at the beginning, my book group book was really rather sentimental, even saccharine - at least if you have a cynical frame of mind, or are just in a cynical mood. As is this quote from Louse Shafia - my first recipe author. She too does things for refugees.


"Food is soft power. In gentle and delicious fashion, it can shape preferences, open minds and create goodwill." Louise Shafia


It's a pity that a newspaper as prestigious as The New York Times can be so critical of we poor white women striving to understand and appreciate the food - and therefore the culture - of other countries.


POSTSCRIPT

A couple of tiny thoughts to add to my piece on the supermarkets yesterday.


  1. If they break up Coles and Woolworths that will be a huge bonus for Aldi - a private German company that probably doesn't pay enough tax here in Australia. Now I'm an Aldi fan for some of their things, but don't think they should profit at the expense of Australian companies.

  2. Many of those thousands of jobs the supermarkets provide are lower skilled jobs. The very jobs that are disappearing as technology takes over. Where will they go?

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