Happy belated Valentines Day from Veggiestan…
Yeki boud, yeki naboud… Which is Persian for “Once upon a time”. For that is indeed when our tale of vegetable-crossed lovers begins.
Long long ago, and far far away, in the shimmering hot lands South of the Zagros Mountains, there was a glorious kingdom. It stretched from noble Susa all the way down to the golden, warm waters of the Persian Gulf.
Its Shah, Kambiz, was a peaceable chap, which was unusual for the time, and for this reason his subjects were happy and secure. Anu, the great sky god, was fond of him, as was his favourite daughter, Innana, whom some call Ishtar, and they had bestowed upon the kingdom long sunny days, sheltered valleys and fertile soil. Everything grew in abundance, and poverty was all but unknown – hey, it was a good place to be.
The only shadow hanging over this general picture of archaic bliss was the fact that the Shah’s beautiful wife Leila had not been able to bear him a son. But this presented but a very small cloud in an otherwise blue sky, and the royal couple did have a very bright, well behaved and pretty daughter on whom the whole kingdom doted. The little girl was named Pouran, which, tellingly, means ‘successor’, and she was the apple of her father’s eye. She had also caught the eye of Anu, as she reminded him of Innana and how innocent the spoilt goddess had once been.
As an only child Pouran was unusually perspicacious, and started to feel guilty that she had been born a girl. So keen was she to be everything he seemed to want in a child that she became quite the tomboy, riding out with him to go hunting, learning from the courtiers how to handle a sword, climbing trees and eschewing all of the domestic arts. It wasn’t long before they were calling her the Little Prince.
All was well until she reached puberty. Subconsciously she started graduating towards all things pink, and doing stuff with her hair. It had become rather hard to deny her girliness, and she was terrified that her father would no longer love her. In desperation she started to eat less: a little less each day in fact. Because she kind of figured that that way she could stay little, and prince-like.
No-one noticed at first. She found it easy to throw her food away, feed some of it to the cat, lose it one way or another. She was too much of a tough cookie to allow a maid to dress her, and Queen Leila just put down her daughter’s pickiness at mealtimes to hormones (for stroppy teenagers are not a new invention). But then the servants started talking, as servants did: the Little Prince was definitely looking peaky. And when Pouran refused to eat any of her favourite shirinee, the housekeeper decided to act and brought the matter to the Queen’s attention.
Doctors were called, and all manner of diagnoses were given. Hormones, too much sunshine, not enough tripe in her diet, too many cold foods, living too close to the sea…. And the cures were even stranger: unguents, medicines, and weird draughts were prepared for the stubbornly silent teenager, and she was carted from mountain retreat to treetop lodge in the hope that a change of scenery would provide the cure.
The months, years even, rolled by, and Shah Kambiz was becoming distraught. All thoughts of his Little Prince had been expunged: he had never liked that boyish thing of hers, and longed to get his Little Princess back. In despair, and at the advice of his most trusted viziers, he and a small entourage crossed the Euphrates to visit the temple of Innana in Uruk. To pray that his daughter be restored to him, and that she recovered her appetite, grew strong and found a suitor.
Now Innana really would have liked to help. She loved the gifts Kambiz had brought her, and could see that he really needed her blessing. But Anu was constantly holding up Pouran as a paragon of daughterly virtue, and berating his own daughter for her obstreperous nature. Innana was jealous, and a jealous goddess is not a good thing.
“So, the good Shah wants his daughter to eat and fall in love, eh?” she muttered, stomping her feet and causing a very minor earthquake in the process. “Well we can sort that out, I am sure.”
Kambiz returned to his realm, unsure as to whether his imprecations had been heeded. He found Pouran was thinner than ever, and Leila passed all her days in weeping and wringing her hands.
And then, one day, as Pouran was sitting on her balcony overlooking the gardens, the most delicious aroma wafted through the air. It was so powerful, and fragrant, and exotic that her mouth began watering. She was startled by this: she had all but forgotten the sensory pleasures of food, and had never smelt anything so appetising before. She leant over the rail to try and find the source of the smell, and much to her surprise saw a young lad sitting on the terrace below, picking at a plate of food.
“Hey you,” called out the gardener, who had just spotted the youth, “You’re not meant to be here! This is the Shah’s private garden.”
“It’s alright, Gardener,” said the Princess from above. “He’s not doing any harm.”
The lad looked up then. And they smiled at each other. Pouran felt very odd inside, but had trouble working out why. And then she remembered the sensation. It was hunger.
“Would you like some?” asked the intruder. And before either she or the gardener could stop him, the lad had climbed up the trellis to join Pouran. He was very handsome, the Princess noted. He proffered his little dish of food, and happily she took a spoonful. By the waters of Tiamat it was good! Before she could stop herself she had finished the lot. She looked up at him, horrified…but he merely smiled, and winked, and shimmied back over the balcony before vanishing into the shrubbery.
The same thing happened the next day. Pouran had made sure that she was on the balcony at the same time (although she had put a little effort into her appearance this time), and sure enough, the lad was there again. Once again he scaled the trellis, and once again she happily accepted the choice morsels he offered her.
“What is this?” she asked. “And who are you?”
“My name is Ashai,” said the youth, in a lilting voice, “And these are bamya -ladies fingers.”
“Eurghhh!” said Pouran, making as if to spit out her food.
“They’re not real ladies’ fingers, you goose,” he said. “They’re vegetables. In Egypt, where I come from, these are a delicacy. We call them that because they look like little fingers. We fry them with garlic and tomato, and they’re just the tastiest snack, no?”
“How did you (and they) get here?” asked the incredulous Princess.
“We arrived together,” he replied, clearly amused. “I work in your kitchens, as an under-under-under chef. And I brought a supply of these from home. I am trying to persuade your gardener to let me grow them here.”
“Leave that to me!” said the Princess.
Well, dear reader, this went on for nearly a week. Every day the Princess would drool in anticipation of Ashai’s visit, and every day he would bring her just a little bit more of the dish. They chatted, and she felt so easy in his company that she actually found herself laughing again. At night she dreamt of his luminous face and strong physique, and woke each morning feeling quite unnerved.
And then one afternoon Leila popped in to see her daughter…and discovered her sitting next to a handsome young man and feasting on a plate of vegetables. She was so overjoyed that she ran out of the room to spread the good news. Ashai misunderstood the Queen’s shrieks and fled in terror, not just from Pouran’s balcony, but from the palace. He had no airs and graces, this one, but even he realised that it was not cool to be caught in a Princess’ boudoir.
Well Pouran was distraught. She waited day after day for Ashai to return, but there was no sign of him. In the meantime the realm’s best chefs were summoned to create fine dishes for the Princess, who once again seemed unwilling to eat. Peppers, tomatoes, artichokes, olives, spices, herbs: the country’s culinary geniuses arrived clutching their finest ingredients to add to chicken or lamb (for they simply could not believe that a dish could be that irresistible without meat), and an array of dishes was brought before Pouran to see if she could be tempted to partake thereof. All to no avail – she declared it all to be ‘be-namag’ – without flavour (literally salt). The Shah declared that whoever could make his daughter eat again would have her hand in marriage.
In the end it was the gardener who saved the day. Only he knew that it had been the sous-sous-sous chef who had won the Princess over, and only he knew where the youth had gone. He took a couple of days off and trekked down to the port of Siraf, where Ashai was waiting impatiently for a boat to carry him away from all the furore. The wily old servant had soon persuaded Ashai that the proper, manly thing to do would be to return, and that the Princess’ very life depended on him. He could hardly refuse, as he too had been dreaming of their encounters, although he had had no idea that Pouran was in such a sorry state.
This was not what Innana had planned. The demi-godly one fumed with frustration. The girl had been meant to run off with Ashai, who was a peasant and thus a completely unsuitable match. Now it looked as if not only was the lad possessed of innate graciousness, the Shah seemed prepared to swallow his regal pride. Happy endings all round. Was she losing her touch, she wondered… And then she had an idea. She would render the vegetable in question so unpalatable and hard to cook that not even a naturally talented chef such as Ashai would be able to prepare it. She would make it S-L-I-M-Y. Henceforth, she reckoned, only cattle would be able to eat bamya.
Innana, the spoilt one, was so full of herself that she had forgotten that she was not actually omnipotent. That handy attribute was unique to Anu, who had been watching her carefully. Vowing to deal with her later, he visited Ashai in the form of a dream, because when you are all-powerful you can do that sort of thing, showing the young chef how to cook the bamya to get rid of the slime.
Thus it was that when a trembling Ashai was brought back to the royal kitchens where he had once worked, he knew not why he prepared the ladies fingers differently: he scratched his head, for it was almost as if someone else was guiding his hands. This time, instead of chopping the veg, he fried whole them in hot oil, adding his secret blend of herbs and spices. The kitchen staff were astonished: this miraculous delicacy contained no meat. The head chef, who was somewhat mortified to be presenting a dish prepared by a kitchen porter to the royal family, nervously bore it to the Princess’ chamber.
Well of course as soon as Pouran caught a whiff of that alluring creation, she perked up.
“Where is he?” she asked, “Has Ashai returned?” And she ran to the window to see if she could espy him below. Failing to find him there, she ran through the palace to the kitchens, where her erstwhile beau was waiting anxiously.
He smiled, shyly: he was, after all, being observed by scores of his former superiors. She smiled, coyly, and took his hand.
“Teach me, Ashai. Teach me how to cook. And how to eat!”
A cheer rang out through the kitchens, and even the head chef had to admit that he was relieved.
Within weeks Pouran had started to blossom again, and she ate all that her beloved put in front of her. The Shah honoured his pledge to allow the two to marry, although he had read these fairy stories before and was half expecting Pouran’s suitor to turn out to be an Egyptian prince in disguise. But no: Ashai was indeed just a peasant lad, a kind and creative dreamer who happened to be a brilliant cook. One who didn’t eat meat. The young couple eschewed offers of their own palace and a life of ease, choosing instead to cook together, side by side, in the palace kitchens, transforming the cuisine of the kingdom. Khoresht-e-Bamya became a weekly favourite in households across the land, and the vegetable was soon being grown across Persia.
The Shah once again visited Uruk, to give thanks to Innana for her intervention, quite unaware that she could not hear him: Anu had condemned her to wash up in the celestial kitchens for two months or until she learned how to behave…
Pouran’s Persian Okra Casserole
for a regular household of 4 – just increase the quantities proportionately should you live in a palace
- 100g yellow split peas (chana dall, or lapeh in Farsi)
- 500g baby okra (if you can’t find fresh, use frozen; and if you can’t find baby ones, use grown-up ones)
- oil for frying
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 1 green pepper, washed and chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 3-4 green chillies, washed and chopped (optional)
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon tomato puree
- 8 large tomatoes (squidgy ones will do), washed + halved
- ½ bottle (around 150ml) verjuice (or use lemon juice + white wine mixed)
- 2 tablespoons fresh or pickled sour grapes (optional)
- salt and pepper
OK – firstly rinse the split peas and then put them into some cold water to soak.
Wash and dry the okra; if you are using large ones (more than 2 ½ cm long), you should cut off the stalks first, but be careful not to pierce the main ‘pod’. Heat some oil in a frying pan and toss the okra in the hot oil: cook for around five minutes and then remove them to a piece of kitchen towel to drain.
Next fry the onion, pepper, garlic and chilli (if using) in a little oil: once the onion has softened, add the spices and tomato puree, stirring well. Drain the split peas and add them to the pan with the tomatoes, and then add the verjuice and sour grapes if using. Add around 300ml of cold water, and bring the contents of the pan to the boil. Allow to simmer for around thirty minutes, and then add the fried okra and a little more water if necessary. Season the casserole to taste and cook for a further quarter of an hour, or until the split peas are cooked through.
Serve over brown basmati rice or with warm bread. And then after supper settle down to tell each other some stories…