Today marks Mehregan, the Persian festival of autumn. It is one of the oldest, pre-Islamic Persian traditions and it used to be celebrated as widely as Nowrouz, the Persian New Year, which is a celebration of spring. Mehregan is associated with kindness and giving. It seems fitting to me that kindness and giving coincides with the harvest. Historically, people gave their families and neighbours gifts, and gave gifts to those less fortunate. Like with Nowrouz, it is customary to wear new clothes (awesome tradition, right?!) and to set a decorative, colourful table. Unfortunately, this year I just couldn’t get it together to get all the symbols for the table together. But I will be participating in one long practiced Zoroastrian tradition: burning Espand. Espand is an herb that is burned over charcoal (or just over the flame on your stove). The smoke is circled around the heads of everyone in the household, while a short verse is read. It is also used to bless people as they embark on a trip. I love the ritual. The smell is intoxicating. If you’re ever a guest at my house, I will burn Espand for you so you can share in the magic.
I was so pleased when Louisa invited me to participate in #Mehregan2014. It’s a round-up featuring the loveliest group of Persian food bloggers. We have been collaborating together to bring our readers a variety of different recipes in celebration of Mehregan. In the true spirit of Mehregan, it is a gift to each other and to all of you out there. I have really enjoyed getting to know everyone and I’m looking forward to doing this again for Yalda and of course for Nowrouz. At the end of this post, you can find links to all the other bloggers’ recipes. I’m excited to see some other representation from northern Iran!
For my recipe, I decided to try making ash-e mast, or yogurt soup. My favorite version of this dish belongs to my aunt Simin. This dish is from the Azeri region in northwestern Iran, from where my paternal side hails. My aunt grew up in Ardabil, which is also home to this dish. I had some scribbled notes for a yogurt soup recipe in my notebook from my last trip to Iran. I revisited those notes, read a few published recipes, returned to Simin joon’s notes, and finally landed on something I think I can call my own. It’s mostly a riff of Simin’s, though I’ve made some changes to suit my style of cooking. The major difference between mine and hers is that she begins with a bottle of doogh, which is a yogurt beverage. Thus the yogurt component of the dish is already seasoned and has a perfect consistency. I approximated that by mixing my yogurt with water and seasoning it myself. In fact, it’s crucial to season this dish at every stage. She also doesn’t add onions and ends by adding a cup of milk. I want to try that final step next time I make this. I’ve seen some versions of this dish that call for making a stop first, with water, and then adding yogurt at the very end, but that seems strange to me. I prefer to have yogurt in the dish from the beginning, though that does make the dish a bit harder to execute. See my notes below.
I must add that one of the reasons I made this dish was to remember my time in Iran and to reflect on why it is so hard for me to keep in touch with people back home whom I love so dearly. You see, in Iran, families are in constant contact. They call, text, and visit very often. Your aunts and uncles might know as much about your schedule and daily life as your parents or close friends would. Everyone checks in and takes care of each other. I miss that, and I still haven’t figured out how to stay in better touch from such a long distance. Of course, there are all kinds of mechanisms for doing so. It’s much easier now than it was when my parents moved to Canada. My sister and I would roll our eyes at them shouting into the telephone while on a long distance phone call to Tehran or Anzali. But even though there are more ways of keeping in touch, I feel as if I’m living a very disconnected life. Not only am I out here, in the Midwest, far from my immediate family, but I’m also in the middle of this gargantuan task of dissertation writing. On top of that, I’m building my career, so to speak, by doing more than just immediate dissertation work, and by teaching. These aren’t excuses so much as a realization that one of the ways I’ve coped with all of my responsibilities has been to live an externally unabhängig life. That’s the German word for independent, but to me the grain of the word is so much closer to something like unattached, or perhaps even detached. And I say externally because it’s not at all how I feel on the inside. I don’t want to be “in the wilderness,” emotionally. I’m not so pleased with this choice I’ve made. But luckily, I do find inspiration and contact through cooking. So this Mehregan, I consider it a gift to be reminded of this wonderful meal I ate at Simin’s table a few years ago. And also a gift to remember to stay in touch.
I’ll end this post by saying that this recipe seems long and difficult but it is rather simple. The trickiest part is tempering the yogurt so that it doesn’t separate. I’ve tried to give some direction on that in the instructions. If you prepare your ingredients before starting the recipe, it’s a breeze.
P.S. I really like these photos of Mehregan.
ASH-E MAST (PERSIAN YOGURT SOUP WITH MEATBALLS)
Serves 4 as a hearty main course, or 6 as an appetizer, light dish, or side
For the meatballs:
1/2 lb ground beef
2 tsp turmeric
1 tbsp dried mint
salt and pepper
Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix by hand, incorporating the spices into the meat. Make sure to season the meat generously with salt and pepper. With slightly wet hands, form the meat into about 25-28 small meatballs. Place meatballs on a baking sheet and set aside in the fridge until you are ready to add them to the soup.
For the soup:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 cups full fat yogurt that has come to room temperature
1-2 cups water, room temperature
1/2 cup basmati rice, uncooked
1 bunch dill, finely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, finely chopped
6 scallions (green parts only), finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 cup yellow split peas, cooked (measure raw)
zest of 1 lime
For the nana dagh garnish:
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp dried mint
Begin with all ingredients prepared as stated in the above directions. Heat a heavy pot (I used enameled cast iron), then add the olive oil and butter. I like the butter here for a little extra richness. You can omit it if you wish. Add the onions and cook until they are soft and golden, about 10-15 minutes. Make sure to not brown them at all. If you can’t keep your eye on the stove, then the best way to ensure that the onions don’t brown is to turn the heat very low. Of course, this will increase your cooking time. Season with a couple pinches of salt. Once the onions are ready, turn the heat off. In a large bowl (I use a large Pyrex measuring cup), mix the yogurt with the water. Keep mixing until it is fully incorporated. In a separate bowl, using a fork, thoroughly mix the rice with the egg. Add half of the yogurt to the pot, along with rice, and turn the heat on very low. Stir. Slowly add the remaining yogurt, in 1/3 cup portions. Keep stirring. Add about 1 tsp of salt to the pot. Keeping the heat on low, allow the yogurt to barely come to simmer. Stay near the stove so that you can consistently (not necessarily constantly, though that wouldn’t hurt) stir the pot. I listened to some podcasts and caught up on Instagram while doing this. It will take about 20 minutes. During this time, you can cook your split peas in a pot of salted water. Cook until they are al dente, about 20 minutes. Drain when they are finished, and set aside. Once the yogurt has barely come to a simmer, add all of the herbs and the garlic. Allow the soup to come to just under a simmer again, about 15-20 minutes. Add the cooked split peas. Stir. Take the meatballs out of the fridge and add them to the pot. Gently stir so that they are covered with the yogurt. Cook for another 20, or until the meatballs are done. Stir consistently throughout this time. During the last 5 minutes of the cooking time, heat a small frying pan. Add the butter and mint and mix. Keep stirring until all the butter melts. Once the butter has melted, reduce the heat but keep stirring the mint and butter mixture. Be careful as dried mint burns very easily. Once it has darkened and incorporated, turn the heat off. Taste the soup for seasoning and adjust if necessarry. Serve the soup in bowls, giving each person 4-5 meatballs. Garnish with the nana dagh or hot mint, and some lime zest. You can also serve fresh, toasted barbari or sangak bread with this. Sourdough works well too if you don’t have a Persian bakery near you. I find that I don’t always need bread with mine. This is wonderful served at room temperature or cold the next day as well. Noush-e jan!
MEHREGAN 2014 POSTS FROM FELLOW BLOGGERS:
Ahu Eats: Badoom Sookhte Torsh
All Kinds of Yum: Jeweled Carrot Salad
Bottom of the Pot: Broccoli Koo Koo
Cafe Leilee: Northern Iranian Pomegranate Garlic and Chicken Stew
Coco in the Kitchen: Zeytoon Parvardeh
Della Cucina Povera: Ghormeh Sabzi
Family Spice: Khoreshteh Kadoo | Butternut Squash Stew
Fig & Quince: Festive Persian Noodle Rice & Roasted Chicken Stuffed with Yummies for Mehregan
Honest and Tasty: Loobia Polo | Beef and Green Bean Rice
Lab Noon: Adas Polo Risotto Style
Lucid Food: Sambuseh
Marjan Kamali: Persian Ice Cream with Rosewater and Saffron
My Caldron: Anaar-Daneh Mosamma | Pomegranate Stew
My Persian Kitchen: Keshmesh Polow | Persian Raisin Rice
Noghlemey: Parsi Dal
Parisa’s Kitchen: Morasa Polow | Jeweled Rice
Sabzi: Yogurt Soup with Meatballs
The Saffron Tales: Khorosht-e Gheimeh
Simi’s Kitchen: Lita Turshisi | Torshi-e Liteh | Tangy Aubergine Pickle
Spice Spoon: Khoresht-e-Bademjaan | Saffron-scented Aubergine Stew
Turmeric & Saffron: Ash-a Haft Daneh | Seven Bean Soup
The Unmanly Chef: Baghali Polow ba Mahicheh