Photo: Chef Behzad Jamshidi (right) with Francis Lam in Francis's home kitchen.
Although chef Bahzad Jamshidi was trained in classic French and Italian restaurants, it’s the food of his ancestral homeland, Iran, that most excites him these days. Jamshidi is the chef and founder of Moosh NYC, a Persian-centric social experience that hosts a beautiful vision of Persian cooking, where no matter how new and chef-y the plate looks, the food feels enduring and comes with a storied past. Francis Lam invited Jamshidi into his own home kitchen to share more personal stories over a recipe for Ghaliyeh Mahi (Persian Spicy Fish and Herb Stew), a dish that was a favorite of Jamshidi’s mother.
Francis Lam: You trained as a chef in exquisite French and Italian restaurants. How did you learn to cook Persian food if that wasn’t your training? From watching your mom?
Behzad Jamshidi: A little bit of home influence, and a little bit of child labor. We had a family restaurant growing up in Vancouver, and my aunt had to be away from the restaurant because of a car accident when I was 10. So, me and my older cousin got into kitchen. By older I mean by two years; he was just a bit taller and had some facial hair. He was managing the front of the house, and I was trying to navigate this completely foreign world of stewing wheat berries overnight and cooking braised lamb head soup. I burned almost everything for the first couple of days.
One of the biggest things that I learned is that the quintessential ingredient outside of salt and thyme is patience, being able to allow your food to do the necessary feats that it has to go through to get where it’s supposed to be. Being inside the kitchen, testing and failing, and knowing there is a standard that I need to get to. There were definitely a lot of disappointed customers in the first couple of weeks that I worked there. But it was the most humbling experience of my life, being able to really have my hands on something, to manifest and taste these dishes that tasted like my mom’s and my aunt’s. That now is my reference point. No matter how beautiful or elaborate I try to make a dish, if it doesn’t taste like my mom’s hands had a part in it, it’s not as authentic as it should be.
FL: That’s awesome. What are making together here today?
BJ: We’re making one of my mom’s absolute favorite soups called ghalieh mahi. It’s this fish stew made with fenugreek, cilantro, a combination of herbs and spices, and some chili.
I pack the fish in salt. The salt is a mixture of turmeric and a bit of egg whites to make it mealy. It should resemble the sand you use to make a sandcastle. We packed that down on a sheet tray, put the fish on top, and in the center cavity you can use sliced shallots, limes, something aromatic to keep it bright. Then we take the residual salt and pack it on top to make this sort of mummy cask of salt around the fish. That bakes for about 25 minutes. Once that’s cooked, we’re going to pull it out. From there we’ll break the cask and take the meat off the bones.
FL: We’ve got the fish in the oven, and now we’re going to prep the sauce. Traditionally, you would make this sauce way before the fish.
BJ: I would let the sauce go for a couple of hours. Then right when I think it’s maybe 20 minutes out I would pop the fish into the oven and have that be my last step.
We’re going to start out with some white onion; we’ll sauté it out in a tiny bit of olive oil. We’re looking to get some caramelization. You’ll see us cooking onions for two hours at a time and it seems crazy, but it completely changes the dynamic of the dish. At the very beginning, we’re going to add just a little bit of salt; that helps pull out some of the moisture from the onions and stops them from burning. We’re going to add garlic next because it cooks a little bit faster than the onion. I think the most essential part, honestly when you’re building anything, is taking the essential steps to make sure the onions are at a perfect spot, caramelizing them right where they need to be before you take on your next step, taking the time to build it.
For the next part we’re going to add our spices, white pepper, coriander seed.
FL: These are not ground; you’re adding these spices whole.
BJ: I’m adding them whole. Typically, if you’re not wanting to blend the sauce, you can grind these spices inside a mortar and pestle, just so they break down a little bit. But I think the texture and the mouthfeel is very nice for a stew like this. It also shows how rustic this style of cooking is.
We’re going to add a little bit of chile and some cumin. My favorite chile is Allepo; I like that it has a little bit of tartness and it’s very bright.
FL: Very fruity tasting.
BJ: We’re also going to add a little bit of turmeric. Without fail, almost every Iranian recipe has some form of turmeric inside it. It helps with digestion. Because Persians eat a lot of rice, it’s good to have turmeric in and out every meal.
So now this is really aromatic. You cook out some of the turmeric just to kill a bit of that raw flavor. We’re going to add advieh, the spice mixture with the cardamom and rose petals. Then we’re going to add these limes for a little bit of tartness. These are brined, fermented Persian limes. They are essentially picked off the tree, brined in salt water, then left out in the sun to dry. They have this really deep, musky, sour aroma and flavor.
FL: And they are black. It looks like a nut and it cracks. You pulverize it and add it.
The next part, we add our herbs. I think this is the most essential step. Here we have cilantro, chive, and scallion. On top of that I’m going to add some fenugreek. If you can get your hands on fresh fenugreek – which I know is highly difficult – dried fenugreek is great as well. Dried fenugreek leaves. And a little goes a long way. Too much of the fenugreek will make your soup quite bitter. You can also expect your house to stink of this for a while. [laughs]
FL: It’s pungent, it’s floral, but it’s almost sort of medicinal smelling. Like the kind of medicine that makes you live forever.
BJ: One thing that really bothered me growing up was the smell of fenugreek in the house. Me and my brother would comment on it consistently. I hated this dish as a kid. I didn’t understand why my mom would take hours to perfume the house with this astringent, bitter herb.
I remember growing up and going up to my mother and saying, “I don’t understand why you make this one stew. It also smells of fish and fenugreek. I go to school smelling like this and the kids think I’m weird. There are so many other foods with things like cinnamon, things that are familiar. But you choose to do this?” And she goes, “I left Iran with nothing.” She flew from Iran in 1979. She and my father had a very tragic time trying to find their way into North American. She said, “I left every single thing of mine behind. When I cook, I get to be in my kitchen back home. And for a moment I’m taken back to what it was like before war, before I had to flee, when I had both of my parents around and I could cook for them.”
So it dawned on me the density behind the action it took to cook this dish. We can cook a meal and it’s great as food, or we can put intention behind it and everything that you do. And that’s what I do now in New York; I cook her recipes and I miss her the most when I feel like I’m back in her kitchen.
We’re going to add tamarind now; we’re going to cook it out just for one minute to develop some of the sugars. Essentially, you want a paste that is going to be build the body of what the whole sauce is going to be.
Recipe: Ghalieh Mahi (Persian Spicy Fish and Herb Stew) Photo: Erika Romero
FL: So, when you add your water it will help thicken it up.
FL: This also speaks to the quantity of herbs used in Persian cooking that I don’t really see in or can think of another cuisine that uses this many herbs. You cook it all the way down, and whatever little fiber and pectic is in those herbs –
BJ: It’s is all extracted over this long process of sautéing them.
We’re going to add our water and bring it to simmer, then I’m going to let it go.
FL: Normally you’d cook for this for two to three hours.
BJ: We always say everything tastes better when you let it sit overnight. So, we’ll have it the first day and by the third day it’s something completely different.
FL: And because of the magic of radio you have this sauce fully made. It’s beautiful, it’s puréed, it’s the darkest green I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s almost black but you can see in the light that there’s a green tinge to it. We have unearthed the fish mummy. You can see it’s cooked so tender.
BJ: Snapper or bass is my favorite because of their fat content and fat flavor is epic for this type of stew.
FL: The fish is off the bone. It’s looking pretty!
BJ: It’s going to go into the stew and get a lot prettier.
FL: As soon as you lift the lid I can smell all of that cilantro and all that fenugreek.
BJ: That’s our stew. I highly suggest making a delicious tahdig with Basmati or jasmine rice to serve it with. Some fresh cilantro or coriander make an amazing garnish. We also love our tart, so we have some form of lime at the table to squeeze on during the last minute. Your home smells like mom’s house right now.
FL: That’s awesome. Let’s have a taste. Woah!
BJ: Tastes like mom’s.
FL: Really? I’m jealous. This is wild good. It’s so concentrated and so earthy and musky. But when you taste it there is so much beautiful tartness. This is incredible. Thank you so much for taking me to your home.
BJ: It’s an absolute pleasure to bring it to you.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.