Ask any Iranian where to find the best Persian food and the answer is invariably the same: at home. Iranians will happily go out for kabobs – and in London, Kateh in Little Venice is a favourite for its grilled meats – but when it comes to khoresh (stews) or polow (rice), the pillars of Persian cuisine, only mother’s (and usually it is mother’s) cooking will do. These dishes are so labour-intensive and time-sensitive they rarely work in professional kitchens. So, when a Persian-American friend of mine told me she’d found a restaurant in London where the food was as good as her mother’s, I knew I had to go.
From Wednesday to Saturday, The Drunken Butler in Clerkenwell serves a tasting menu rooted in French cuisine. But on Sundays, chef patron Yuma Hashemi switches to a menu of Persian classics inspired by – you guessed it – his mother’s cooking. The dining room resembles a studio apartment, with bookshelves, potted plants and family portraits on the wall. There is no menu – you eat what comes, as you might at a friend’s house. And the service is casual and unhurried. This is dining out that feels like dining in and is all the nicer for it.
As for the food, we started with sabzi khordan (a herb platter) with radishes, walnuts, pickled garlic, feta and sangak (stone-baked flatbread). Then an assortment of appetisers (all on artfully mismatched crockery) including kuku sabzi (a vibrant green egg-based dish like a herb frittata), a smoked aubergine dip and mast-o-khiar (yoghurt and cucumber) with crushed rose petals. Among the mains was a gorgeous red khoresh-e gheymeh (dried lime, lamb and split pea stew) with potato matchsticks on top; baghali polo (rice with fava beans) with lamb shank; a roast saffron chicken sprinkled with barberries and pistachio; a spectacular deep-green ghormeh sabzi (a lamb, fenugreek, herb and dried lime stew with kidney beans); and tahdig (or “bottom of the pot”) rice with its crispy, golden dome. We finished with cardamom cheesecake with rhubarb rose and ginger ice cream, which we hardly had room for. But you know, we managed. After cups of hot mint tea, we headed home, flush with the joy of having been out for a great meal.
But what about cooking Persian food at home? Sabrina Ghayour, the British-Iranian cook whose books (which include Persiana and, just published, Simply) have helped make Persian food more accessible, advises starting with five staple dishes: khoresh-e gheymeh and mast-o-khiar (both mentioned above), mirza ghasemi (smoked aubergine with garlic), chelo (plain Persian rice) and shirazi salad (with tomato, cucumber and red onion).
For those with higher aspirations, Bon Appétit’s Andy Baraghani suggests ghormeh sabzi, the lamb stew also noted above. Only don’t expect consensus among Iranians on how to make it. Do you use kidney beans or black-eyed beans? Spinach and chives as well as the usual parsley and coriander? And how much dried fenugreek leaf? Ghayour suggests two generous handfuls; Baraghani advises just one tablespoon. As one Iranian friend told me,“There will be arguments!” You can find Ghayour’s version at sabrinaghayour.com.
The other test of a great Persian cook is how they make tahdig rice, so that every basmati grain is fluffy and fragrant, and the mound has its tender golden crust. There are some who’ll say you don’t have to follow the elaborate repeat-rinse (up to five times) and soak (from two to 24 hours) that most recipes stipulate. But either way, you still have to parboil, drain and steam the rice (for up to an hour), a step-intensive process that fills most people with dread. But what a payoff. “After an hour you can smell it’s ready,” says Hashemi. “The crispiness of the tahdig, that slightly roasted flavour. And you know what? Even if I burn the rice, I still serve it. Because it’s not about perfection, this is home cooking.”
Get alerts on Food & Drink when a new story is published