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Flavors Provide Persian Excursion Aram Ferdowsi's Use Of Spices, Attention To Tradition Yields Soulful Dining Experience


Aram Ferdowsi, like the Persian food she often prepares, is both beautiful and extraordinary. She, like the painstakingly intricate food she presents, is an exotic blend of cultures that touch the soul as well as the senses.

A native of Iran, she grew up in Zaire, Africa, and considers it her home.

`I was 11 when my family moved to Zaire. My sister and I hated it the entire first year we were there. The poverty was overwhelming and it was a French-speaking country. (But) we fell in love with the country and its people, and I treasured the remainder of my years there,` said the Brentwood resident.

Her father was a physician and her mother, a pharmacist. They served as missionaries for the Baha'i faith in the United States, Tunisia and then Zaire. Ferdowsi speaks of her years in Zaire, and the countless contributions her parents made, with admiration, fondness and longing.

'I saw firsthand how one educated person can affect the lives of masses. It was my dream and intention to go to a developing country myself after college and change lives as my parents have,` she said.

A kind of evolution

Aram was a freshman at Vanderbilt University when she met Farsheed Ferdowsi, a meeting that would ultimately change her life.

`Oh, we had an initial conversation of perhaps five minutes in which he said, 'I would never marry a Persian girl.' How rude, I thought. I had no interest in marriage to him or anyone else. Besides, already at that point I considered myself a Western woman in Persian looks,` she said.

The two bumped into each other on campus occasionally, and when Farsheed went to graduate school at Berkley he left some plants in Aram's care.

`He used to call to check on his plants. When he returned from Berkley, we dated for a year and then married. I married on the condition that I would go on to medical school and we would move to a developing country.

`Here it is 21 years later, and we're right here in Brentwood,` she said with a warm laugh.

During their courtship, Farsheed was the cook.

`He would bring these intricate Persian dishes over, beautifully presented. I remember he made a Persian potato salad, topped with roses carved from radishes, and rich souffls. I honestly did not cook. In Zaire, everything was made from scratch and dishes and meals were very difficult.

`My sister had an innate flair for the cooking, but I had none,` said the woman who was putting finishing touches on a luncheon fit for royalty.

Persian food requires multi-layered preparation.

`For a full, intricate Persian meal, days of preparation are required. Persian cooking has been around for thousands of years, and for much of that time, it was the only way women had to express their talents,` she said as she dusted crushed rose petals over a bowl of yogurt.

Aram and Farsheed's children, Donesh who is 12, and Kimia, 16, love Persian food.

`I prepare it a couple of times a month. I could not have it every evening. It is just too time-consuming,` she said as she heated water in a samovar for hot tea that would be served after lunch.

Family ways

Just as Aram dreamed of returning to a developing nation to change and improve lives as her parents have done, Kimia seems to wear the mantle of giving, as well. The Harpeth Hall Sophomore spent three weeks in Africa last summer as part of a missionary trip.

'I wanted her to have an introduction to that feeling of helping during her early years. She loved Africa. She was one of about 10 kids who went. Some unrest in the country, but not near where they were, occurred and many parents had their children come home. We allowed Kimia to stay because I knew where she was and knew she was safe,` she said.

Aram, who had shunned cooking until she was married, took on the task in a large way.

`Food is the hub of Persian life and family life. When family comes to visit, family comes to visit. Suddenly, we were planning for a visit of about 30 family members. I certainly credit my sisters-in- law for teaching me to cook,` she laughed.

In day-to-day cooking, she prefers fresh, always, and no-fuss meals.

`I don't like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but of course I do so when I prepare Persian meals,` she said.

Persian foods use unique spicing. Saffron is used a great deal as is a spice named fenugrek. A meal always includes fresh vegetables. A bowl with artfully arranged spring onions and radishes accompanied her luncheon.

`Persians do not eat many lettuces, and when we do, it is usually something like Romaine that we dip in a syrup like sauce. It is delicious. Persians eat a lot of green, for example this kuku we are going to have,` she said as she sauted the quiche-like consistency in a pan.

Donesh had prepared the salad of fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. The delicious dressing was made of olive oil, lemon juice and dried mint.

Rose petals are used for garnish, and rose water is usually added to hot tea.

`Most of our desserts have rose water, as well. They, too, are multi-step dishes,` she said.

Around the table

As the tea steeped and the aroma and essence of the leaves mingled with the aromas of the food, we sat down to a glorious meal of a richly flavored chicken dish, rice, the green kuku, Donesh's salad, the fresh vegetables and yogurt sprinkled with crushed rose petals.

The food was beautiful, rich and exotic. The flavors were an excursion to a foreign land. The rich and aromatic tea we took afterward was served in clear glass cups, a Persian tradition.

`Persians put a sugar cube in their mouths and drink the tea over it, but certainly, you might want to just add a cube directly to your cup,` she said with a warm chuckle.

The gold-rimmed cups were beautiful and the tea a delight. Over tea, she spoke of travel. The Ferdowsi's believe in the priceless value of travel and the way it enriches their children's lives. Much of their travel is to Turkey, Israel, Africa and Europe.

`We do love travel. And I suppose I still have the dream of someday living in an emerging country, doing something as potent as my dad and mother have, giving and receiving from a people; changing lives, ours and theirs,` she said softly as she sipped her tea.

Herb kuku

(pronounced like `cukoo` in a cukoo clock)

Herb kuku is a traditional New Year's dish in Iran, where the new year begins on March 21, the first day of spring. The green of the herbs symbolize rebirth, while the eggs represent fertility and happiness for the coming year.

6 eggs

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cumin

2 crushed garlic cloves

1 cup finely chopped fresh chives or green onions

1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1 cup finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1/2 cup finely chopped spinach

1/2 cup floppy lettuce leaf

1 cup chopped fresh dill (or 1/2 cup dry)

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon dried fenugreek (optional)

1/2 cup oil

Preheat oven to 350. Break eggs into large bowl. Add baking powder, cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper. Beat with a fork.

Add garlic, chopped herbs, spinach, fenugreek and flour. Mix thoroughly.

Pour 1/4 cup of the oil into an 8-inch ovenproof baking dish and place it in oven for 10-15 minutes. Pour in the egg mixture and bake uncovered for 30 minutes on middle rack.

Remove the dish from oven and gently pour the remaining oil over the kuku. Put dish back in oven and bake for and additional 20-30 minutes, until golden brown.

Serve kuku in baking dish or unmold it by loosening the edge with a knife and inverting it onto a serving platter. Can be enjoyed hot or cold.

©Copyright 2001, The Tennessean

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