SINCE THEIR arrival in Rockville from Teheran six years ago, Agajan and Mohtaran Shirazi have started what they hope will become an annual Purim gathering. They invite newly arrived Persian Jews from Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. Last year there were over 70 invitees.
This Sunday, the Shirazi family will sit down to the traditional se'udat Purim meal with chicken and rice, salads, fresh fruits, coconut, honey, date and almond confections. But there will be no hamentashen.
Although many jews think hamentashen are to Purim what latkes are to Hanukkah, the Persian-born Shirazis had never heard of the three-cornered sweet dough stuffed with prune, poppyseeds, figs or dates. Nor have they tasted any other sweets made to resemble parts of the wicked Haman's body such as the Egyptian Oznei Haman , a deep-fried sweet shaped like Haman's ears.
It was the Shirazi children, who translate to English for their parents, who first learned about hamenstashen from American friends. How curious this will seem to those who think of Persia as the birthplace of the most festive of Jewish holidays.
Purim, celebrated this year Saturday evening and all day Sunday, is a time of joy, of letting go, of celebrating a festival meal, of drinking wine and, in this country at least, of eathing hamentashen.
The story goes that in ancient Persia wicked Hamen, the favorite of the Persian King Ahasuerus, wished to exterminate all the Jews of the empire because he thought the Jew Mordecai had failed to show him proper respect. Mordecai, helped by his cousin and foster daughter Esther, who was also the second queen of King Ahasuerus, foiled his plot. On the day the Jews were to be destoryed the Jewish population overcame those who wanted to exterminate them and then celebrated the victory the next day.
To remember the three-day fast of Esther many Jews fast on the day prior to Purim. Because the fast day falls on the Sabbath this year, they will fast today. (In Jewish law one cannot fast for Prium on the Sabbath, nor on the day prior to the Sabbath because one works so hard to prepare for the Sabbath on Friday. Fasting would be too much of a strain.)
After returning from the synagogue the Shirazis, for example, will break their fast with a light repast of halvah, a pounded rice pudding type dish sprinkled with toasted almonds. This will be followed by fried fish and a plate of fresh parsely, scallions, radishes, mint and watercress.
Sunday is the day of the feast. In addition to the menu described above, one dish everyone will bring is rice halvah, the ancient sign of peace in Persia. Unlike the halvah made from sesame seed paste and honey, this confection is prepared from pounded rice, turmeric, cardamom water, sugar and sometimes, rose water. Mohtaran Shirazi still cooks it exactly as she did in Iran.
Barefooted, with her head covered by a shawl, Mohtaran recently prepared the wet halvah at her home. While she was working her youngest grandchild, Esther, was eating leftover steamed rice with nuts and potatoes, from the previous night's dinner. As other grandchildren arrived from school and children from work they snacked on fried fish and rice. To Mohtaran a meal without rice is no meal. There is a reason and it helps explain why there is no hamentashen in modern day Iran. Wheat is a luxury.
Most confections are made from pounded rice.Usually Mohtaran soaks her rice in water overnight. The next day she drains it and grinds the rice twice. In this country she sometimes uses rice flour instead. Until recent events in Iran disrupted travel, visitors brought her spices for the halvah and other dishes. Now she buys what she can in local supermarkets. Smiling, pointing and talking to her son Yasher in Farsi, Mohtaran stirred her way through this dish. One plate was eaten immediately. The three remaining were reserved as a special treat for dinner that night.
The second Purim dish of rice and chicken had a flavor more suited to Western tastes.
If your are celebrating Purim this year and want to taste food as it was eaten in Queen Ester's Persia try the following recipes. You may enjoy a hamentashenless Purim! RICE HALVAH (4 servings) 3 cups rice flour, or 3 cups rice soaked in water overnight then drained and ground twice 1/2 stick margarine or butter 1/2 teaspoon tumeric 1 heaping teaspoon cardamon 2 cups sugar, or to taste 6 cups water 1/2 cups slivered almonds 3 tablespoons oil
Take the dried flour and place in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir over low heat until the flour turns an eggshell brown. Then, still stirring, add the margarine or butter, tumeric, cardamon and oil.
In another pan dissolve the sugar into the water. Gradually add the sugar/water mixture to the flour, stirring over a medium heat until thick. If lumps occur mash with the spoon. This should take from 20 to 30 minutes.
When the halvah seems thick enough, heat a little oil (in a separate pan to boiling), add a pinch of tumeric and coat a flat dinner-size plate. Pour the halvah onto the plate and flatten. (The oil allows the halvah to be easily removed.) Sprinkle with nuts. Repeat for three other plates. Cool.
Cut in diamond-shape slices and eat with a spoon.
Note: The dish was delicious to me after it was cooked, but the taste changed dramatically after it had been kept in the refrigerator overnight. Then it did not appeal to me. FRIED FISH PERSIAN STYLE (6 servings) 6 rockfish fillets, or serving-size pieces 3 eggs Salt and pepper to taste 1/4 cup vegetable oil Pinch of tumeric
Dip the fish in beaten eggs, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and add tumeric. Saute the fish until lightly browned on both sides. SHIREEN POLO (6 to 8 servings) 1 chicken, about 2 1/2 pounds 1 pound long grain rice 3 tablespoons salt 6 tablespoons vegetable oil 1/4 cup hot water 1/2 teaspoon tumeric 1/2 teaspoon paprika 2 potatoes, peeled and sliced about 1/4-inch thick 1/4 cup raisins 1/4 cup browned, slivered almonds
Boil the chicken in water to cover for about 40 minutes. Cool, skin and debone, reserving the meat. If you prefer, make a chicken broth and then debone.
Fill a 4-quart saucepan with water and bring to a boil. Add the rice and salt. Boil, uncovered for 7 to 10 minutes over high heat. Stir the water occasionally, being careful not to break the rice grains. Taste the rice. It should be chewy, because the rice will be cooked further. Remove immediately and drain in lukewarm water to remove excess starch.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan heat 4 tablespoons cooking oil mixed with almost 1/4 cup hot water. Add tumeric add paprika, then arrange potato slices on the bottom of the pan.Pour half of the rice into the pan, cover with the chicken pieces and finish with remaining rice. Cover with a cloth and a lid. Let simmer over a low flame for about 10 minutes.
Mound up the rice in the center of the pan and make a deep hole in the center of the mound. (This hole allows the rice to steam.) Sprinkle about 2 more tablespoons of oil with the remaining hot water all around the rice. Cover and simmer for about 20 more minutes.
When ready to serve, uncover the pan and stir the rice gently with a spatula to make it fluffy. Turn the rice out onto a warm serving dish in a mound. Then remove the crust and potatoes from the bottom of the pan and serve rice and chicken topped with the potatoes. Sprinkle with raisins and nuts. BORANI (Persian Salad) (4 to 6 servings) 2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced 5 scallions, white part only 5 radishes, sliced 1 large tomato, sliced 1 head romaine lettuce, cut in small pieces (optional) 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint or 1/2 teaspoon crushed dried mint (optional) 3 tablespoons lemon juice 1/2 clove crushed garlic 3 tablespoons olive oil Salt and pepper to taste
Combine the vegetables and herbs. Jest before serving mix lemon juice, garlic and olive oil together well. Pour over the salad, tossing thoroughly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. DATE-FILLED PASTRIES (Makes 24) Pastry: 1 package dry yeast 1 cup lukewarm water 1/4 pound unsalted butter 1 tablespoon margarine 2 3/4 cups unbleached flour 1/2 cup whole wheat flour 1 teaspoon salt Pinch of ground fennel seeds (optional) 1 egg white 6 tablespoons sesame seeds Date filling: 10 ounces pited dates 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon milk or water
To make the pastry: Proof the yeast in the water for 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, melt the butter and margarine in the top part of a double boiler over simmering water.
Mix together both flours, the butter and margarine combination, yeast, salt and fennel seeds. Knead well to make a smooth dough. The dough should be handled as little as possible. Wet your hands with water, if necessary while kneading. Cover dough with a damp cloth and let rise until double in bulk, about 1 hour.
Divide the pastry into 24 balls, each about the size of a walnut. Roll each one on a board with a rolling pin to make a round 2 inces in diameter. Place 1 ball of date filling (see below) in the center. Lift the edges and pull gently, gather the edges together, and press to seal securely. Turn the stuffed ball on the board and press gently with your fingers to flatten a little.
Place the egg white in one saucer and the sesame seeds in another. Dip the smooth surface of the ball into the egg white, then dip into the sesame seeds and press gently. Place the ball on the board and roll gently with the rollingpin to make a 2 1/2-inch circle, 1/4-inch thick. Arrange the filled balls on a greased baking sheet and prick them with a fork so they will not puff.
Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven, on the bottom shelf, for about 12 minutes, until lightly golden, then transfer to the top shelf for 5 minutes longer.
To make the filling: Place the dates and butter in the top part of a double boiler over boiling water and mix with a fork for 5 to 6 minutes, adding milk or water if necessary to make a soft doughy mixture. Let cool a little. Grease your palms lightly. Roll 1 teaspoon of the mixture between the palms to make a small ball the size of a hazelnut. Continue until you have made about 24. Set balls back in the pan.
--From "The Best of Baghdad Cooking with Treats from Teheran" by Daisy Iny