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We’d eat that yogurt — maast, in Persian — morning, noon and night. It found its way into salads and stews, sandwiches and sauces. If I had an upset stomach, she’d serve me a bowl of warm rice with a dollop of cool yogurt on the side. Often, it was stirred into soups, turning them creamy while adding a welcoming touch of tang. There are many kinds of soup in Iran — brothy, meaty, starchy, thick — but the style that’s most celebrated in Persian cuisine is ash.
“Ash is so integral to Iranian cuisine that the word for ‘cook’ is ash paz — the maker of ash,” writes Naz Deravian in her poignant cookbook “Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories.” The word for ‘kitchen’ is ash paz khaneh — the house or room where ash is prepared.”
I reach for Deravian’s book often — not just because it’s full of wonderful recipes, but because it’s full of stories and recent history that add context to my own childhood memories.
“In the midst of the Iranian Revolution, uncertainty and long food lines dominated our kitchen table talks as we sought comfort in a pot of ash topped with a big dollop of maast,” Deravian writes. “The strength of the economy, and in turn the stability of the country, was determined by the price of oil and the price of yogurt. The longer the yogurt line, the pricier the yogurt, the more unstable the country … In our new peaceful hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, yogurt lines were of no concern, because there just wasn’t any to be found.”
So Deravian’s mother, in Vancouver, did just as my mother, in Chicago, did in the early 1980s. She made her own.
Deravian also loves yogurt stirred into ash. One of the most famous recipes for ash is one that’s sometimes served during Nowruz, the Persian New Year: Ash Reshteh. Deep green and rich with herbs, it’s also incredibly hearty thanks to the addition of beans and reshteh, an Iranian noodle. Yogurt or kashk, a sort of reconstituted and super-fermented whey, swirled in at the end, turns it the prettiest shade of spring green.
But traditional ash, like a lot of Iranian recipes, can be an all-afternoon or all-day affair. This recipe, which I developed one day when I was in the mood for the soup, but feeling impatient, is inspired by ash reshteh. It features shortcuts, like using fried onions instead of caramelized, canned beans instead of dried, and suggests chopping the herbs and greens in a food processor to save time.
Whatever you do, don’t skip the yogurt.