The perfect tahdig is a bit of culinary sorcery. No matter how many times you’ve attempted it, you can never be quite sure you’ll achieve the buttery crunchiness that makes this slice of carbohydrate heaven the apogee of Persian food.
Essentially the pan-fried crust at the bottom of a pot of rice, tahdig at its best is a caramelised, golden disk that entire families are known to fight over. Although originally simply burnt rice, this Persian soul food, as cookbook author Louisa Shafia calls it, may also be made with bread or potatoes in a multi-step process that can involve sautéing and steaming. Its trickiness means hotel chefs and home cooks alike pride themselves on their ability to get it right.
So it goes without saying that the litmus taste test for Dubai’s Iranian community at the latest incarnation of the Palazzo Versace’s Enigma restaurant, which has previously been home to its fair share of Michelin-starred imports including Quique da Costa and Björn Frantzén, will be its tahdig. And Mansour Memarian, the hotel’s executive chef, is taking no chances.
“Tahdig is very important in Iranian cuisine,” he tells Gulf News tabloid!. “So we make ours separately, over one-and-a-half days.” It’s a multi-step process that involves an oven, a salamander and stove-top cooking. “We use the Italian technique of cooking risotto to convert it to a Persian tahdig, so it’s crisp and soft at the same time.”
Purists may not agree with the process, but there’s no arguing with the result. He serves a four-inch-long gold biscuit on a little stand of its own that needs to be eaten by hand — it’s rich, gloriously fatty and instantly has me wanting more. I’m going to make another trip back just to eat it again — as apparently several customers already do, just four weeks into the launch of the new concept.
Masti and Kubdie kababs
But it takes a bold man to wrestle with Persian food. Few chefs have tackled this ancient Asian mother cuisine, which explorers and conquerors took with them to large parts of the world, and its influences are still visible in kitchens everywhere from central Asia and India to the Mediterranean.
“The base of all Middle Eastern food is Persian,” Memarian says, continuing before I can object, “and it has been refined in the beautiful Indian and Arabic kitchens. But in Iran, it’s stayed the same for hundreds of years, so it’s very important to keep the flavours authentic. Cooking in Iranian culture is more about feeding people, not about going out to restaurants and being entertained.”
Despite its extensive impact then, Iranian food has yet to be updated for contemporary fine diners in the way other cuisines have been — though perhaps it’s long been ripe for innovation. Memarian was born in Tehran but raised in Wesel outside Dusseldorf, and travelled around the world with his oil executive father.
“But wherever we went — even to Los Angeles, which has a big community of Iranians — I didn’t find an Iranian restaurant at fine-dining level, located in a five-star hotel, with entertainment and guest involvement but delivering the same authentic flavours of your grandmother’s cooking,” he says, reiterating that he isn’t reinventing Iranian food, just updating it with modern techniques and presentation.
Enigma at Palazzo Versace. Photo: Clint Egbert/Gulf News
“So it was always my dream to combine a real Iranian taste with my Michelin-star background. But I don’t want to create fine-dining atmosphere, more fun dining,” he adds.
He certainly achieves that. The intimacy of the 90-seat restaurant allows plenty of tableside preparation, and from the barman to the chefs, there’s a friendly air about the entire experience. Yes, there’s dry ice and liquid nitrogen at the table — from the sabzi khordan, the traditional herb platter at the start of the meal, to the freshly frozen faludeh for dessert — but it’s not annoying or jarring. Rather, perhaps because it’s novel to Iranian food, we’re instantly charmed.
All about the taste
Beyond the smoke and mirrors, however, there’s a lot of technique that goes into each dish. The Masto Laboo, cumin-spiced beetroot yoghurt, is topped with a beetroot foam that considerably improves the texture of this humble starter, while caviar enhances the flavour of the Masto khiar wa Naana, a cucumber and mint yoghurt.
Elsewhere, the Salad chupan, a watermelon and homemade cheese salad, is beautifully presented, topped with olive crisps, while the Kebab Versace, a tenderloin roulade stuffed with walnut and basil, is served on a little charcoal grill, its aroma filling the room.
“It’s all about the taste, the show comes second,” Memarian says.
So how long has he spent in menu development? “Ooh la la! To be very honest, for these dishes, three-and-a-half years,” he says, “but I’ve been thinking about this all through my career.”
Though he hasn’t been back to Tehran in 30 years, Memarian’s biggest sources of reference are his paternal grandmother and his own mother, who despite being German, became adept at Iranian food to be able to hold her own among family and friends, he says.
“I still call my mum and ask her for recipes instead of looking at cookbooks or the internet,” he tells me, explaining how he used his mother’s recipe for Tas kebab, a slow-cooked beef and vegetable stew, as a starting point for his own version of the dish, a tiny glass pan of meat cubes cooked sous vide and then topped with baby vegetables. “I cook it with different cuts of meat and use professional techniques to improve the flavours while keeping the essence the same.”
Despite his training, he says, he still believes her version of Kuku sabzi, a brunch-ready herby frittata, is better than his own. “When I cook, I want to achieve this taste that I remember as a child. Even for the tahdig, I started with my mum’s recipe.”
A man who almost didn’t become a chef
Mansour Memarian agrees that growing up abroad shaped his approach to Iranian food. “I needed the world view, I’d never have been able to do this without it,” says the Executive Chef at the Palazzo Versace Dubai. Of course, it’s fitting that he should be doing so in the UAE.
Born in Tehran to an Iranian father and a German mother, Memarian is one of a handful of chefs refashioning Middle Eastern food for today’s diners. Yet, he respects his heritage — his Seer torshi, an aged, pickled garlic, is as close to the real thing as you’d expect.
Appointed in August, he’s spent over 20 years at some of the world’s best restaurants. He earned his first Michelin star in 2006, at Ars Vivendi of the Relais & Chateaux Jagdhof Glashütte in Bad Laasphe, Germany, following that up with another at Pavillon in Innsbruck, Austria, which also earned a Michelin star and two toques from the Gault Millau guide, and where he wrote the German cookbook Gourmet Raffinessen. He’s also held executive positions at the Shangri-La Hotel, Qaryat Al Beri, Abu Dhabi and the Chedi Andermatt in Switzerland. An earlier stint in Dubai was as Chef de Cuisine of the Burj Al Arab’s signature restaurant, Al Mahara.
But Memarian almost didn’t become a chef. “It’s not easily accepted in Iranian culture to be a chef,” he says. So he studied maths for two-and-a-half years before giving it up to pursue a hobby he has loved as a child. “My family were not happy, I was not very beloved. But now of course, they’re very proud.”
Kuku Sabzi Palazzo
Persian herbs frittata with barberries, candied walnuts and yoghurt. Serves 10 portions.
- 400g spinach
- 200g fresh parsley
- 200g fresh mint
- 200g fresh coriander
- 100g fresh dill
- 40g fresh tarragon
- 80g lettuce
- 100g spring onion
- 10g flour
- 4 whole fresh eggs
- 8g baking powder
- 30ml corn oil
- 150g dried barberries
- 60g walnuts
- 50g yoghurt
- Edible silver leaves, to garnish
- Wash all the fresh herbs, dry well and set aside.
- Julienne them.
- Roast the walnuts 10 minutes at 150 degrees C, then dice.
- Soak the barberries in warm water for 20 minutes.
- Mix all the herbs, flour, eggs, baking powder, oil, barberries and walnuts together in a mixing bowl.
- Heat a nonstick pan and pour the mixture in.
- Cook one side then turn for the other side to cook.
- Leave to rest for 10 minutes.
- Decorate with whole roasted walnuts, edible silver leaves, yoghurt and fresh herbs.