“I LAHV YOU too mahch,” said the glamorous woman with the clinking bangles. She was my dad’s sister, my Aunt Mansourehâknown to all as Maliâand she beamed as she hugged me for the umpteenth time since she had arrived in Philadelphia from Iran. Because she barely spoke English and I didn’t speak Persian, we communicated with smiles. In the kitchen, the scents of freshly cut dill, caramelized onions and steeping saffron mingled into a spicy perfume. It was the late ’70s, before the 1979 Islamic revolution, and I was getting my first real taste of Persian culture. I was not yet 10 years old.
My dad had come to America in 1961, fresh out of medical school in Tehran, to do his residency at a hospital in Philadelphia. Leaving behind his Muslim upbringing and the Shah’s oppressive monarchy, he cut himself off from his past, legally changing his name to obscure its Islamic origin and never seeing his parents again.
My sense of where my dad came from was murky at best, but when Mali and the rest of the Shafia clan arrived with their burbling language of singsong vowels, their suitcases full of presents and their jovial disregard for punctuality, Iran suddenly burst into Technicolor. Our guests kept us busy sightseeing all day and drinking tea and playing backgammon late into the night. With my dark eyes and Persian afro, I looked just like them; they couldn’t pinch, tease and hug me enough.
The backdrop to our days was Mali’s magnificent cooking, especially her khoresh, or stewsâthe crowning glory of Persian cuisine. Among the classic variations, there is unctuous bademjan, made with fried eggplant and tomatoes; gheimeh, a pungent blend of split peas cooked with bittersweet dried limes and topped with French fries; and sweet-and-sour fesenjan, perhaps the most beloved of all Persian stews, a heady concoction of tart pomegranate, ground walnuts and rich, flavorful duck or chicken.
“I researched the dish and worked painstakingly in the kitchen to conjure the flavors I recalled from Aunt Mali’s version.”
Fesenjan is believed to have originated in Gilan province, a temperate green swath of land along the Caspian Sea in the north of Iran, where wild ducks are plentiful. Gilanis have a taste for tart, fruity flavors like those in this dish, which has been around in one form or another since the days of the Persian Empire. A cache of inscribed stone tablets unearthed from the ruins of the ancient capital of Persepolis show that as far back as 515 BCE, early Iranian pantry staples included walnuts, poultry and pomegranate conserve. Today, fesenjan is a de rigueur dish for weddings and special occasions.
To make fesenjan, you start by searing duck or chicken pieces until they’re browned on both sides. Next, in the fat rendered out in searing the poultry, you sautÃ© a finely diced onion until it’s golden. To this base, add ground walnuts and fruity pomegranate molasses, and dilute the mixture with stock. When the russet sauce is heated through and the flavors have begun to meld, the poultry is returned to the pan to braise, low and slow, until the meat is fall-off-the-bone tender. Depending on the cook’s preference, the walnuts may be coarsely ground for a chunkier texture, or pulverized into a fine powder to make a smooth, silky sauce. The stew may be seasoned with cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, sugar or saffron. A grated red beet, added toward the end of cooking, bestows a beautiful crimson hue.
As a kid, I quickly took to fesenjan and all of Mali’s dishes. But after a few weeks, the Persian caravan packed up, leaving behind gifts of toasted Iranian pistachios in the shell, chewy gaz nougat and blue-and-gold tins of caviar lettered in flowing Persian script.
Two decades later, fresh out of culinary school and working in San Francisco, I was doing healthy, produce-driven cooking with a broad range of global influences. My knowledge of Persian food, however, had remained more or less suspended in that long-ago moment when Aunt Mali swept into my world, trailing the scent of spice. Then, at my first restaurant job, I was asked to come up with a new entree, and from the depths of my subconscious came the idea: fesenjan.
I had never tried making itâonly eating it every few years in a restaurant. I researched the dish and worked painstakingly in the kitchen to conjure the flavors I recalled from Aunt Mali’s version. I had no idea how to use pomegranate molasses or any other Persian ingredient, but the result was good enough to make it onto the menu. My curiosity about Persian food officially reignited, I did more research, more cooking and more remembering. Eventually, I decided to write a cookbook on the subject.
Unable to make it over to Iran, I conducted my research in Los Angeles, home to the world’s largest community of Iranian expats. Many of my relatives have now emigrated; Mali herself has often spent part of the year there. For a Persian food lover, L.A. is a revelation. There are sprawling Persian supermarkets, pristine Persian pastry shops, even a branch of a Tehran store devoted exclusively to dried fruit and nuts. I quickly fell in love with Wholesome Choice market in Irvine, a wonderland of Persian groceries where the busy food court boasts a full menu of Persian dishes, prepared and served by Iranian cooks. Eating lunch there for the first time, I noticed that most of the neighboring tables were filled with Iranians. They looked like me. The unfamiliar sense of being part of the majority came, surprisingly, as a relief.
During my stay in California, I embarked on wild food adventures with my family. We ate rustic abgoosht lamb stew, scoped out Persian markets, learned to make baghali polo rice with fava beans and dill. At a family gathering, one of my older female relatives shyly offered me a set of molds used to make the fried Persian pastry nan-e panjerei. Another gave me a Tupperware container of saffron- and rosewater-scented rice pudding, or sholezard, to take home. Suddenly, it seemed, I was part of a tribe.
With the book completed, I feel I’ve only just started exploring Persian food. My journey will continue, hopefully all the way to Iran, where perhaps my own identity and my father’s buried past will come into clearer focus. For now, though, something has shifted into place. The gift that Mali left me to discover as an adult is open in front of me, every time I cook up a batch of sweet and fragrant fesenjan. I’m still deciphering its meaning.
âMs. Shafia’s latest cookbook, “The New Persian Kitchen,” was published by Ten Speed Press.
Fesenjan (Pomegranate Walnut Stew)
Active Time: 1 hour Total Time: 1Â½ hours Serves: 4
This classic stew is a mainstay of Iranian weddings and other celebrations. It gets its distinctive sweet-sour flavor from pomegranate molasses, which you can purchase at specialty markets or online, at kalamala.com.
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
2 pounds skinless chicken legs or breasts
2 teaspoons salt, plus more, to taste
2 yellow onions, finely diced
1 cup walnuts, coarsely ground
Â½ cup pomegranate molasses
2 cups chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
1 cup peeled and grated red beets
Pomegranate seeds, for garnish
Fresh mint leaves, for garnish
What To Do
1. Heat a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat and add oil. Lightly season chicken with salt and sear until well browned, 6-7 minutes per side, then transfer to a plate.
2. In the same skillet, sautÃ© onions over medium heat for about 15 minutes, until lightly browned.
3. Add walnuts, pomegranate molasses and 2 teaspoons salt. Stir to coat the onions. Add stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and return chicken to stew. Cover and cook 25 minutes. Stir in beets and cook, uncovered, until stew is thick and beets are tender, 15-20 minutes. Salt to taste.
4. Pull out chicken pieces with tongs and cut into halves or thirds, if you like. Put a few pieces of chicken on each plate, along with plenty of sauce. Garnish with pomegranate seeds and mint.
A version of this article appeared May 4, 2013, on page D6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: My Fesenjan, Myself.