Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Avesta Persian Grill's Pomegranate and Walnut Stew, Cyrus the Great, and Tajikistan

Avesta Persian Grill's wall mural with images of relief
carvings from the citadel of Persepolis

"Assyria, Greece, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Central Asia, parts of India, Cyrus hoped, would roll over, or spread their legs in exchange for favorable terms as tribute-paying satrapies and vassals." 
(Virginia Billeaud Anderson - visits Avesta Persian Grill to taste the pomegranate and walnut stew called Fesenjān, a dish that dates back two and a half thousand years and was prepared in the Persian Empire's royal kitchens at Persepolis.)

Avesta Persian Grill's Pomegranate and Walnut Stew, Cyrus the Great, and Tajikistan 

When Bakhman Isomiddin told me he was born in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, my mind wrestled with Tajikistan’s location within the wider Persian Empire.  I knew Tajikistan was south of Uzbekistan, east of Turkmenistan, and north of Afghanistan, but, I asked Bakhman, how far was Tajikistan from Tehran?

The city of Dushanbe is 1,000 miles from Tehran.

“We are Persian,” Bakhman assured me when he saw I was perplexed.

Quite true, if based on the fact that the Persian king Cyrus the Great gobbled up the region known as modern day Tajikistan.  Barreling through Central Asia in a northerly direction, Cyrus was keen on high-jacking Bactria and Sogdia, and reaching the Jaxartes River, into which he surely pissed.  No better way to mark that river as the northern most frontier of his Persian Empire.  From there, Cyrus scrambled into western India.

Only the gods could have deterred the Achaemenid king Cyrus from doubling the size of the Persian Empire.  Assyria, Greece, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Central Asia, parts of India, Cyrus hoped, would roll over, or spread their legs in exchange for favorable terms as tribute-paying satrapies and vassals.   Hadn’t Cyrus subdued treasury-rich Croesus of Lydia in 547 BC, with help from the Delphic oracle, and hadn't he taken Cappadocia and Armenia?  Cyrus’s ambitions didn’t bode well for the Egyptians and Spartans.

Avesta Persian Grill - Fesenjān pomegranate and walnut stew

My chat with Bakhman Isomiddin took place at Avesta Persian Grill in Houston, where I went to eat a bowl of Fesenjān, an ancient Persian stew made with poultry, pomegranates and walnuts.  This Persian stew dates back two and a half thousand years.

If the truth be known, it was my friend Mohsen Rezaei who unknowingly directed me to that bowl of pomegranate and walnut stew.  Mohsen told me the food at Avesta Persian Grill is most similar to the food he eats in Tehran.  “Miss Virginia, it’s a small restaurant, but it’s the best Persian food in the city.”

Mohsen always calls me Miss Virginia, in deference to my advanced age.

Avesta Persian Grill - Grilled Meats

Perhaps it was inevitable I would high-tail it over to Wilcrest Street to taste the Fesenjān.  I had read about the pomegranate and walnut stew on Persian food websites, and in numerous publications including the “Wall Street Journal,” which placed its origins near the Caspian Sea in Iran’s northern Gilan province, a region saturated with the wild ducks that historically went into the stew.  Stone tablets excavated from the 515 BC Persian citadel of Persepolis document that the stew's ingredients were stocked in royal kitchens.  One ancient writer chronicled the stew as perfection.

Avesta Persian Grill has a wall mural with images of relief carvings at the Persian citadel of Persepolis.

Oddly, earlier this year I indirectly referenced the stew by stating that professional chefs in the ancient Persian court practiced refined culinary arts, wielding the prized Persian meat and fruit stews, along with pilaf, kebabs and pastries.

More than anything, the omen that made me hell-bent on tasting Fesenjān stew was when I read Nils Bernstein’s recommendation to pair it with a bottle of Darioush 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet in  I became aware of Darioush 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet last year when my friend John Hale eloquently described it as one of his favorite wines, saying, “it's a big-ass wine with fruit forward, you don’t have to wait for it. Um um.” This cabernet is made at Darioush Vineyards by the vineyard's Iranian owner Darioush Khaledi.  Both the vineyard and its owner are named after the Persian King Darius, who was a successor of King Cyrus who gobbled up Tajikistan.  The cabernet's label has an image from the relief carvings at the citadel of Persepolis.

Avesta Persian Grill - Grilled Kabob with vegetables

We know a little bit about King Darius, successor of Cyrus.  In the manner of the high blown, the Great King, King of Kings, Darius, left an autobiography.  Called the Behistun Inscription, the document is propaganda that spins conqueror Darius' ascension as ninth Achaemenid king, and the legitimacy of his succession.  For the most part, the historian Herodotus accepted Darius’s claim as legitimate successor, and cited the gods’ congratulatory thunder and lightning as authoritative, however at times Herodotus doubted the claim, and dickered with the notion that Darius was a usurper.  (Herodotus further maligned the Persians when he wrote the Greeks taught them pederasty.)

When I arrived at Avesta Persian Grill, I closely scrutinized the restaurant's wall mural.  The relief carvings at the ruins of Persepolis have fascinated me ever since I studied them in graduate school.  One reason is they reveal informative tidbits about dress and customs at the Persian court, for instance they show that Achaemenid court officials were dandies who artificially curled their beards with a “permanent.”

Relief Carvings at the Ruins of Persepolis.
Image by arkeoveyasam Instagrm

Hi, I came to eat your pomegranate and walnut stew.

Bakhman nodded with approval.  Then felt the need to issue a warning.  “That stew will probably seem very sweet to you.”

As my readers know, I’m not a food critic.  I am however thrilled when I stumble over exciting food and booze.  Fesenjān, often pronounced “fesen-joon,” turned out to be elegant and very complex.  The walnuts are pulverized to the consistency of a rich creamy paste, so the stew is thick, yet it is soupy, broth-y and stew-like.  Fesenjān is a still-life of tender meat, nuts and fruit, and one senses that skill is required to properly balance the ingredients, so walnuts don’t overpower fruit, and fruit doesn’t annihilate nuts and poultry.

Be sure to eat Fesenjān stew over saffron rice.

Also, let me recommend you dip some of Avesta Persian Grill's flat bread into their pureed eggplant with garlic, mint, ground walnuts, caramelized onion and creamy yogurt.  I did that.  Then I grabbed more bread and sopped it into the hummus sprinkled with sumac that my buddy Bakhman placed on the table.  Complimentary!

Avesta Persian Grill Greek Salad

When Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 321 BC, he treated the ancient “Avesta” disgracefully.  Even if he did attack the Persians to avenge their fifth-century BC sack of the Athenian Acropolis, it was barbarous to destroy manuscripts of Persian scripture centered on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster.  How could a student of Aristotle destroy books?  I’m inclined to think Alexander lost control of his troops at the time they burned the library at Persepolis, based on the deep respect he showed for King Cyrus’s tomb.  Regardless, Zoroastrianism’s sacred book was important to believers, so they used memory and copies to piece it back together.  What resurfaced was redacted and eventually canonized, in the manner of most religious texts.

How interesting that the ancient Silk Road went through Tajikistan, where Bakhman was born.  And, that numerous other occupiers came after Cyrus the Great, the Mongols for instance.  The Russians temporarily fancied themselves overlords.  That didn't last long.  They lost control when the Soviet Union disintegrated.  Two years after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Tajikistan became an independent sovereign nation on September 9, 1991.

Avesta Persian Grill's Kabobs and chops
Avesta Persian Grill - Grilled Chicken kabob boneless
Avesta Persian Grill - Chicken and beef kabob

Avesta Persian Grill

All Images except Fesenjān stew from Avesta Persian Grill Facebook and Instagram

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