Wednesday, August 14, 2019

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


"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."


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

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?

Essentially, the city of Dushanbe is 1,000 miles from Tehran.  As the crow flies east.

“We are Persian,” Bakhman assured me.

Quite true, if based on the fact that 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.  There would have been no better way to mark that river as the northern most frontier of the Persian Empire.  From there, Cyrus scrambled into western India.

Only the gods could have deterred the Achaemenid king 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 this at the same time he snatched Cappadocia and Armenia.  Cyrus’s ambitions didn’t bode well for the Egyptians and Spartans.


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.  The stew dates back two and a half thousand years.

If the truth be known, it was 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 calls me Miss Virginia, no doubt in deference to my advanced age.


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 citadel of Persepolis document the stew’s ingredients in royal kitchens.  One ancient writer chronicled the stew as perfection.

Oddly, earlier this year I indirectly referenced the stew when I wrote that professional chefs in the 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 Nils Bernstein’s pairing of it with a bottle of Darioush 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet in Winemag.com.  I became aware of Darioush 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet when my friend John introduced me to it in 2018.  Half giddy, John described the Cabernet as “a big-ass wine with fruit forward, you don’t have to wait for it. Um.”   Moved by John’s eloquence, I quoted him in an article on this blog.

The day John showed me a bottle of Darioush Cabernet, I noticed its label was decorated with an image from the relief carvings at the citadel of Persepolis.   It seems Darioush Khaledi, the Iranian owner of Darioush Vineyards which makes the Cabernet, takes his name as well as his vineyard’s name from Persian King Darius, successor of King Cyrus who gobbled up Tajikistan.


In the manner of the high blown, Great King, King of Kings Darius, left us an autobiography.  The Behistun Inscription is propaganda on the conqueror’s ascension as ninth Achaemenid king, and spins the legitimacy of his succession.  Overall, Herodotus accepted Darius’s claim, the historian cited the gods’ congratulatory thunder and lightning as authoritative.  Although at times he dickered with notions of Darius as usurper.  (He further maligned the Persians when he said the Greeks taught them pederasty.)

Relief carvings at Persepolis, one of which Darioush Vineyards reproduced on its bottle labels, reveal informative tidbits about dress and customs at the Persian court.  Clearly, Achaemenid court officials were dandies.  They artificially curled their beards with a “permanent.”  One can ascertain this detail on Avesta Persian Grill’s “Persepolis” wall mural.

Hi, I came here 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 critic.  I am however thrilled when I stumble over exciting food and booze.  Fesenjān, often pronounced “fesen-joon,” turned out to be elegant and 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’s Persian 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!


Alexander the Great’s treatment of the “Avesta” was disgraceful.  Even if he was avenging the Persian’s fifth-century sack of the Athenian Acropolis, it was barbarous for a student of Aristotle to destroy manuscripts of Persian scripture centered on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster.  I’m inclined to think Alexander lost control of his troops at the time they burned the library at Persepolis in 321 BC, 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 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, but lost control when the Soviet Union disintegrated.  Two years after the Wall fell in 1989, Tajikistan became an independent sovereign nation on September 9, 1991.


Avesta Persian Grill
www.avestahouston.com
@avestahouston

All Images except Fesenjān stew from Avesta Persian Grill Facebook and Instagram
1- Avesta Persian Grill wall mural with images of relief carvings from Persepolis
2- Fesenjān pomegranate and walnut stew
3-Avesta Grilled Meat
4-Avesta Grilled Kabob with vegetables
5-Avesta Greek Salad
6-Avesta Kabobs and chops
7-Avesta Grilled Chicken kabob boneless
8-Chicken and beef kabob


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