Five years ago, Annia Ciezadlo and Shahab Sirvani moved into a Beirut apartment together without ever having met. Their apartment had a spacious kitchen with a sofa next to the refrigerator (a Mediterranean thing). They spent hours in that kitchen, cooking and eating and talking politics into the night. At one point, Shahab’s mother visited, bearing packages of ground walnuts and dried plums and other ingredients for fesenjoon, the legendary Persian dish that is as delicious as it is notoriously difficult to get right. With this recipe, they invite you into their kitchen.
Fesenjoon à la Sanctions
By Mehri Kousha, Shahab Sirvani, Annia Ciezadlo, and Donald Trump
(with additional adaptations from Louisa Shafia’s New Persian Kitchen, Naz Deravian’s Bottom of the Pot blog, and Barack Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)
From: Annia Ciezadlo
To: Shahab Sirvani
Dear Shahab: Do you remember our Beirut kitchen, with the sofa right next to the refrigerator? The hours we spent sitting on that dusty blue velvet sofa, drinking and smoking and talking politics into the night? By the time we finished and staggered off to bed, we’d have solved the world’s problems, at least for that night.
After you left, we had a Nowruz party in your honor. Ezgi made all kinds of Turkish things. I made some meze and your mom’s fesenjoon (with some additions from some Iranian recipe writers I like). It turned out awesome—or at least, not an international embarrassment, like the first time we tried to recreate your mother’s fesenjoon.
Here’s the recipe. I finally wrote it down. Let me know if I forgot anything.
How are you? How is your mother? How are the new sanctions affecting you guys?
Your humble correspondent,
1 kilo (2.2 lbs) chicken
1 Tbsp or so of olive oil
3/4 cup sour pomegranate molasses
1 lb/450 grams ground walnuts
2 or so cups of water, room temperature
1 cup dried plums, pitted and roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinammon
1/8 teaspoon dried rose petals, plus more for garnish (optional but highly recommended)
pomegranate seeds, for garnish (optional)
Mortar and pestle
A big skillet or sayniyyeh (round cooking tray)
A big, heavy-bottomed pot
A medium-large mixing bowl. It should be heat-safe (i.e., metal or porcelain or glass, not plastic)
From: Shahab Sirvani
To: Annia Ciezadlo
My dear Annia, you asked if you forgot anything in the recipe for fesenjoon. You also asked about the new sanctions that our Uncle Trump has imposed on Iran. Ahh there is a lot to say about them, maybe in another email, maybe another evening, somewhere, chain smoking, drinking our cheap beer or wine, and talking and talking.
My dearest humble correspondent, I will try to answer both of your questions.
Yours in all the worlds
- Season the chicken with salt and pepper. The further in advance you do this, the more flavor the chicken will have.
- Preparing fesenjoon is time consuming, and due to its ingredients has always been an expensive food. That’s why in the old days it was cooked on special occasions. My grandma prepared it when the farmhouse was packed by the guests who arrived from the capital or other cities to visit them. And instead of chicken, which nowadays is more common for Fesenjoon, she used duck.
- Heat your largest skillet over a high flame. Once it’s sizzling hot, carefully put in your chicken pieces skin side down. Cook them, turning once, until they are browned on both sides. Don’t overcrowd the pan, or the chicken will steam and get tough. Do two batches if you only have small skillets. Take out the chicken and set aside.
- Nowadays, since the US government imposed the 1,000 new sanctions on Iran, the price of chicken has tripled. Many low-income families can’t afford chicken, let alone duck. For the middle-class Iranians it is still accessible, but much less than before. There are some charities that distribute eggs and chicken among the poor, but how often does that happen? Maybe once or twice a year.
- Grind the walnuts in a coffee grinder until they resemble a coarse, fluffy flour.
- My grandparents had walnut trees on the farm. They’re still there. The biggest one is very close to the house, and we, the grandchildren, had a lot of fun climbing it. In early September, when the walnuts were ready to harvest, my younger cousin and I climbed the tree and with long pieces of wood—called Rousha in our northern dialect—hit the walnuts in order to make them to fall off the trees.
- Pulse the rose petals in your electric grinder (Ezgi calls it “robot,” which is what she says they call it in Turkey) or a mortar and pestle, until you have 1/8 teaspoon. Keep some whole petals on hand for garnish.
- My cousin was three years younger than me, but she was one of the best tree climbers in the village, so there was also a sense of competition going on during the harvest. While we were competing on the top of the tree to hit more walnuts, my sister and other cousin collected them on the ground. Those walnuts still had the green hard part that covered the shell. After collecting them, we put them all under the ashes we grabbed from the grandma’s stove. After a week under the ashes, it was easier to remove the green part. This phase made our hands all black. At the same time, this was the most fun part, because when we removed the green part and got to the shells we could break the shell with the stone and eat fresh walnut, which tastes amazing. For this part, my grandpa had to always keep an eye on us, in order to be able to save enough walnuts for the whole year. He was coming to the four of us, shouting: “You little demons, you’ll die from eating too many walnuts!” Of course, as soon as he had left, we ate more.
- Heat a large, thick-bottomed pot over moderate heat. Get your big bowl handy.
- Nowadays, my uncle asks one of the youths of the village to collect the walnuts, and then they share the harvest between the two of them. None of us, the grandchildren, is there on the farm anymore. I’m here in Mexico, not able to return home because of the pandemic, my cousins both married years ago, and my sister lives in Tehran.
- Pour the walnut flour in the pot. Stir constantly for about five minutes until it is toasted. Don’t step away, not even for a moment. Make sure that nothing sticks and burns, or it will ruin the taste, and you’ll have to start over.
- Walnuts are also the reason why this dish is no longer accessible for many Iranians. The price of one kilo of a very ordinary walnut in Iran is about 1,800,000 Iranian rial (about $10 on the open market). Two years ago the same walnut was less than $4.
- When the walnuts start to smell toasty, dump them into the bowl you’ve got waiting. Add enough water to cover by an inch or so.
- The sharp increase in the prices of food started in 2018, when the US unilaterally withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal and imposed devastating sanctions on Iran’s banking system, oil and petrochemical exports, medicine and food imports and also a travel ban on common Iranians. With an inflation rate over 40 percent, even middle-class Iranians have a hard time putting food on the table, let alone the laborers whose, monthly minimum wage is less than $100. That’s how common Iranians have been kicked out of the globe. We are not living on the same planet as other human beings.
- Brush the last bits of walnut flour out of the pot (because you don’t want it burning) and add the pomegranate molasses, turmeric, and a teaspoon of salt. Stir to combine and heat gently. Keep a close eye on it—again, you don’t want it to burn, or the flavor will change. Your goal is to heat each ingredient just enough to wake up the flavor.
- Isn’t it stupid that I didn’t know Fesenjoon is originally a dish from northern Iran? Since the dish is so popular in Iran, I had never thought that it’s actually from the region where I was born: Iran’s northern green belt, nestled between the Caspian Sea and the Alborz mountain range. Yesterday when I was reading about the origins of this dish, I learnt how ignorant I was about our beloved Fesenjoon.
- As soon as the molasses starts to bubble, add the walnut and water slurry. Keep stirring over moderate heat until it comes to a gentle boil. Let it boil, softly, for about five minutes.
- Now that I learnt about the origins of the dish, I think it makes absolute sense to have pomegranate molasses in it. Northern Iran is known for wild pomegranate trees. These trees are different from the other type that we have in the central, dry parts of the country. The pomegranate from central Iran is sweet, but the one from the north is sour. Normally it is not eaten as fruit. Most probably that’s why people make it into molasses.
- Turn the heat down to low and simmer the sauce, uncovered, for the next two or so hours. Check it frequently, stirring to make sure your sauce isn’t sticking and burning the bottom. I use a flame tamer/aka heat diffuser (one of these.
- These wild trees were grown close to the forest, where my grandpa and uncle went to pick the tiny pomegranates. Now all those trees have disappeared, thanks to widespread corruption in Iran. Hundreds of hectares of federal lands, forests, and the coastline have been sold to well-connected affluent Iranians in the last decade. So what now we have in northern Iran is ugly villas instead of wild pomegranate trees. Anyways… I clearly remember my grandmother preparing the homemade molasses. My grandparents, my uncle, my mom, and whoever happened to pass by my grandparents’ house helped to deseed the pomegranates. My grandma never came to terms with gas stoves, so she made her molasses over a fire in the citrus grove.
- When the sauce starts to thicken, and the walnut oil starts to rise to the top, add a little bit of water at a time. (I keep a big container of water next to the stove for this kind of thing.) Add a half cup of water every half hour or so.
- Now, when I look back, I see that all the ingredients for this dish were from my grandparents’ farm. They kept all kinds of poultry and two or three cows on the farm. They had four or five walnut trees and several sour-orange trees. The pomegranate trees were just on the edge of the forest.
- Skim off the oil periodically if you feel like it (or you can just do it all at once later). The sauce will eventually become a deep rich brown.
- A few days ago, I was talking with a good friend and she said something that I think perfectly explains the situation of people living in Iran. She said: “These days I feel like I am acting in a movie where I do not understand the language of the crew and the actors. I try to figure out what is the next scene, what should be my next act, and what I am supposed to do, but I cannot.”
- The sauce is ready when it’s creamy and smooth and the oil is all separated.
- Yes, I think that’s how it is nowadays for many Iranians. And that’s why I can’t really focus now that I am writing to you. Anger, hatred, and disgust do not let me write to you as I wish; so I just write whatever comes to my mind.
- Add the cinnamon, plums, and ground rose petals to the sauce. Taste and make adjustments, but don’t add too much salt because the chicken will be seasoned with it. If it’s not sour enough (it should be really sour), you can add another 1/4 cup of pomegranate molasses. You can make the sauce ahead of time up to this point. You can even freeze it.
- These days I recall a memory from 2012. Back then I was studying in a European university. One day I had a long conversation with an American classmate about the social and political situation in Iran. At the end of that conversation, he told me that Americans would stand with us, and that they would do whatever necessary to help us making changes in our country.
- Add the chicken to the sauce and simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.
- I remember how scared I was when he said that. The first thing that came to my mind was the fate of Iraqis, who were helped by the US to get rid of their tyrant. And then I thought of the 1953 coup in Iran. Yes, that is how the Americans have already helped this country. And that’s why I wished that the Americans, instead of helping us, could leave us alone.
- Serve over rice and garnish with pomegranate seeds and rose petals.
Annia CiezadloUnited StatesNew York CityAnnia Ciezadlo is a writer from Chicago, USA. Shahab Sirvani is a writer from Tehran, Iran.
In the fall of 2003, Annia left New York City for Baghdad, and then Beirut. For the next fifteen years, she wrote about war and conflict. Her nonfiction writing from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon appeared in publications from The New York Times and The Washington Post to Granta, Guernica, and The Nation.
She used years of experience to write an award-winning book that looked at war in the Middle East as no one else had: by writing about civilians and their daily struggles over food. By focusing on civilians and their everyday lives, Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War (Free Press, 2011) succeeded in getting Americans to see Middle Easterners as real people, not media-driven stereotypes. Readers sent emails saying the book had made them see the region in a completely different way: “First time I could see the Middle East’s religious conflicts impact on people,” wrote one. Another said the book “gave me the window to the Middle East that I wanted to look through… rather than the media’s vision.” People she’d never met invited me to home-cooked dinners with their families.
Day of Honey won numerous awards, including the Dayton Literary Peace Prize (runner-up, Nonfiction). It was translated into four languages, earned glowing reviews in dozens of publications, and appeared on numerous “best of” lists. In its review, The New York Times called the book “among the least political, and most intimate and valuable, to have come out of the Iraq war.”
DAILY PEACE ACTION
My vision of peace is a giant kitchen—or banquet cloth, or fire, or circle, because not everyone eats Western-style at a table. Everyone shares. Everyone gets seconds or thirds if they want them. Nobody goes hungry. We all bring what we have and offer it freely. I practice this in my daily life in three ways: first, by sharing what I have with others—specifically, by giving food or money to whoever asks me for it. In Beirut, where hungry women and children from Syria and Palestine beg in the streets, I gave out powdered milk (a highly coveted item) and date cakes (which the children loved). Second, by eating as sustainably as possible, in order to promote peace by conserving the earth’s resources. And thirdly, by bringing together people from different walks of life over food: for example, by having a dinner party for Nowruz, or Greek Easter, or Ashura, and sharing food traditions with diverse groups of people. We can’t do this in person now, with coronavirus; my peace offering will be part of an ongoing process of exploring ways we can use virtual spaces to break bread, build peace, and create community together.