Pomegranate Soup, Marsha Mehran‘s novel about three Iranian sisters who open a Persian cafe in Ballinacroagh, Ireland, is one of my favorite stories and is a book that always seems to be beside my bed and flipped through in idle hours. The prose is playful, the story touching and hilarious at the same time. But it is Mehran’s descriptions of the native cuisine that really tugs at me as a foodie: so vivid, almost lurid, that you can actually feel your nose twitch at the imagined touch of cumin, your mouth will water at the mentioned tanginess of ripe pomegranate and preserved lime, and you will find yourself craving for such sweets as rose-shot baklava or the doughnut-like zulbia.
It’s actually fairly easy to get a Persian meal in this part of the world; here in the Makati area, there are already a number of kebab shops and shawarma – the roast-beef-in-pita-pocket snack so common to the Mediterranean and the Middle East – is a popular meal. But, that, said it’s also easy to get a pricey Persian meal and, at the same time, it’s also easy to get a bad Persian meal. Lucky for me, good and inexpensive Persian food may be found just a short walk away at – where else?! – Persia Grill.
On reading the menu, I was very pleased to see a variety of dishes I’d recently only read about in the pages of Pomegranate Soup: abgusht (meat stew cooked with chickpeas, potatoes, and preserved limes), mast-o-khiar (a cold, tangy yogurt soup), khoresh (stewed chicken), and dolmeh (only here, it refers to stuffed peppers; in the book, it was stuffed vine leaves). I wanted to stay and taste them all, but I had but an hour for lunch. Still, I wanted an enjoyable meal and that’s exactly what I got.
I started the meal with the baba ganoush, that classic roasted eggplant puree served with flatbread. Persia Grill’s version of this appetizer is good and creamy, with the bitter-sweet flavor I find a sign of properly grilled eggplants. A generous dribble of olive oil and a sprinkling of sumac (a sour powdered spice made with dried rhus berries) finishes the dish, giving it another dimension of mild sweetness balanced by a slap of tartness. Spread on the warm flatbread, it made an excellent taste-bud teaser for the meal to come.
I usually order the Grill’s chelo kebab kubideh. It’s a pair of kebab kubideh (skewered patties made with shredded – not ground! – beef mixed with cumin, cinnamon, paprika, and a hint of ginger) served with steamed long grain rice (chelo in Farsi), a couple of roasted tomatoes, a roasted green chili, a small dish of eggplant-yogurt dip, and a fat pat of butter you’re supposed to mix into the savory rice to add richness.
Today, though, lunch was the chelo kebab combination. I would recommend this as a good way of making yourself familiar with Persian food. What you get is a kebab kubideh and a kebab morg. Kebab morg is a dish where chicken breast fillets are marinated with lemon, onions, and black pepper. The poultry is then cut into strips, skewered, and grilled. Now, admittedly, I’m no fan of chicken breasts, but these are a fab exception. Persia Grill’s kebab morg is citrusy without being overpowering, tender to the bite, and surprisingly juicy for a cut of poultry notorious for being tough and dry. Eaten with the buttery chelo, it’s a savory alternative to the usual chicken barbecue.
The kebab kubideh, on the other hand, tastes more like lamb rather than beef. I am not sure if it’s because the spices used to flavor it are the ones traditionally used for lamb in Arabic countries. One other thing, the flavor profile is somewhat gamier than most other dishes involving ground beef. Nevertheless, it’s really good and savory – and good value for money because the helping in the combo and the double-helping in the regular chelo kebab kubideh plate are quite generous. Incidentally, if you want a different spin on the regular shawarma, order the Persian burger which features a kebab kubideh patty instead of the usual shreds of roast beef tucked into a folded pita.
The chelo – the long-grained basmati rice – tastes like it was cooked in a savory broth as I could catch hints of onion and parsley. Saffron was obviously used sparingly, given the patches of brilliant yellow grains on the plate. However, I take issue with the chelo because it was missing one crucial part: the famed tadig. Tadig is what is known as tutong in Filipino and okoge in Japanese: the crunchy burnt layer at the bottom of the rice pot. In other culinary cultures, that layer is the blessing-in-disguise that follows a cook’s negligence. In Persian cuisine, however, tadig is cooked deliberately. Once the rice is al dente from steaming or boiling, it’s layered in a deep pan and fried with olive oil. This results in tender, fluffy rice on top and a crunchy cracker-like slab below that, as Marsha Mehran puts it, lures diners to the table like no other.
While the usual beverages are on offer (along with raspberry iced tea), I would recommend that you end your meal with the plain yogurt shake (dugh in Farsi) as it’s tangy, refreshing, and quite light. (I noticed that the brand of liquid yogurt they use is actually semi-carbonated.)
I should warn you, though: if you’re going to the Valero branch of Persia Grill, you’d better get there early. It gets really crowded and the noise level can get uncomfortable at times. Still, if you’re up for something different, it’s one place you shouldn’t skip.
One other thing, Persia Grill was featured in Yummy magazine’s May 2010 issue as one of the best places to eat on the cheap. Indeed, a good meal consisting of a drink, appetizer, and a two-kebab plate will set you back a mere P 350.00 (US$ 7.58) on average. Not a bad deal, eh?
Persia Grill – Ground Floor, Valero Parking Area (beside Kitaro and just behind the Paseo Center), Valero St., Salcedo Village, Makati.