Persian Dining… in Manila

Having traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South Asia several years ago as part of our work, we’ve been exposed to these regions’ various cuisines. So when several restaurants offering fare from these countries began mushrooming in Metro Manila a few years back we could easily satisfy our cravings whenever we miss food from these regions. While many of these restaurants have modified their dishes to suit the Filipino palette, there were enough of them that remained true to their roots.

There was one cuisine though that intrigued us. There are several Persian or Iranian restaurants in the country but never having been to Iran we couldn’t really tell how authentic the food they served were. (Many people don’t really care and that’s fine). What we do nowadays is to look for a dining establishment whose owner is Iranian. Better still if the head chef/cook is also Iranian.

sliced pita bread
Sliced pita bread

Persian culture – and food – dates back to around 2000 B.C. and has been influenced by Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Caucasians and Ottomans (Turks). It is therefore not surprising that it shares several common elements with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisine. A fine example is pita bread – a flat bread that is either baked or cooked over a bed of small stones. Some of the dips used with this bread (often as appetizers) are moutabal, mirza ghaseemi and hummus.

falafel with veges, pita bread and humus
Falafel with pita bread and hummus; all are food influences from the Middle East
moutabal, mirza ghaseemi and hummus dips
Left to right: moutabal, mirza ghaseemi and hummus – a three-dip special served with pita bread at Habib Persian Cuisine.

Moutabal, also referred to as baba ghanoush, is a dish made up of mashed eggplant that had been broiled over open flame and mixed with flavoring. It has a smoky taste due to the grilled eggplant which we happen to enjoy very much. The mirza ghaseemi is a relative of the moutabal. Like the latter, it is grilled eggplant but also seasoned with garlic, tomato, turmeric, oil or butter, salt, pepper and eggs. Mirza ghaseemi is a very tasty dish; we think that non-eggplant eaters will fall in love with it. Hummus – actually a Middle Eastern dish – is made from mashed chickpeas blended with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, garlic and tahini.

chelo kebabs
Top: chelo kebab with saffroned and buttered rice (beef); Bottom: mixed chelo kebab consisting of beef and chicken kebab – we requested pita bread rather than rice for this order.

Although we like to start dining on Persian food with bread and dips, Iranian cuisine is based mostly on rice. Typical Iranian main dishes consist of rice combined with meat (lamb, beef or chicken) or fish. Chelo kebab – the national dish of Iran – is rice served this way with kebab or grilled meat. We often order mixed chelo kebab consisting of a combination of skewers of different kinds of meat. Kebab meats are all grilled with servings of tomatoes and onions (likewise grilled) on the side. Although chelo kebabs are traditionally served with rice as previously stated we sometimes do a twist on the mixed chelo, asking for pita bread instead of rice to accompany the kebab.

Iranians actually prepare rice in two ways – as the plain chelo mentioned above and as polo (or pilau) which is also steamed rice but prepared with several ingredients such as potatoes, meat, vegetables, nuts and fruits. The latter can be prepared in various combinations.

jujeh kebab or Persian barbecued chicken
Habib’s jujeh kebab or Persian barbecued chicken.

There are of course practically endless varieties possible with kebabs. A particular dish at Habib Persian Cuisine located at The Hub, Greenfield District in Mandaluyong is worth mentioning, namely the jujeh kebab or Persian barbecued chicken. This is chicken marinated in lemon, saffron, yogurt and onion then grilled over hot coals. The result is a juicy and tasty dish.

khoresh bademjan
Khoresh bademjan: the stew is in the bowl with the chicken wrapped in some of the eggplant strips.

Eggplant is a major element of Persian cuisine as we’ve discovered from years of dining in Iranian restaurants. In a visit to Habib we tried out an eggplant stew: khoresh bademjan. Khoresh is Farsi (the Persian language) for stew while bademjan means eggplant. The khoresh bademjan we sampled had chicken and eggplants stewed in saffron, onions, turmeric, tomato paste and tomatoes. The stew may not look to be the prettiest of dishes but it was certainly delicious.

pepper dolmeh at an Iranian restaurant in Metro Manila
Pepper Dolmeh (or dolma) – stuffed bell peppers with ground meat, rice and herbs in tomato sauce; dolmeh is an influence from the Turks.

We’re sure that experiencing Persian cuisine right in Iran would be something to look forward to but even if we never get the chance to do so we can still enjoy Persian dining right in our own country. The numerous Persian dining places here in the Philippines would help ensure that.

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