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Bringing Persian culture to the palate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Najmieh Batmanglij has been cooking all morning, and the kitchen of her Georgetown home is filled with wonderful aromas -- the sharp, citrus smell of Seville oranges, the nutty smell of roasting rice, the pungent and seductive smell of garlic sizzling in olive oil.

Mrs. Batmanglij, author of the Persian cookbook "New Food of Life" (Mage Publishers, $44.95), is preparing for a noontime visitor and a few dinner guests. "I like to feed people," she says, filling a glass with a refreshing drink made from rhubarb syrup. Her favorite way to entertain is to invite no more than four or five people at a time -- "a small group," she says, "with everybody sitting right here at this table. I am the only one walking around, and I can cook and talk to them, and feed everyone."

She urges her visitor to try a bite of bread with basil or mint, and a bit of walnut or feta cheese, a traditional appetizer or snack in her native Iran. Outside, it is the dead of winter, but the herbs on the table are fresh and crisp and green. Besides her other cooking, Mrs. Batmanglij has been baking -- baklava, rice-flour cookies, and chick-pea flour cookies flavored with cardamom -- for the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which falls on the day of spring solstice -- March 20 this year.

The ancient ceremonies that surround Nowruz symbolize two of the "dualities" that abound in Persian tradition: Death and rebirth; and good and evil. Nowruz is a time of feasting and dancing, of making wishes and telling fortunes. Special foods are associated with the celebration, such as noodle soup, "ash-e reshteh." The noodles "symbolize the choice of paths among the many that life spreads out before us," Mrs. Batmanglij writes in her cookbook.

Persian dishes also are described by paired characteristics: "Persian culture is based on these dualisms -- sweet and salt, dark and light," Mrs. Batmanglij says, "all these things struggling for balance." Persians believe that eating the right foods can help a person become more balanced, both physically and mentally. People who have "warm" natures need to eat "cold" foods, and vice versa. A very active or "hot" natured child should not eat too much chocolate or too many dates; drinking the juice of watermelon or grapefruit, which are "cold" fruits, can restore balance.

The "jewel" of Persian cuisine is rice, Mrs. Batmanglij says. But as a cuisine it's quite different from the world's other major rice-based cuisines -- Chinese, Indian and Spanish, she says. Persian food "is very refined. Everything is cut into small pieces." She compares it to Persian carpets and Persian miniature painting. "It's a juxtaposition of small pieces to create a unit," she says. "There's a delicate touch. Every element has its own flavor," yet each contributes to the taste and beauty of the dish.

Mrs. Batmanglij first came to the United States as a college student; after graduation she returned to Iran to work. She later taught at Tehran University. She married a fellow Iranian; they have two sons, 9 and 13. She initially began to write her cookbook in France, where she and her husband lived in a small village. She was expecting her first child and missed her family in Iran. She wanted to "collect" everything she could of Persian tTC culture, to give to her child. Since so much of the culture is so linked to cuisine, she began to write recipes.

"My cookbook was created with my first son," she says, smiling.

She has been careful to keep the recipes authentic, but she also embraces such up-to-date kitchen tools as the food processor. "I am trying to create a balance between modernity and tradition," she says.

It is still her goal to gather everything she can about Persian culture, so it will not be lost to her family, and so Americans can see that there is more to this 4,000-year-old culture than revolution. She wants to make videos of women in their villages, to preserve food traditions and share them with the world. "Persian food is the oldest food and the least known in the world," she says.

"New Food of Life" is a way of sharing Persian traditions with the world, she says. She is a great believer in sharing. "Sharing comes as a result of love. And when you stop loving people you die."

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"In Iran it is customary to eat noodle soup before embarking on something new. . . . Eating those tangled threads is like unraveling the Gordian knot of life's infinite possibilities to pick out the best," Mrs. Batmanglij writes.

This hearty soup, traditionally served at the Persian New Year, is a typical "mosaic" of ingredients and flavors. Don't let the number of ingredients daunt you; all but two are familiar and those two have readily available substitutes. Actual preparation, while it takes some time, is quite simple. Persian noodles and liquid whey are available in specialty shops or Middle Eastern markets.

Persian noodle soup Serves six.

3 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced

3 tablespoons oil

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon turmeric

8 to 10 cups water

1/4 cup dried red kidney beans, washed and soaked in cold water for two hours and drained

1/4 cup dried navy beans

1/4 cup dried chickpeas

1/2 cup lentils

1/2 cup beef broth, preferably homemade

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh chives or scallions

1/2 cup chopped gresh dill

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley

6 cups spinach, washed and chopped, or 3 cups frozen spinach, chopped

1 fresh beet, peeled and diced in 1/2 -inch pieces

1/2 pound Persian noodles (reshteh) or linguine noodles

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup liquid whey (kashk), or 1/4 cup wine vinegar

Brown the onions in 3 tablespoons oil in a large pot. Add 2 teaspoons salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon turmeric. Pour in 10 cups water and add kidney beans, navy beans and chickpeas; bring to boil, skim the froth as it forms, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes over medium heat.

Add lentils and beef broth. Cook 55 minutes longer.

Add chopped chives or scallions, dill, parsley, spinach and beet. Continue cooking, stirring from time to time, for 1 1/2 hours or until the beans are tender. Correct seasoning and add water if the soup is too thick.

Add noodles and flour and cook about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the liquid whey (or vinegar) and mix well.

Pour the soup into a tureen and serve.

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