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Times Food editor Russ Parsons on 'Food of Life': A classic cookbook made even better

March 29, 2011 |  3:05 pm

Food-of-life-ancient-persian-83090l1 When Najmieh Batmanglij’s “Food of Life” was first published back in the mid-1980s, it was probably ahead of its time. American cooks were still concentrating on the cooking of France and Italy, and even Indian cooking was somewhat on the fringe. Let’s face it, we probably were not ready politically for an Iranian cookbook in those days, either. The book got a few really good reviews, but remained something of an obscurity.

Times have changed, though, and thankfully because Batmanglij has just republished the book in a gorgeous expanded edition. If you’ve ever been curious about Persian cooking -- and that means just about anyone who has ever tasted it -- this is the perfect introduction.

Rice is at the heart of Persian cooking and there are 60 pages devoted to it in the book. This may seem excessive for those whose idea of rice cookery is limited to boiling a bit of basmati. But if you’ve ever tasted a perfectly made tah-dig (fluffy rice served with a delicious cap of crusty golden fried rice), you’ll appreciate the care and artistry that is required.

Here's a very brief summary: First, the rice has to be rinsed thoroughly. Cook it briefly in a lot of boiling water, then drain and rinse again. Combine part of the rice with a yogurt-saffron mixture and spread it across the bottom of the pot. Carefully spoon in the rest of the rice. Cook briefly over medium-high heat to get the crust started, then reduce the heat and cook for 70 minutes more, with the lid wrapped in cloth to absorb extra moisture. And then you get the process for unmolding.

For the faint of heart, there are also half a dozen “cheater” tah-digs –- crusts made with lavash, potatoes or just plain rice stained with saffron. And in this updated version of “Food of Life” there are also instructions for preparing many of the dishes in a rice cooker.

"Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies" by Najmieh Batmanglij (Mage Publishers, $54.95).


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Photo: Mage Publishers