The Jewish Palate: Persian food steeped in history

Jewish Palate food column series comes to an end with a recipe for Koofteh Tabrizi, a classic Persian dish that is a predecessor to our meatball dishes.

By DENNIS WASKO
July 26, 2011 17:14
Meatballs

Meatballs. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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For several months now I have been bringing you the history and culinary traditions of diverse Jewish communities from around the world. The purpose of this column has been to educate the world and Jews especially, about the richness and diversity of Jewish Heritage. There is a great world of Jewish food and tradition out there.

This is the final column in the “Jewish Palate” series, and I would like to thank all of my readers for giving me your attention and support. The Jewish communities that have not been featured in the “Jewish Palate” were not ignored.  In fact, many of the largest and most influential Jewish communities have not been featured. I tried to pay tribute to the most obscure communities first.

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This column has been a labor of love, and I would like to thank JPost.com for giving me the opportunity to share my insights with the world.

 The final column in this series is about the Jewish community of Persia.  I chose this community because of its uniqueness and its size.  Iran has a very sizeable Jewish community. I pray for a time when Iran comes to its senses and once again becomes a place of inspiration for the world.

And so to Persia:  Please realize that this is a very short and incomplete history of one of the greatest Jewish communities that the world has ever seen.  It is in no way a complete history. 

Jews in Persia (Iran) have an incredibly long history. The Biblical Book of Esther recounts the plight of the Jewish community during the reign of King Ahasuerus in 357 – 356 B.C.E. The Biblical books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel were also written in Persia. Judaism is one of the oldest religions practiced in Iran (Persia), and its history dates back to the 6th century B.C.E.  The early Jewish history is closely intertwined with the history of the Jews of Babylon. King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E. and permitted the Babylonian Jewish exiles to return to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Holy Temple. 

Under the Sassanid Dynasty (226 – 642 C.E.) the Jewish population of Persia grew and spread throughout the region.  The coming of Islam in 642 C.E. ended the independence of Persia and marked a turning point in Persian Jewish history, as it ended their high socio-political status. 



During the 19th century, there was much discrimination, and there were periods when entire villages were forced to convert to Islam. During this period, the early Zionist movement began to thrive among Persian Jews. 

In 1925, the Phalevi Dynasty was established and the country was secularized and oriented toward the West. This improved the living conditions for the Jewish community. Once again, after millennia of oppression, Jews were allowed to openly participate in the economy and in cultural life. On the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, 80,000 Jews lived in Iran. In the wake of the upheaval, tens of thousands of Jews, especially the wealthy, left the country, leaving behind vast amounts of property which were quickly stolen by the newly installed Islamic tyranny. 

In Iran, there is a distinction between Jews, “Zionists,” and Israel/USA. One is allowed to be a Jew, but it is punishable by death to be a “Zionist” or in some way associated with Israel. The Jewish community is actually recognized by the government, but it is constantly being accused of being in collusion with the Zionist Israeli Government and the Imperialist United States, as a result, persecution abounds. Family members are not allowed to apply for Visas together as the government tries to discourage family emigration. 

The official government media is constantly publishing anti-Semitic stories and accounts, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a common favorite as it is all over the Arab World. Jews in Iran (Persia) also have been subject to government sanctioned persecution and discrimination, particularly in the areas of employment, education, and general public assistance. Just by being a Jew, you endanger your family.

Following the overthrow of the shah and the declaration of an Islamic state in 1979, Iran severed all diplomatic relations with Israel. The country has subsequently supported many of the Islamic terrorist organizations that target Jews and Israelis, particularly the Lebanon-based, Hezbollah and Palestinian-based Hamas. Nevertheless, Iran's Jewish community is the largest in the Middle East outside Israel.

At least 13 Jews have been executed in Iran since the Islamic revolution, most of them for either religious reasons or their connection to Israel. For example, in May 1998, Jewish businessman Ruhollah Kakhodah-Zadeh was hanged in prison without a public charge or legal proceeding, apparently for assisting Jews to emigrate.

Reports vary as to the condition and treatment of the small, tight-knit community, and the population of Iranian Jews can only be estimated due to the community’s isolation from world Jewry. It is estimated that they number between 20,000 and 25,000.

The cuisine of Persia is steeped in history and flavor.  The basic flavor tradition of the West owes its existence to the cuisine of Persia. Persia taught the Greeks, the Greeks taught the Romans, the Romans taught the rest of the West. 

The following recipe for Koofteh Tabrizi is a classic from the city of Tabriz, and a predecessor to our classic meatball dishes. 

The true brilliance of this dish is in the play between the rice laden meatballs and the rich, aromatic broth. 

Koofteh Tabrizi
Serves 6 – 8
Herbed Meatball
1 pound ground beef
1 ½ cups raw Persian Basmati rice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons fresh summer savory
½ cup flat leafed parsley, chopped
1 cup chopped leeks
½ cup chopped dill
1 medium onion, chopped fine.

Broth
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
5 cups water
1 cup green peas

1.   Mix all of the meatball ingredients together and roll into balls approximately 2 ½ inches in diameter.  Refrigerate for 1 hour.       
                  
2.  For the broth: heat the oil in a large stock pot, add the onions and turmeric. Sauté over moderate heat until lightly browned.  Add tomatoes and salt.  Sauté for 3 minutes and then add water and bring to a boil. 

3.  Moisten hands with cold water. Take each meatball and add to simmering broth. Cover the pot and cook over moderate heat without stirring for 45 minutes. Add peas and cook for 10 additional minutes. 

4. Serve hot with meatballs in the broth.

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