From candy to juleps, Persians left imprint on many edible delights

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With the historic nuclear deal finally taking effect, a sanctions-free Iran can now get back to doing what it has excelled at for centuries: trade.

Because of Iran's strategic position on the Silk Road, that ancient highway that snaked from China to Europe, the caravans of tea, spice and silk passing through it also carried a weightless but imperishable cargo to foreign shores: Persian culture.

In the past decade, the rhetoric around Iran has been so dominated by the enrichment of uranium that it has all but eclipsed the numerous ways in which Persia — the name Iran was known by before 1935 — has enriched the world and been enriched by it.

There's no better evidence of this than the imprimatur of Persian on the nomenclature of food.

Not just food with an obviously Eastern pedigree, like saffron, naan, tandoori chicken, samosa, kebab and pilaf, but everyday, Western-sounding food names such as lemon, tamarind, pistachio and jujube — all names with Persian roots.

Fascinating though these etymologies are, they lie buried deep inside dictionaries. One woman who has worked hard to unearth them is the chef and cookbook writer Najmieh Batmanglij, known as the Julia Child of Persian cooking.

"The reason I wrote five cookbooks over the past 35 years was to bring about awareness among Americans and make second-generation Iranian-Americans proud of their ancient heritage," Batmanglij tells us. She grew up in Tehran but has lived in Washington for the past three decades.

"The Persian kings had royal kitchens with butlers, sommeliers and pastry chefs," she says. "Iran was the first home of many commonly used herbs, from basil to cilantro, and to scores of familiar preparations, including sweet and sour sauces and almond pastries. We know that quinces, pomegranates, almonds, fenugreek (despite its name), cumin, coriander and mustard seeds went from Iran to the West. I want to tell my readers — you know more about Persian food than you might think."

Batmanglij's assertion is validated by this quick question: How are Halloween, Popeye and the Kentucky Derby connected to Iran?

The short answer is that "candy" is derived from the Persian qand, meaning sugar cube. The Sailor Man's muscle-enhancing biofuel, spinach, is from the Persian aspanakh. And as for the Kentucky Derby, can one even imagine it without mint julep? And thereby hangs a rosy tale.

"Julep is a classic example," says Arthur Dudney, a researcher in Asian and Middle Eastern studies at Cambridge University. "It started as Persian gul-āb (rose water), then entered Arabic as julāb ... and from there entered a number of European languages (Latin, Provençal, Spanish, Portuguese, and French) with the 'b' softened into a 'p' (e.g., julapium in Latin). And from French it entered English in the 15th century. The bourbon-spiked Kentucky Derby mint julep tastes nothing like the Persian rose-water drink, but the name is from Persia."

Another word that has been through a complex series of linguistic hops is sherbet.

For American kids, sherbet is a frozen desert, while in England it's a fizzy drink. Fans of the English children's author Enid Blyton might remember that exquisite confection called the Google bun — yes, Google — stuffed with very large currant, which features in her Faraway Tree series. When you bit into the bun, "sherbet frothed out and filled your mouth with fine bubbles that tasted delicious."

"Sherbet or sorbet is from sharbat, a sweet iced juice drink," says Dudney. "It likely came through Turkey, even though it was known in Persian-speaking India and Iran. In any case, the name in Persian and Turkish comes from shariba, the Arabic verb to drink."

"Sharbat's basis was the ice and snow that ancient Iranians had learned to preserve during the hot summer months in spectacular domed ice wells on the edges of towns and along caravan routes," writes Batmanglij in Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey. "The flavorings were syrups, made by combining fruit or vegetable juice with honey, sugar or date or grape molasses and boiling the mixture down to intensify the flavor. Sipped through a mound of crushed ice or snow, the syrup became a delightful drink."

Even foods that didn't originate in Persia got Persian names, since Persia was responsible for their spread westward. Batmanglij makes this point in her best-selling book Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies.

"Peaches, for instance, originated in China, but as they were taken from Iran to the West, they became known as the Persian apple," she says.

Orange, adds Dudney, comes to English via Spanish from the Persian nārang, which comes from a Sanskrit word that probably had a Dravidian origin. Aubergine (eggplant), too, has a Sanskrit root, but gets its name from the Persian bādinjān.

Apart from trade, Persian words traveled in other ways as well. Conquerors proved to be excellent couriers. Alexander the Great, the Crusaders, the Mongols, and especially the British — who colonized India, where Persian was the court language of the Mughal emperors — all had a role to play.

"The British picked up Persian words that were common in India, and these words became popular in the West," says Dudney, who explores this transference in his book Delhi: Pages From A Forgotten History. "A lot of foods traditionally associated with India have a Persian connection. Biryani comes from Persian biryān, which means fried or roasted. And though garam masala is a spice mixture inescapably identified with Indian cooking, its name comes from Persian garm (hot) + masālih (spices, medicines)."

But culinary and linguistic influence is a two-way street, and Iran, too, has absorbed influences from other countries, such as rice from China.

Fruits and vegetables imported into Iran several centuries ago are still tagged with the word farangi (foreign) as a marker of their exotic provenance, points out Sina Negahban, a first-generation Iranian-American who blogs at The Unmanly Chef. So in Farsi "the tomato is still called gojeh farangi, meaning European plum; strawberries are tut farangi (European berry), and green peas are nukhud farangi (European pea)."

But more modern food imports, he says, are simply known by their original names, albeit with a Persianized twang. "So cutlet is kotlet, schnitzel shennycell, and macaroni is mākāruni."

Russia, Iran's almost-neighbor and on-off ally, has had a distinctive influence.

"In Iran the word for sausage is kalbas from the Russian kolbasa," says Negahban, "and the traditional mayonnaise Russian Olivier Salad is a national favorite in Iran and is called Salad Olivieh." Interestingly, it was a Belgian chef, Lucien Olivier, who made this salad at a Moscow restaurant — another example of the layered origins of food.

But the kiwi fruit is plain old kiwi. "This is a good thing," Negahban says with a grin. "Because when it first appeared in the bazaars, it was called tukhm-e-goril, or gorilla testicles. Luckily, as far as I know, no one calls it that anymore."

Despite the decades-old ban on U.S. food chains and hard-line sloganeering against the "Great Satan," American fast foods are enormously popular in Iran.

"All you need to do is ask for a 'sundivich', a 'peetZah' or 'hambaregare,' " says Negahban. "And if you want Kentucky Fried Chicken, look for Kabooki Fried Chicken. In 1973, Colonel Sanders and his wife came to Iran to open the first KFC. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the franchise ended, so the name was quickly changed to Kabooki Fried Chicken."

You can also find Mash Donald's, Burger House, and Pizza Hat: names that are a legacy of a bitter economic detente between the U.S. and Iran, but also a cheeky testimony to the borderless appeal of food.

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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