Sabrina Ghayour: ‘This is the biggest misconception about Persian food’
It’s absolutely no coincidence that Sabrina Ghayour’s latest cookbook is all about ease.
She wrote Persiana Everyday during some major life changes: she had just become a stepmother to two young boys, and the new family were thrust into lockdown as the pandemic began.
Writing her new cookbook, she says, was a very different experience. “I was previously unattached, not married, no kids, and then I wrote it with two stepsons whilst homeschooling. It was some kind of hell, but I think that’s why it became the ‘easy’ book.”
Having spent most of her life in London (she left Tehran during the Iranian revolution in 1979), the 45-year-old chef now lives in Yorkshire with her husband Stephen, and two stepsons Olly, nine (“a little Tasmanian devil”), and Connor, 13 (“a man of few words, but equally sneaky”).
While Ghayour admits it’s a “miracle” the book got written, she’s full of pride for her work – and is obviously relishing her new parental role. The everyday theme of the book might have come at a good time, but it’s a culmination of her changing style over the years.
When she wrote her first book, Persiana, in 2014, she says: “Nobody knew me – I was writing a book of recipes I really wanted to put out there, whereas now I think [of the recipes in her new book] this definitely doesn’t need that last sprinkle of whatever, or those nuts really didn’t make much of a difference, so I’ll leave them out.
“Simple, economical, flavourful” – are the three things Ghayour says she wants to deliver to people in her cooking. “So I’m constantly trying to strip back ingredients where I can, because it’s cheaper – and coinciding with what the heck is happening in the world, that’s not a bad thing.”
Ultimately, Ghayour has a sense of humour about her food – and she wants to take the pressure off everyone who tries her recipes. That’s why she focuses on “flexibility”, she says, as well as “giving people a sense of freedom and a sense of confidence, knowing that if they didn’t have extract of squirrel’s toenails or whatever, it’s fine. They can just use carrots – we’re all human.”
This is Ghayour’s sixth cookbook, and she regularly braves the steely critiques of her stepsons – but that doesn’t mean she’s completely fearless in the kitchen.
“Any person who tells you, ‘Oh, there’s no recipe I can’t do, doesn’t matter who’s it is’, and not have fear – is lying,” she says. Ghayour has even had Michelin-starred chefs try to make her recipes and they panic – just because “it’s a different discipline”.
She continues: “If you gave me your grandma’s apple cake recipe, of course I’m going to be bricking it, because I want to get it right, I want to do it justice, I’m not familiar with it … It isn’t my own domain of the way I cook.”
Ghayour remembers a time when she overcame this fear – by attacking it head on. “For the longest time, I was nervous of making English roast potatoes and roasts. This was in my early 20s, and I had a catering gig. I went to this random school, where everybody was pretty much English.
“I remember calling up one of my friends, and I was like, ‘How do I make roast potatoes?’ She was like, ‘Are you joking?’ Because they [her friends] all knew I could cook, and they couldn’t, basically. I was like, ‘No, I’m not joking. They just sprung it on me last minute, they want English roast potatoes’. She just talked me through it. I’d never done it before, but once you realise there’s a trick – hot oil, fluff them up and all of this kind of stuff, you’re like, ‘My God, this is so easy!’ And then you do it, and it becomes second nature to you.”
Well, almost everything Ghayour tries becomes second nature. “Choux pastry still stresses me out,” she admits. “I refuse to make it.”
But Persian food is her specialism and she’s spent much of her career giving the cuisine a bigger platform – but there are still plenty of misconceptions about it, she says.
“It’s nothing like Middle Eastern food,” Ghayour points out. “We don’t really class ourselves as Middle Eastern, and we don’t like to be labelled as Middle Eastern … They [Persians] just think of themselves as a whole separate tribe.
“And, in a way, I can understand that, because we were not impacted by Arab cuisine, we were not impacted or conquered by Ottoman cuisine and Empire … I can understand that sort of arrogance to protect what is truly Persian.
“We were responsible for selling many of our ingredients far and wide through the Silk Roads. The one thing I always want people to know – and they are shocked by it – is Persians don’t use spice. We harvest 92 per cent of the world’s saffron, and that’s it. There might be a pinch of cumin seeds in like one rice recipe, and there endeth our use of spices. Mindblowing, isn’t it?”
This is the real difference between Persian and Middle Eastern cuisines. Middle Eastern is packed full of bold, spiced flavours, but she says: “Persians only use herbs, citrus and tomato as a flavour base.” That’s why she calls it “a fantastic place to start” for new cooks, as Persian food is much simpler – according to Ghayour.
She even draws comparisons between Persian food and the delicacies of her home in Yorkshire. “We have this unfair labelling of the north of England, that it’s meat and potatoes” – but Persian food is similar and it isn’t necessarily a negative, she says. “That’s the great thing [with Persian food], it marries so well with traditional cultures, because we like our meat cooked all the way through, but we slow cook it – we like our stews, we like plain rice, whereas let’s say in England, it might be potato.
“So there are a lot of similarities, it’s only when you go to the Arab Middle East that things are vastly different. That’s the the thing I probably want people to know – if I could say something, I’d be like, ‘Hey, Persians are not big lovers of spice’.”
‘Persiana Everyday’ by Sabrina Ghayour (published by Aster, £26; photography by Kris Kirkham), available now.