FOR MAHIN KALANTARY, FOOD IS EVERYTHING
When Mahin Kalantary was growing up in Tehran, Iran, in the 1960s and 70s, there wasn’t much catering. If there was a wedding, the family cooked for all the guests. So, when Kalantary was fourteen and a relative got married, Kalantary pitched in. “Everyone was surprised that I was such a good helper,” she recalled.
Her family should not have been so surprised. Kalantary always loved cooking – and eating. “For me,” she said, “food is everything.” She learned traditional Persian recipes from her paternal grandmother Ozra and from her Aunt Zahra. The recipe she taught us – Zereshk Polo Ba Morgh is one they passed on to her.
Kalantary, now 58, came to Montreal in 1984, to join her husband Ebrahim, who was already living here. When she first arrived, she worked as a dental hygienist. Often, she brought homemade Persian food to her boss and colleagues. “They said, ‘Why don’t you open a restaurant?’”
“We call it Tahdig. Kids fight over it at birthday parties, but some people complain that it’s bad for their teeth,” said Kalantary. We also learned that pomegranate is a common ingredient in northern Iranian cuisine; hot peppers are a staple in the South. In Tehran, the country’s capital, both styles of cuisine are popular.
Kalantary has passed on her love of cooking to her eldest daughter Natasha, who came to say hi to us (Natasha had been my student at Marianopolis College) – and introduced us to her nine-month-old daughter Ariana. “I love to cook,” said Natasha, “for me, it’s traditional recipes passed on from my grandmother to my mother.”
In 1997, Kalantary took the advice of those colleagues in the dental office – she opened Quartier Perse, which has become a much-loved NDG restaurant. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kalantary kept cooking. “I bet my mom didn’t tell you that one day during the pandemic, she cooked for 60 people at the MUHC-Glen hospital site and sent the food to them,” said Natasha.
Zereshk Polo Ba Morgh
(Barberry Rice with Saffron Chicken)
2 cups of basmati rice, washed 3 times with lukewarm water.
2 chicken breasts, cut into thin slices
2 cups of barberry (zereshk), washed and drained
3 – 4 tbsp sugar
8 tbsp oil + 50g of butter
1 large onion skinned, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon salt for chicken
2 tablespoons of salt for basmati rice
1 teaspoon ground saffron dissolved in 6 tablespoons of hot water
In a hot pan, fry the onion with oil until transluscent. Lower heat and add the chicken. Let the chicken simmer in its own juices. Add salt and pepper. Sprinkle 2 tbsp of liquid saffron over the chicken
In a separate pan, heat 50 g of butter and 1 tbsp of oil over very low heat. Sauté the barberry for 3 minutes. Add the sugar slowly, stirring the barberries gently to avoid burning. You want it to caramelize. Add 2 tablespoons of liquid saffron.
Boil basmati rice in a generous amount of salted water for 5 to 7 minutes. Stir the rice gently; as soon as it’s almost cooked, strain the rice to remove excess water.
Pour 2 tbsp of oil and 1/4 cup water in a pot; add the strained rice. (You can also add sliced potatoes cut into thick rounds to the bottom of the pot to get golden potato crust callled tandig.) Cover the pot and cook on low heat for 30 to 45 min.
When rice is done, remove it from the heat and cool the pot with a damp kitchen towel. Serve rice and add barberries and chicken.
Serves four people.
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The Secret is in the Sauce! is sponsored by Canadian Heritage’s Official Languages Program.