Sally Butcher, the shop-keeper, proud Peckhamite and author of the award-winning ‘Persia in Peckham‘ has gone and written another fantastic cookery book, this time entirely vegetarian. There’s quite a trend for veggie recipe books at the moment (which seemed to surge when people started swooning over Ottolenghi) but I beg of you to consider chucking your money at something a little less mainstream. Go off the beaten track and take the first side road to Veggiestan.
Veggiestan is of course a fictional place, invented by Sally to reflect the position of vegetables in the Middle Eastern diet. Meat usually takes a back seat and is either optional or reserved entirely for special occasions. We could do with adopting this attitude a little more in the West, I say. I mean, some people still don’t think they’re having a meal unless it’s got meat in it. Now, this may come as a shock to my readers, but I don’t eat meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner; in reality it’s about once a week (or maybe twice, not including Meat Liquor visits or bacon sandwiches) that I cook those big hunks of pork, beef and lamb and increasingly I find myself eating more fish and vegetables. There is something rather vulgar, I think, about eating meat every day, not to mention the fact that is isn’t particularly sustainable or indeed terribly good for you.
Veggiestan is a visual carnival of a book; the cover bold and tactile, zig-zagged with fabric like fuzzy felts (remember them?) Bright patterns and photos are abundant throughout; presumably the budget shot up on the back of the first book’s success. The structure runs thus: bread and pastries; herbs and salads; dairy and eggs; soups, legumes and pulses; rice and grains; vegetables; recipes with fruit; sauces, pickles and preserves and of course, sweet things to finish.
I like to make at least 3 recipes from a book before I write about it. In fact, I started before it was even published as Sally asked me to test a recipe (yes she’s a friend - disclosure); this was how I found myself cooled by a silky, chilled yoghurt soup (above), a lifeline on a sticky summer evening. Hard to imagine eating it right now, I realise, but there’s a hot yoghurt soup recipe in the book too, for all your yoghurt soup needs. Yoghurt is one of the things Iranians are really into you see, as am I.
We see eye to eye on other ingredients too, herbs for example. Lots and lots of herbs. A plate of mixed fresh herbs (sabzi) are eaten like salad leaves at the beginning of a meal to stimulate the appetite; different herbs are believed to have various health-boosting properties. The Iranians also get right on down with mixing sweet and salty flavours, like the dates and feta in this salad (Salata Jamr wa Jubnat Feta) – one of my favourite recipes from the book. The textures are glorious too; squidgy dates against crisp fried chips of khobez flat bread.
I also loved this pomegranate salsa; sweet, ruby pops of pomegranate stud a ballsy salsa. I actually ate this with grilled meat but we’ll gloss swiftly over that.
Finally, more of a winter warmer: an Afghan carrot hotpot (Qorma-e-Zardak), which made me remember just how darn good carrots are when made the centre of a dish rather than an afterthought on the side ‘for a bit of colour’. The spicing is very well judged too, so the flavours remain distinct. I often think of lentils as something I eat when I’m skint but this felt like a treat on a cold Monday evening, especially with the hum of a scotch bonnet singing through (hello, Peckham influence) and a good hunk of fluffy bread for a bit of dippage.
One of the most impressive things about the book is the sheer amount of work that has gone into it; you’re drawn into the story of each dish as Sally delves into the etymology of recipe names and the anthropological background. She tries to tell me this is ‘purely the result of procrastination’ but whatever the motivation, the book is all the more richer for it.
There are still so many recipes I want to cook: fig jam with nibbed pistachios; Yemeni ‘fire relish’; Iranian aubergine pickle; baked stuffed quinces; pumpkin kibbeh. I think I’d better stop there. Some ingredients may be unfamiliar, but Sally makes them entirely accessible; her warmth, wit and complete down to Earth-ness are the key. This is exactly what Sally is like in real life by the way, but you don’t need to take my word for it – get yourself down to her shop. She’s the lady with the cheery “hello!” and the big red hair. Oh and ask her to sign the book while you’re there, it could be worth a few bob one day.
Afghan Carrot Hotpot (serves 4)
2 medium onions, chopped
oil, for frying
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 scotch bonnet chilli, finely chopped
1cm knob of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
Pinch ground cloves
600g baby carrots or the equivalent of grown up carrots, cut into wedges
300g yellow split peas
3 large tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Salt, to taste
2 tablespoons sour grape juice or 2 teaspoons vinegar
About 500ml veg stock (I found I needed a little more to cover mine but then I did have very beasty carrots)
Fry the onions in a littl eoil in the bottom of a big saucepan and add in the garlic, chilli and ginger. When the onions have started to soften, add in the spices, carrots and split peas, followed a couple of minutes later by the tomato paste and fresh tomato chunks. Add some salt, then either the vinegar or sour grape juice, and then just enough stock to cover all the ingredients. Bring to the boil and set to simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the carrots and peas are cooked through.
Serve over plain white rice or with bread and most definitely with yoghurt. I added a good handful of fresh mixed herbs too.
Sally also gives a recipe for a ‘Salaata’ which sounds like a very nice accompaniment:
3 small continental cucumbers (or half a regular one)
3-4 spring onions
Half a bunch of coriander, trimmed
Handful fresh mint, trimmed
1 small regular onion
2 small, hot green chillies (optional)
Juice 1-2 lemons
Just chop all the ingredients together – bigger than a salsa but much smaller than a regular chunk. Sprinkle with salt and drizzle with lemon then cover and pop in the fridge for about half an hour to let the flavours mingle.
Sally’s book is currently worth £25 but you can buy it for the frankly outrageous price of £15.54 on Amazon.
Sally also writes a Veggiestan blog, a Persepolis blog and does the occasional Persian pop-up at Anderson’s in Peckham. She also runs Persepolis, the shop, with her husband Jamshid. Phew!