Postcard from England: Persian Ash, An American's Favourite Soup

I've moved many times in my life, which has given me the gift of having friends spread around the globe. Nine years ago, when I got to know Marie, an American from rural Vermont, at university, I could never have predicted that I'd be sitting in her living room in September 2014, eating soup and sharing stories. Well, as we got along so well, I might have been able to predict that. However, I wouldn't have guessed that her living room would be in Sussex, England, thousands of miles from where we'd studied near the shore of Lake Ontario, and that the soup she'd share with me would be a Persian dish, ash-e-tarkhineh dugh, passed down through her Iranian mother-in-law.

When I approached Marie and her husband, Reza, about the possibility of featuring a Persian dish for the Historical Cooking Project, they suggested this soup not only because it's ancient -- the main ingredient, tarhana, is a lacto-fermented wheat eaten in Persia for centuries -- but also because it's not typically found in restaurants. Persian restaurants in Canada and the UK tend to serve ash-e-reshteh, another legume-packed soup which has long noodles rather than tarhana. Reza suggested that tarhana can be found in stores catering to Iranian, Greek or Cypriot communities, but I'd never tried this wheat, which comes in a hard cake and needs to be softened in water. 

Marie is now studying the Farsi language, but when she learned how to make this soup from her mother-in-law, Fatima -- "the first dish I learned how to cook in Iranian," she told me proudly -- Reza  stood alongside translating directions. Reza's parents now live in Iran's capital, Teheran, but are originally from western Iran, where their ancestors spoke Kurdish and where ash-e-tarkhineh dugh became a dietary staple. Each family makes this soup a little differently, and, according to this tradition, Marie has made the soup her own -- for instance, while her mother-in-law insists on green lentils, Marie uses whatever legumes she has on hand. On the day she made the soup for me, those were red lentils, which cooked while the tarhana soaked. The other ingredients were added, with extra water to cover, once the lentils had softened;  a healthy dose of tumeric, a couple of spoonfuls of fried onions, and dried chopped spinach from a big jar. 

While dried spinach is common in Iran, Marie mentioned that she often makes the soup with fresh spinach as well. She told me that she had needed to standardize measurements for the soup, but I caught her adding handfuls of the dried spinach to the soup. When it was finished cooking, she put a couple spoonfuls of dried mint in a small pan of vegetable oil, which she cooked over low heat until the aroma of mint filled our nostrils when we bent over the stove. This oil was then drizzled over the soup pot.

Reza came in the kitchen to smell the soup, and declared it "not sour enough," so a healthy squeeze of lemon juice went on top, as well. We moved out of the kitchen with our soup ladled into bowls. With the fermented wheat, the soup was indeed sour - but it was also quite nourishing and comforting, the sort of thing I'd want after getting over a flu or coming home after a long day. While the tarhana is fermented with yogurt or milk, making this dish unsuitable for vegans, I was surprised that therewere no other animal products in it, particularly as the menus of the Persian restaurants I've visited are heavily skewered towards kebabs and other meat-centric options. Reza explained that while vegetarianism "isn't done" in Iran, there are a variety of vegetarian options available in Persian cuisine. 
After soup, we enjoyed tea and sweets, as Persian custom dictates (although I'm not sure how many households in Iran enjoy a dessert of peanut butter M&Ms.) 

I am so glad to have had the chance to try ash-e-tarkhineh dugh, made by an American, for Sunday lunch in Sussex. Thanks to Marie and Reza for sharing their soup and stories with me!


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