Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Brunei Town

Warm, tangy and filled with Persian flavours

G Daniela Galarza

THE WASHINGTON POST – In 1983, a restaurant named Reza’s opened on the corner of Berwyn Avenue and Clark Street in Chicago’s Andersonville neighbourhood. Marked by a simple sign and glass-fronted doors, it was small, with barely enough room for six tables.

But it quickly became a hub for Iranian immigrants in the Windy City.

The Iranians who gathered there were looking, more or less, for the same things: Community and Persian flavours – floral, saffron-scented basmati rice, creamy soups, thick stews and tender, braised meats. These were the tense, unsettling years following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Iran hostage crisis.

My mother and aunt, who were born in Iran but settled in Chicago after the revolution, found Reza’s in its early days. It quickly became a home away from home for them and the families they established in Chicago.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that I grew up within the Chicago common brick walls of Reza’s dining room. In the mid-1980s, the restaurant expanded from its original cramped footprint to an expansive set of rooms, eventually with a capacity to seat 200 guests or more.

This might be hard to believe, but I was a picky eater as a kid. My mother tells me that when I was five or six, I wanted to eat nothing except the appetiser that Reza’s served free with every entree order: A chunky lentil soup with a tomato base, thick with rice and finished with lemon juice and lots of chopped parsley.

After we ordered our main courses – long skewers of grilled meat or chicken, lamb shanks braised with onions and tomatoes, fesenjan or ghormeh sabzi – the servers would parade out of the kitchen with bowls of the soup, baskets of warm pita, and plates of feta and herb sprigs (naan-o paneer-o sabzi). It’s rare for a formal Iranian meal to exclude this combination of warm bread, cheese and herbs. But Reza’s added the soup.

I had my own little ritual around it. I’d crumble bits of feta and bread into it, letting the cheese almost poach into creamy dumplings in the hot soup, while the bread thickened it into a porridge. When family members pushed their soup bowls away, to save room for their main courses, I asked for their uneaten bowls.

At one point my mom asked the manager at Reza’s if they’d share the recipe, but they always refused, saying it belonged to Reza’s mother, and was a family secret.

As an adult, I’ve re-created it from taste memory. It’s a bowl of tangy warmth, with soft lentils and rice suspended in a ruddy broth flavoured with onions, cumin, cinnamon and parsley. For the full experience, serve it with warm pita, feta and fresh herbs to nibble on between spoonfuls.

Active time: 20 minutes | Total time: 50 minutes
Four to six servings (Makes about seven cups of soup)
Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to four days.

– Three tablespoons ghee or olive oil
– One medium yellow onion, diced
– Three quarters green or brown lentils
– Half cup uncooked basmati rice
– One can tomato paste
– One teaspoon ground cumin
– One teaspoon dried mint leaves (optional)
– Half teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
– Quarter teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
– Quarter teaspoon ground cinnamon
– Six cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth, divided
– Half bunch fresh parsley, preferably curly, leaves and tender stems, finely chopped and divided, plus more for serving
– Quarter cup fresh lemon juice (from two large lemons), plus more to taste
– Fresh herbs, such as parsley, scallions, tarragon, dill, for serving, as desired (optional)
– Six ounces feta, for serving (optional)

In a large Dutch oven or pot with a lid, heat the ghee or oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the onion, and stir occasionally until it starts to brown, about five minutes.

Stir in the lentils and rice, coating them in the fat. Add the tomato paste, cumin, dried mint, if using, salt, pepper and cinnamon. Add about two cups of the stock, and stir to dissolve the tomato paste and evenly disperse the spices. Add the remaining stock, stir well, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium-low, stir, cover and simmer until the rice and lentil are cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes. (If soup thickens more than you’d like, add water, quarter cup at a time.) Taste, and adjust the seasonings, if needed.

Stir in about three-quarters of the parsley and remove from the heat. Just before serving, stir in the lemon juice. Divide the soup among bowls, top with the remaining parsley and serve hot.