At the risk of making another jealous, I took Bunny to the place she so zealously coveted for as long as she's known me (at least two weeks). I even waited for her I was feeling so down, and you may have noticed I did not even publish Now Eat This while she was out of town.
When we were finally together again, after such a long separation (a couple of days) we went to Ali Baba, which features Persian cuisine out on the Montgomery Highway, near the Galleria. Persian cuisine is a variant of what we know as Middle Eastern. It is similarly characterized by roast meats but with blends of fresh herbs and even fruits such as dried lime, either on kebabs or in stews. Still, for all the exotics, you will recognize many familiar influences, as Persia (now Iran) was an important part of the ebb and flow of Asia Minor, in concert and often confrontation with the Greeks. It was, in fact, a Persian invasion that gave us the Marathon race, as Phidippides fought in the battle on the eponymous plains, then ran to carry the news 26 miles back to Athens, where he gasped his last word: "Nike!" (Victory.) And then he died a hero and was always my idol.
But the Persians don't like to hear about that, or that scourge of Darius, Alexander the Great, either--or even the Spartans' immortal defeat, at Thermopylae, at the hands of the Persians, because the Greeks were betrayed--I think by a local country girl who showed a secret path to the whole Persian army around the mountain pass guarded by only 300 Spartans, who found themselves screwed, but fought to the last.
Bunny and I started with a Persian sampler which allowed us to pick four appetizers. Of course we had to go with hummus and baba ghanouj--I was trying to teach Bunny to spell it--and those are the staples, made of sesame paste with chickpeas and eggplant, respectively, of the regional cuisine.
While I was ordering, Bunny left to spend fifteen minutes in the washroom after shaking so many hands at the Ratliff's party and told me just to order for her, which is one reason I just adore her--I get to do what I want, which not everyone can put up with--just ask any latter day country girl--and Bunny likes it.
But what else did I get for her? It brings out my inner lion just to think of it. Oh, I remember, I passed on the Dolmeh, the stuffed grape leaves the waitress recommended, because though the tarragon, herbs, and spices sounded good, Bunny is not a fan of the ground beef inside it. (Aren't I considerate!)
So instead I selected Mast-o Khiar--which means yogurt and cucumber in Farsi, the language of Persia, and also contains the mint and spices I find so refreshing. And then I took a little gamble, risking repressed battle fatigue memories (what do they call it, some sort of delayed stress syndrome? maybe I can collect disability) and ordered the Mirza Ghasemi, an eggplant dip similar to baba ghanouj except it is made with garlic, onion, tomato, and egg.
Bunny did not want me to tear her bread for her, a flatbread called nan, same as in India (see Mughal cuisine ) except it came in a big fresh-baked oval with a braid around the edges, which is used for dipping in the sauce-like appetizers. So Bunny has a little handwashing neurosis, but that is not even a spot on her inner beauty in my mind--I take it as a sign of her purity of spirit. The country girl prepared me to receive it--I hardly know what to do with a beautiful woman who is not a compulsive liar and does not stir up trouble when there is not any handy just for the drama (but don't think I am damning Bunny with faint praise, because she does amaze me). And just when I thought maybe I should let down my usual wall of impervious nonchalance and try to impress her with my lion heart, of course that is exactly when I discovered I had dropped a few grains of Berberry rice on my sweater.
I tactfully excused myself to clean off the cashmere (which also hails from Iran), and when I came back Bunny had a little guilty look on her face. And the Mirza Ghasemi was gone! Bunny suddenly got over her onion allergy, apparently. I won't say how to protect her privacy. Now we know why this is such a popular dish from the Rasht province in northern Iran.
I first discovered all these delicacies myself while laying low in Iraq three hundred miles behind enemy lines. But in better times I did once share a meal with a general of the Iraqi Seventh Army on the Faw Peninsula south of Basra--where they were fighting the Iranians, descendants of the ancient Persians. With Bunny of course it was a lot more pleasant than that. Of course things are a lot more pleasant when no one is even trying to kill you--and as far as that goes it is just a toss-up between the Republican Guards and the country girl. Also Bunny was a lot more receptive than the Iraqi commander to my cute commentary on all the billboards with Saddam dressed up as a great teacher, a nuclear scientist or a bedouin, or a contemporary of Mohammed (and presumably a pal) and, was there any doubt, as Saladin leading the Arabs against the ancient Persians--but there I go failing to take things too seriously again and that's what got me such a stern berating from the country girl. I am trying to be a lot more careful with Bunny. I just hoped and prayed to God that no sesame paste dribbled down my chin because she seems a lot more open to having some fun.
In deference to Bunny's tastes I skipped the lamb and beef which offer great degustative possibilities, but still plenty of exotic alternatives remained in the poultry and seafood sections of the menu. We had the Abadanian Shrimp pan sauteed with capers, tomato and garlic in a delicate lemon-butter sauce. Bunny set that one squarely in front of her and I had to angle to spear a few morsels. I need say no more because she knows good food--whether she leaves any for me is another story.
Coincidentally, Abadan is a city in southern Iran, capital of Khuzestan, hard by the Faw Peninsula and the Shatt al Arab, which is where all the fuss started we know as the Iran-Iraq war, during which the population of Abadan literally dropped to zero. And, as you may know, that led to later hostilities in the area.
And while I was taking command of the situation I commandeered some Birds of the House, once assured I had Bunny's approval for the Cornish Hen (which she cooks herself, for family occasions) and a Manchester Farm Quail, which Ali Baba promised to grill to perfection.
Bunny is typically forgiving of my minor failings, but she did say the Cornish hen was not done to perfection, a little on the dry side, though still tasty. (But then, she is an expert.) Then there was the quail. It was moist and juicy, as if basted in yogurt (like Tandoori, and if you have followed Bunny's travels, you know Indian food is largely derived from Persian cuisine, brought to the subcontinent by Genghis Khan) and a little lemony. In fact, those people traded back and forth, because the rice that is the foundation of the Persian cooking is thought to have come originally from India. And Persians are in turn very particular about rice preparation, employing methods of re-steaming it to make it fluffy (Chelo), or scorching it on the bottom of the pot to make it crusty and golden (Tah-deeg) and then it is usually mixed with other foods (Polo). So everyone contributed something. They could all get trophies, the way they do in youth soccer today.
We downed our food with really good wine, Grand Châtelain, a deep and dark Malbec français. And there I went again with a history lesson about Lebanese influence on what the world now knows as Middle Eastern cuisine, including Persian, throughout the region (which is how I first discovered these delicacies on the muddy banks of the Euphrates). That history includes French dominance of the Levant culture due to a prior colonization which is why we have Chateau Musar wine from Lebanon today. Did you know the Lebanese still speak French (though maybe not the Druze militia)? Of course she just nodded her head. Bunny does not speak the language but she knows the nicest chateaux so if we go on the French garden tour I think that is an even trade for information. For only a modest corkage fee, the wine and all the discourse on it were free for just $7 at Ali Baba.
There were some dishes we missed like Shirazi Salad--and I forgot to mention to Bunny that Shiraz, a city in Persia/Iran, is believed to be the birthplace of wine, which is why the Australians have a funny Persian-sounding name for Syrah. Maybe Bunny will go back, with me I hope, and maybe I can even talk her into a Ghormeh Sabzi, a traditional stew of fresh cilantro, green onion, parsley, and fenugreek (see, I told you so) stewed with kidney beans, dried limes and chunks of lamb.
When we go back I will explain to Bunny that Persians are not Arabs, but Ali Baba was a character in Arabian literature (do the Forty Thieves ring a bell?), but she knows things can get a little mixed up when you introduce the Middle East to Alabama. Did you know that Sinbad the sailor is of Persian origin, though the earliest known texts are in Arabic? I'm sorry, Bunny is nodding again, and that's another long story.