Persepolis is the latest publication by Sally Butcher (of identically named café fame), another outlandishly delicious tale in the ongoing colourful story that represents her life, shop, café, and culinary genius.
Sally's ideas are always refreshing in a world of food that is a flooding tide of the same rehashed dishes over and over, again and again. A glance at the Persepolis café menu, devoid of avocado toast and chia pudding, illustrates my point. But then again even if that most ubiquitous of hipster coffee shop snacks – #avotoast – went on the menu, I am confident Sally would a) make it interesting and b) decrease pretentiousness 100% by adding fritos on top.
The wholly vegetarian (and mostly vegan) book is divided into ten food-filled chapters (11 if you count the intro), each packed with recipes referencing the author's extensive experience with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine (and then some). The book begins with bread (as most things in life should), and from the first pages I realised I would be in for a long 24 hours. Indeed, I read the book cover to cover in 12 hours and prepared 7 recipes the next day.
The Armenian 'sourdough' bread (matnakash) calls for butter and super-thick plain yoghurt, so I immediately went off-piste to attempt a vegan version. In place of butter, Vitalite, and to substitute dairy yoghurt I emptied the rest of a carton of Alpro's new vegan alternative to strained yogurt. The recipe worked in that it made bread, but it varied considerably from what the internet says matnakash should look like. No matter, because it tasted fabulous and only lasted four seconds anyway.
One of the secret ingredients in the secret-spiced chips is golpar, an aromatic Persian spice that is rumoured to help in the alleviation of flatulence. I have mixed feelings about that because I enjoy both the pungency of the seasoning and the hilarious awkwardness of farting in equal measure. Life is about choices though, and in this instance I choose potatoes.
A few of my favourite plates served up at the café have made it into Persepolis, including the ful medames with vegan eggy bread and the Moroccan-inspired dodo. The latter combines semi-sweet fried plantains with fragrant, spicy harissa and scrambled eggs. In the café this dish can be put together with tofu (if you ask nicely), but without any to hand I used VeganEgg with perfectly acceptable results.
Like Harissa, Marmite has the power to transform food from good to otherworldly. And speaking of that moorish spread, the Persepolis cookbook cannot, should not, must not, be reviewed or mentioned or even whispered about without mention of its Marmite houmous recipe.
I realised the power of pairing sesame with yeast extracts when a friend once presented me a snack of toast spread with tahina and New Zealand Marmite (it's true, there is a difference). Unsurprisingly these ingredients similarly partner naturally in houmous. P.S. let it be said here first: 2017 will be the year of revolutionary houmous combinations; Sally is just getting ahead of the game. Also, "Surprise Houmous Adventure" would be a spectacular name for a cat. Dibs.
In the headnote introducing the recipe for broccoli and tahina soup, Sally notes that this is one of the most popular soups she's ever served in the café. Tahina probably deserves much of the credit for such success, or in her words, "add it to pretty much anything and your day will almost certainly get a little bit better." I suspect, however, that the addition of the chunky Egyptian nut, spice, and seed condiment that is Dukkah is also partly responsible. Whatever it is, a bowl of this creamy, nutty, green potage is just what the doctor ordered on a cold day in any month of the year because, after all, this is England.
Khoresht-e-gheimeh sibzamini is a warming tomato and split pea based Iranian stew with chips. WITH CHIPS! Normally a dish that would include lamb, it's clear from this modified chip stew recipe that meat is inessential addition. There's a lot going on here: bright, lingering acidity from the dried lime, earthiness from turmeric, and a texture that screams comfort by virtue of chips and beans together in one pot.
Other recipes I have made but didn't photograph:
- Somalian greens with peanuts and coffee, which is every bit as special as it sounds and worth the price of the book alone.
- Spinach and almond pie is a casserole with both pastry and pasta, a lasagna pie. It's an all vegan recipe with homemade almond cheese that, for the record, pairs incredibly with a pinot gris from Alsace.
- Vegan aubergine and cardamom ice cream, a velvety coconut based talking piece that for once makes coconut ice cream worth trying.
I struggle to find the right words to describe the comfort and warmth that even the thought of Sally's food and that little corner shop café brings. It was one of the few public places I could find joy in visiting during a particularly difficult time. It's still where I go back to in my head whenever I feel both hungry and emotionally spent. I fought myself to not beg for a sleepover this week because what is actually wrong with this world.
In all efforts to avoid gushing further, I'll end with this: if you want a cookbook full of inventive and varied vegetarian dishes that aren't too faffy and will end deliciously, that are the definition of comfort food, then get yourself a copy of Persepolis: Vegetarian Recipes from Peckham, Persia and Beyond ASAP.