Origins with Sabrina Ghayour

Forever encouraged to 'try everything' by her mum, who 'made food an adventure', it was in the kitchen of her great-aunt that Sabrina always found the best Persian flavours. At the age of 11, inspired by the cooking of Ken Hom and Madhur Jaffrey, she took over the home kitchen and started her journey to rediscovering, recreating and reinventing the flavours of her native culture. As the Iranian-born best-selling author of Persiana prepares to launch her new book Simply: Easy Everyday Dishes, she talks about the people, ingredients and dishes that have shaped her culinary life.

Origins with Sabrina Ghayour Photo


There are about 15 million different ways to make rice in Persian cuisine. Even though it often got lost in my grandmother’s hatred of cooking, a lot of what she made stays with me: three or four khoresh [stews] and a lot of rice dishes. Two of them were sour cherry rice studded with tiny meatballs, and broad bean and dill rice with lamb shanks – the rice was always at the fore.

Dried Lime

The bean, dill and lamb rice is probably my favourite. It features saffron and we double pod all the beans, which is a real labour of love. Dried limes are an important ingredient in Persian cuisine, especially in the khoresh. For this kind of stew, the holy grail is lamb, dried lime, herbs and kidney beans, but I’d never write it in a book, because wars would break out. It depends on where you’re from, but every Iranian will tell you their way is ‘how it should be’.


Persians go crazy for sour tastes. Barberries are these little sour berries – sweeten them and the flavours make for a wonderful marriage. Traditionally, you fry them and fold them into rice – barberry rice with saffron chicken is a staple – but I’ve been trying to use them in lots of different ways rather than just the traditional two. I made a barberry fool the other day and it turned out absolutely amazing.


There aren’t many ingredients you can say are definitely Persian but saffron is Persian – and don't let the Spanish tell you different. Ninety two per cent of it is cultivated in Iran. In ancient Persia they would have pyramids of orange rice on massive trays carried by ten people – it was considered very special to be served this 'orange gold'. It meant gravitas, but every house, however humble, uses saffron. Open a cupboard and saffron falls out. It goes back to pre-refrigeration days, when meat was a bit whiffy, so saffron would make it aromatic.

Meat with fruit

Persians were pioneers in combining meat and fruit. What they did had an impact on dishes elsewhere, like the biryani. As well as using herbs, plenty of citrus and marinating everything, it's another key aspect of Persian cooking – bringing together meat and poultry with fruit and nuts and merging savoury and sweet.

Slow cooking

The secret to cooking Persian is to relax. It largely revolves around stews and, like every stew in the world, whether it’s a curry, Irish stew, hotpot or tagine, it's the same principle. Such basic flavour profiles. And, as with how the Greeks and Jews do it, it’s never raw meat, everything is cooked low and slow, never in a rush. Just relax and let the pot do the work.

Grilled meat

Persians love going out to eat. We’re very sociable, and like the Turkish kebapçi, it’s all about the grilled meat. They have stews and rice in these restaurants, of course, but you don't go for that – it'd be like going to a fish and chip shop and ordering something with meat.

Persian shops

In my mid-20s I started teaching myself to cook Persian food. I realised everybody was getting old, nobody liked to cook, and I hated the idea of not having these stews again. I’d go to Persian shops in Olympia and camp out. I’d speak to the shopkeepers and ask them how they made things. Women would come in and I’d ask them, too. One would say one thing, then another would come in and argue about ingredients. They’d end up having a barney about whether or not a dish contained spinach.


I’ve never been back to Iran, but one of my biggest achievements has been learning about all these flavours while being a British kid growing up. Now, people are interested in my culture and Persian cooking and that’s the biggest thing for me.

Origins with Sabrina Ghayour Photo

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