Queen of the Purim carnival? Why, Middle Eastern food, of course

Eggplant salad honors a royal vegetarian.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

The joyous festival of Purim, which begins Saturday night, commemorates the deliverance of the Jews of ancient Persia from danger. So why not celebrate with a menu that honors that?

Persian cooking has much in common with other Middle Eastern cuisines, but its flavor combinations are unique, with gentle spicing, lavish use of fresh herbs and desserts that are accented with cardamom, saffron and rosewater.

For a festive Purim dinner in the Persian style, serve an eggplant and tomato appetizer with fresh flatbread, a noodle and spinach soup with beans and three kinds of herbs, and a creamy almond rice pudding.

The Megillah — the scroll or Book of Esther, which recounts the story of Purim — sounds like a script out of Hollywood. Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, was looking for a new queen and had many beauties paraded in front of him. The winner was Esther, who was Jewish. After becoming queen, she helped to foil the evil designs of the king’s advisor, Haman, to kill the Jews, and thus saved her people. It is not surprising that for Purim, little Jewish girls often dress up as Queen Esther, the heroine of the holiday.

Tradition relates that Queen Esther became a vegetarian when she married the king because the food in the palace was not kosher. As a tribute to her vegetarian diet, many people incorporate garbanzo beans into the Purim dinner, and some make the holiday meal completely vegetarian.

Recipes: Broiled eggplant salad with sautéed onions, garlic and tomatoes; chickpea and noodle soup with Persian herbs, hamantaschen with poppyseed filling and creamy rice pudding with cardamom and almonds.

Most of the items on a Persian Purim menu could have been enjoyed by Queen Esther. The palace cooks in Susa, the city now in eastern Iran that was then the capital of Persia, might easily have prepared the appetizer of twice-cooked eggplant, a vegetable that originated in neighboring India. The eggplant is grilled whole, chopped and cooked with sauteed onions, garlic and turmeric. Their recipe would not have had the tomatoes now commonly included; obviously, this New World fruit wasn’t available in 5th century BC Persia. As an appetizer, the eggplant is good with fresh challah, pita or Persian bread.

The Persian love of herbs and greens is evident in the main course, a festive noodle and bean soup. For Purim, make the soup with Old World legumes that would have been available to the Jews of ancient Persia: lentils and garbanzo beans. Cook them with sauteed onions and garlic, and enhance the soup with spinach and with liberal amounts of fresh herbs: dill, cilantro and green onions.

At serving time, each portion is garnished with a spoonful of kashk, a flavorful Persian yogurt-like dairy product used to top soups, the way Americans add sour cream. Often labeled “whey,” kashk is salty and adds good flavor to vegetable soups. It’s widely available at Middle Eastern markets. Though some recommend sour cream as a substitute, because kashk has an intense flavor, I find that labneh or lebni, a flavorful kind of strained yogurt, works better if you can’t find the original.

Since the Purim dinner is a feast, it’s nice to have two desserts. The quintessential Purim treat is hamantaschen. This Yiddish word means “Haman’s pockets”; the name of these triangular filled cookies in Hebrew — oznei Haman — means “Haman’s ears.” They are served as a reminder of the triumph over Haman, whose name is also symbolically drowned out by the children using noisemakers during the synagogue recitation of the Purim story.

Israeli bakeries now offer hamantaschen with a variety of fillings, such as chocolate, halvah and even dulce de leche. For people who keep kosher, serving a meatless dinner such as this one means that the hamantaschen can be made with butter. To make these pastries pareve, use nondairy stick margarine in the dough and soy milk or almond milk in the filling.

Another favorite is a creamy rice pudding with almonds that gains an exotic accent from two popular Persian flavors: cardamom and rosewater. Chop the almonds fine enough so that you still feel their texture but there are no large pieces. For the best flavor, use freshly ground cardamom; you can grind it in a spice grinder. The rosewater adds a lovely flavor, but if you prefer, you can substitute vanilla. Some Persian rice puddings are made without sugar and are served with honey, jam or grape molasses for each person to add to taste.

Levy is the author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” and of “Feast From the Mideast.”