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Food in the 'Hood

The Princely Pistachio

Young couples, the story goes, strolled through pistachio gardens in Persia and stood under a tree in the moonlight, hoping to hear the nut’s shell crack open. This was an auspicious sign, a promise of future happiness. The distinctive split-open shell of the pistachios suggested a laughing (khandan) face to the poetic Persians.

When the tree’s nuts are ripe, the shells open to reveal a rosy skin covering a pale green seed. This is the consummation of what can be a four- to five-year period from first planting to fruiting. Reproduction requires careful orchestration. A single male must be strategically located in order to pollinate six female nut-bearing trees. The nuts grow in grape-like clusters on the branches.

The pistachio, a bushy evergreen with fragrant leaves, flourished in the dry, barren terrain of Iran, Turkey, and neighboring lands. Long, hot, dry summers and cold winters suited the ancient tree, which today adapts to a similar climate in the Central Valley of California.

The member of a curious family, the pistachio’s kin include the cashew, mango, poison ivy, and poison oak. One variety of pistachio, the turpentine tree, was tapped for this resin. Interestingly enough, the fruit of unripe mango and these wild pistachios both emit a turpentiney aroma.

The terebinth, or turpentine tree, was coveted by the nomadic tribes of Northern Afghanistan and Iran. They were fond of its aromatic oils and often sought refuge under its spreading branches. They also buried their dead in its shade.

Persia’s young warriors, the scholar Berthold Laufer relates, were trained to survive in the wild on acorns, pears, and terebinth nuts. The soldiers acquired a fearsome reputation. “Woe how brave are these pistachio eating Persians,” the King of the Medes was supposed to have said from his throne after his forces had been vanquished by the Persians. Persian kings treasured the pistachio, whose oils were presented daily to the royals.

The history of the pistachio is steeped in myth and legend. The sons of Jacob, according to the book of Genesis, carried the nuts to Egypt as gifts for their brother, David. Jacob tells them, “Take in your luggage, as a gift for the man, some of the produce for which our country is famous: a little balsam, a little honey, . . .  myrrh, pistachio nuts.”

The pistachio was a fabled aphrodisiac. The Queen of Sheba, according to legend, commanded that all of her country’s pistachios be reserved for her and her retainers.

Pistachios, archaeologists say, were growing wild in the Near East as early as 7000 B.C. The pistachio tradition runs deepest in Iran, where the nuts grow prolifically and where families greet friends and visitors with bowls of them. Our name for the nut comes from the Persian pesteh, their word for both pistachio and nut.

One of the country’s largest sources of foreign exchange today, the pistachio had long been a profitable article of Persian commerce. Caravans carried them along the Silk Road to China where they were known as the “hazelnut of the Westerners.” They could “cure catarrh of the bowels, remove cold feeling, and make people stout and robust,” one Chinese commentator said.

The Persians domesticated the ancestors of today’s familiar nut-bearing trees. Pistachios were a feature of the luxurious cooking style that blossomed in the Persian court. An expensive good, they ornamented pilafs, enriched sweets, and infused sauces. These extravagant dishes marked dinner parties, weddings, ceremonies, and other festive occasions.

The Arabs, who conquered Persia in 620 A.D, transplanted the regal cuisine of the Iranians throughout their empire. In Baghdad, their capital between the 9th and the 13th centuries, the Caliph’s cooks prepared lavish dishes that imitated Persian specialties. Pistachios, almonds, and walnuts were slivered, crushed, and powdered to add flavor and panache to myriad sweets. The Arabs avidly appropriated sugar, which the Persians had been cultivating a hundred years before their defeat by the invaders. Sweets and nuts became inseparable in their culinary repertoire.

An ordinary standard of the Middle Eastern menu to us, the pistachio-studded baklava has a royal flair in the Arab world. George Rababy, the Lebanese businessman who founded the King of Falafel eatery, is proud of his pistachio desserts. Others may stint on ingredients for baklava, but not this shop. “If they want to save money, they use walnuts,” George said. In Beirut, “first class patisseries do it [baklava] with pistachios.”

Pistachios also glorified meat dishes. A Baghdad recipe book instructed: “Take a tinned copper dish, and spray with a little rose water. Spread a thin cake therein, and cover with newly gathered dates. Sprinkle with fine-ground pistachios and almonds . . . to form a layer. Add another layer of dates, and so continue until the dish is half-filled, making the top layer of almonds and pistachios. Cover with a thin cake. Hang over a fat chicken stuffed with sugar, almonds and pistachio kneaded with scented rose-water, and smeared with saffron inside and out.”

Foods in the Persian mold later migrated to the Indian subcontinent. The Moghuls, the Turkic-speaking tribes from the steppes of Central Asia who overran North India and ruled the region from 1526 to 1858, introduced exotic flavors absorbed from the Persians. Babar, the first Moghul emperor, recruited gardeners from Persia and Afghanistan to grow pistachios, almonds, and walnuts in India. Jahangir, another king, revered the pistachio, which he called “the nut of paradise,” and believed in its aphrodisiac powers. Chickens prepared for Emperor Akbar’s banquets were fed pistachio nuts for six to eight weeks beforehand.

The imperial kitchens produced nutty confections reminiscent of the Persian originals. Kheer, a creamy rice pudding familiar to Indian restaurant diners, is incomplete without crushed or ground pistachios.

In the United States, ethnic businessmen pioneered the early American pistachio trade. Syrian immigrant Joseph Zaloom, who arrived at the turn of the 20th century, started vending his country’s renowned nuts in Brooklyn. More salesmen entered the market and soon the pistachio was dyed red to make it more attractive to consumers and to hide any flaws or blemishes on the shells. Sold in vending machines in the 1930s, the nut had been stripped of much of its Oriental glory.

Commercial pistachio farming in California did not take off until 1976, although the seeds had been transported from Iran more than 40 years earlier. William Whitehouse, a USDA agronomist, had scoured the land searching for the best variety. He gathered 20 pounds from the Persian city of Kerman and carried them home in a burlap bag. Seeds from Kerman were the foundation of California’s pistachio industry.

The more common pistachios have become, the more we take them for granted. Search out one of Persia’s famous ice creams, which are studded with pistachios and infused with flavors like cardamom, saffron, and rosewater, and experience a taste that is exquisite, unique, regal.<ENDMARK>

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Pistachio Pleasures

George’s Townhouse – King of Falafel (1205 28th St., NW; tel., 342-2278). Try their pistachio-rich baklava and their ma’amoul, a pistachio-filled cookie popular at Orthodox Easter celebrations.

Larry’s Ice Cream (1233 Conn. Ave., NW; tel., 234-2690). This shop offers baklava and their special pistachio ice cream made with pistachios from Turkey, the birthplace of the owner.

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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