Iranian-Style Crusty Baked Pasta with Beef Ragu (macaroni/makaroni)

If you ask any Iranian child about the foods that they love, “macaroni” will be one of the top five. What we call macaroni/makaroni is a comforting dish to many grown-ups too. But Iranian macaroni has no resemblance to Italian macaroni or the American macaroni-cheese. It’s usually a crusty cake with a crispy golden top to die for, layers of thick beef/lamb ragù and optional layers of cheese.

My son loved it as a child and still does but I hadn’t eaten any pasta of any sort until I was twelve. Italian-style pasta was commercially produced and sold in Iran only in the late 60s although it seems to have been introduced quite a few decades earlier. Many families, including mine, didn’t admit it to their pantry until many years later. A few decades fast forward and it’s hard to imagine life without pasta! Today most families will have macaroni on the table at least once a week.

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The beef/lamb ragù for makaroni needs to be quite thick so it doesn’t turn the noodles mushy.

Italian-style pasta noodles and shapes (all of which we call macaroni) became a staple ingredient in Iranian kitchens once Iranian cooks figured out how to tweak the Bolognese recipe to suit the Persian palette. Nowadays there are dozens of varieties of pasta shapes and many different recipes, including vegetarian ones, but the old-style macaroni with Bolognese is still a firm favourite with most families.

Very interestingly, several hundred years ago Iranians ate a lot of pasta. A cookbook from the Safavid period (15th-17 century) lists more than a dozen different pasta types including meat-filled dumplings quite similar to ravioli. Some of these had interesting names like “lover’s hair” and “bird’s tongue”. The dough for these dumplings, noodles and other pasta shapes was made with water and flour. No eggs.

Iranian-macaroni-recipe
You can use any spices that you like. I often add a bit of thyme or oregano and chilli powder to my ragù and use fresh sprigs of herbs to garnish the pasta cake. Sometimes I add some cheese between the layers of pasta and ragù too.

As rice became more available and affordable most of the very elaborate dishes that the incredible chef of the Safavid period described in his book were forgotten. A few of those dishes are still made and enjoyed in northwestern and eastern parts of the country as well as in neighbouring Central Asian countries, the Caucasus, Turkey and Afghanistan. 

Italian cooks will probably be outraged at the way we make our macaroni because we cook it in the same way as we cook rice. This means boiling the pasta, rinsing it, layering it with a ragù and then steaming it on low heat until a crust forms. I can understand their annoyance when people in other parts of the world “bastardise” their recipes. I’m constantly surprised by recipes called “Persian rice” or “Persian stew” in food magazines and books that have very little or no resemblance to what Iranians actually make and eat. But people enjoy these dishes, don’t they? As long as the eater is happy (and it’s made clear that it’s not an authentic recipe) I’ll be happy too.

Give this non-Italian macaroni recipe a try. It tastes pretty good and can become a firm favourite with children and maybe even you! The following amounts will serve 6-8 persons. Serve with chopped cucumbers folded in yoghurt or a lemony green salad such as my Herby, Garlicky, Lemony Romaine Lettuce Salad

Ingredients

  • 500g noodles (long macaroni, spaghetti, linguini)
  • 400g lean minced/ground beef
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 tbsp olive oil or rapeseed oil
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • ¼ cup tomato puree (not passata)

Instructions:

  1. Heat the oil in a frying pan and lightly brown the mince (lean beef, lamb or a mixture) and chopped onion. Add the garlic, salt, turmeric and pepper and cook for a few minutes until the garlic is soft and the mince is well browned. Add the tomato puree and cook for a couple of minutes. Pour in about 1 1/2 cups of boiling water and stir well. Cover and cook for 10 minutes or until the ragu is quite thick.
  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta according to the packet instructions or until it’s al dente. Drain in a colander and rinse well with lukewarm water to stop it from cooking any further and to remove some of the starch. 
  3. Add a glug of oil to a non-stick pot and heat on medium on the medium-sized burner of your cooker. Put 1/3 of the noodles in the pot, then add 1/3 of the sauce and repeat until all the pasta and sauce is used up. Wrap the lid of the pot in a clean tea towel and tightly cover the pan. Lower the heat as much as you can when the side of the pot sizzles when touched by a wet finger and let your macaroni steam for 30 minutes or until the noodles on the side of the pan are very lightly golden and there’s lots of steam. The time required for forming a nice crust depends on the size of your burner and the pot you are using so keep an eye on it.
  4. When you are ready to serve put a large plate on the pot and holding very tightly with both hands invert the macaroni onto the plate like a cake. Serve immediately. 

Persian Dried Fruit Compote (khooshab)

How about a very healthy and natural dessert/snack recipe that takes only minutes to put together? Did I hear yes? YES! Here we go then! This soaked dried fruit dessert recipe is really, really simple: You choose the dried fruit you like, you throw them in a bowl, you cover the fruit with water and leave it for twenty-four hours or even two days to soak and marinate and you enjoy a mouthwatering and refreshing raw compote. Doesn’t that sound good?

Khooshab is an old Persian word which means “nice water” because the dried fruit flavours the soaking water which is enjoyed with the fruits or on its own as a refreshing, energising, thirst-quenching drink. Khooshab can be made with any type of dried fruit or any mixture of dried fruits. Using sweet fruit such as figs, dried dates and raisins will sweeten the juices. But khooshab doesn’t always have to be sweet. A rather sour version with unsweetened dried sour cherries or dried sour plums, a pinch of salt and lots of ice is an Iranian favourite often sold by street vendors in summer.

There are two vast deserts in the heart of Iran. One of the hottest points on earth (gandom beryan) is in Lut desert in south-east Iran, yet the rest of the country has all sorts of climates. There are lush green fields, mountains and valleys, sometimes really close to the sand dunes of the desert, that produce enormous amounts of delicious fruit and nuts. Iran is actually among the top producers of pistachios, dates, walnuts, almonds, apricots, peaches, grapes, citrus fruit, melons and stone fruit in the world. It’s no wonder then that we use so much fresh and dried fruit as well as nuts in our cooking. Pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, plums, apricots and raisins are some of the most used fruits and nuts in Persian cooking.

khooshab-khoshaf-khushaf-recipe

Khooshab is known as khoshaf and khushaf in Levantine and North African countries. It’s a favourite dish prepared during the fasting month and is often served right after breaking the fast. Khoshaf/khushaf often includes nuts, too.

The khooshab in the pictures above includes apricots, figs, sweet prunes, raisins, cranberries and a few slivers of pistachio to add a touch of green for the pleasure of the eye. Other dried fruit such as peaches, apples, dates, cherries and blueberries will also work very nicely, on their own or as a mix.

How to Make: Put the dried fruits of your choice in a bowl and cover with water. Stir and drain to remove any trace of sand or dirt. Cover the fruits with boiling water. Let stand, covered with a lid or cling film, for a day or two. Add more water if all the water is absorbed but the fruits aren’t plump yet. You can also add a touch of sugar or other sweetener or any flavouring that you like. To serve put the fruits in a glass and pour the soaking water over them. Garnish with ground or slivered pistachios or other nuts or a sprig of mint. Chill and serve with long spoons. Enjoy!