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.
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.
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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.