May 21, 2014 10:35:14 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
"It all started with a book, when I was a little kid," explained Diane Howton Asadi, who grew up in Caledonia. The book was filled from cover to cover with mesmerizing photographs depicting cultures around the world. The images captured Diane's imagination, but none moreso than those from Western Asia and the Middle East.
"I spent a lot of my elementary and younger years looking at that book ... It's really always been my dream to live with a Beduoin tribe. They live in tents, move from place to place -- I love that idea. Yes, that book had a profound impact," she said.
So, it has been no surprise to Diane that she grew up to marry into a Persian family, run a Mediterranean-cuisine restaurant for several years or wind up teaching a unique cooking class for Mississippi University for Women's Life Enrichment Program -- Foods of the Bible. The last was a natural extension of her in-depth research and preparation of foods for First Baptist Church's interactive Bethlehem village, a Christmas tradition in Columbus.
Twelve venturesome participants -- 11 women, one man -- took the LEP course that met on the MUW campus this spring and culminated with a feast held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church Parish Hall earlier this month.
"The emphasis was on Persian foods because I learned all that from my mother-in-law when she was alive," said Asadi. The majority of recipes harkened back to ancient times. Many of the spices and ingredients were unfamiliar to the group that used a 500-year-old recipe for bamiyah (okra) and learned about dried lemons, borani (a creamy yogurt-based appetizer or side), basmati rice, and haleem (a wheat and meat Persian breakfast dish), among other foods.
"And we made our own za'atar, a spice blend traditionally put on fish as a seasoning or on flatbread, with olive oil," said the Biblical food historian. "We used it on talapia."
The mother of three cooks Persian foods frequently for her own family; her repertoire of recipes is extensive. Narrowing down which ones to use for the group was dictated largely by time and space limitations, and the curiosity of the participants.
"These people were very adventurous!" Asadi said. "You wouldn't believe some of the things they wanted to make."
Daisy Inge of Columbus was in the group.
"I'm just interested in lots of things, and when I saw that class being offered I thought it was the perfect thing," she said, noting the wide variety of new flavors she encountered during the course. Inge has been taking LEP classes since 2010; Foods of the Bible rates at the top of her list.
A side of humor
Asadi began each class with a scripture related to the food for that week's session. "Then I would show them what to do, and they would interactively make it, and then we'd eat it right there in class," she said, adding that the fresh whole foods she used are big on health benefits.
Along with cooking tips, participants got their share of amusing stories from the Asadi kitchen. "I told them about how once we were cooking this cow tongue and an electrician (working at the house) asked what was cooking that smelled so good; I told him to look in the pan," smiled the instructor. One look was all it took; the electrician didn't ask again.
Yes, the class tried cow tongue.
"All the recipes she showed us were very, very unusual, but I think the most unusual was the cow tongue," said Lewise Jackson of West Point. "She told us it would taste just like roast beef, and it did."
For the rarer spices and ingredients necessary to develop the full flavor of her dishes, Asadi shops at Shahrzad in Atlanta, or at an Arab supermarket in Birmingham. "When I first got to Shahrzad I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," she remarked.
For participants like Jackson, the enlightening course opened new culinary doors.
"I really didn't want to leave at the end of class," said Jackson. "I hope she'll do it again; I would definitely be signing up."
Editor's note: Visit muw.edu.lep to read about summer courses offered June 2-27, or call 662-329-7150. Direct email to Janie Shields, [email protected]
1 to 2 packages chopped spinach, drained
Salt and pepper
Dash of garlic powder, for taste
1 tub plain Greek yogurt
1 to 2 cloves garlic, grated
1 teaspoon chopped mint
1 to 2 yellow onions, sliced thin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 pat butter
MAST-O-KIAR PERSIAN YOGURT AND CUCUMBER DIP
2 English cucumbers, peeled, cubed
1 tub plain Greek yogurt
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh mint, finely chopped
Pinch of salt
1 small package chopped walnuts
1/2 cup white raisins
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.