Do you ever think about moats?
As a kid, I spent a lot of time drawing castles and sieges on castles and one of the first things that went in was a moat. It might not stop a dragon or an anachronistic fighter jet sent from the future, but it kept marauding knights at bay.
The parking lot outside of Travel By Taste reminds me of a moat. It might scare off a few people, but my stomach is a dragon and it will not be denied delicious Persian food. Venture past the potholes, brave knights, because there’s treasure ahead.
I am not Persian. I’m not really from any place in particular, actually, which is why I generally need guides when I’m doing a deep dive on a new kind of cuisine. Or maybe a squire? I don’t know how far you guys want to take this metaphor, but I enlisted the help of Scotty Irani from In The Kitchen With Scotty.
(Looking for a personal chef, awesome recipes, locally made spice blends and sauces? Visit inthekitchenwithscotty.com. He didn’t ask me to put this here, btw, but I did anyway because Scotty is awesome and I think you’ll dig his stuff.)
Scotty is Persian and he said the best place for an education in Persian food is at Travel By Taste. What followed was one of the best meals of my life.
Food doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I mean...wait. Food can exist in a vacuum, if you’re sealing it up with a vacuum sealer or, I don’t know, if you’re vacuuming up the Cheerios your toddler threw on the floor.
But the concept of food, of cuisine, it does not adhere to the borders we imagine between countries. Persian food is not confined to Iran, nor are recipes and concepts barred from entering into the country.
Ideas are like that. They tend to go everywhere, like stripper glitter. And no matter how many showers you take, there’s always going to be some idea stuck in your hair.
So some of these dishes will sound familiar to foods you’ve had elsewhere. The name’s different. The ingredients might be different. I guess you’ll just have to taste them for yourself to be sure, huh?
What I can tell you is that Travel By Taste did the best version of most of these foods I’ve ever had. Take the chelo kabob ($12.99) for instance. Actually, don’t take it. Order your own. This one’s mine.
Chelo kabob means, literally, kabob with rice pilaf. Oh, and what a rice pilaf. I spied actual threads of saffron, which is crazy expensive stuff, but it adds such an amazing, perfumed flavor to everything.
The kabob here is probably better known to Mediterranean foodies as koobideh kabob — a blend of spiced ground meat gently packed onto a skewer and grilled.
“Gently” is a key word here. Meat that is overworked gets tough and dry. It doesn’t matter how delicious the seasoning blend, if your meat is dry and chewy, it’s not going to be good.
That’s not a problem at Travel By Taste. The kabob is fork tender and melts on the tongue. Cut through it and you’ll see a delicate web of protein that is just barely holding together, as if it is shaped as much by hopes and dreams as it is by physical bonds.
That same magic is applied to the lamb shank (market price). The owner told me Oklahoma City’s beloved Kiwi, Steven Adams, partakes in two at a time. And there’s maybe no image that brings me more joy than imagining the smiling, bearded face of the Thunder from Down Under two-fisting braised lamb legs.
Lamb, like goat, pork and beef, is just another red meat, which means it has a lot in common with flavors you’re already comfortable with. The lamb shank is a big hunk of ultra tender, silky meat barely hanging onto the bone. Gently nudge it with a fork, as if to say, “Hey, get a load of this lamb” and it will give up the pretense of stability quickly.
Braising makes it tender and bathes the meat in subtle spices that compliment its mild flavor and natural fattiness. This dish is the very definition of succulent. Well, one of them. It’s not a plant.
Lamb shank is also how Scotty taught me about the Persian custom of “taarof,” which is where you offer someone something they want and they demur, not because they don’t want it, but because of the custom. Then you ask again and they say, “Oh, no, I couldn’t.” Then you ask a third time and they give in and say something like, “Well, if you insist.”
What I like about taarof is that it forces you to think about what other people want. As someone who selfishly eats all the food, it’s a good reminder to share.
Do not let the lamb braising liquid go to waste. It’s chock full of flavor. I’m not sure if it’s on the menu, but baghali polo came to the table and I think everyone should order it if it’s available. Baghali polo is Persian dill and lima bean rice and it’s great at soaking up all those juices. (It’s also wonderful all on its own and has single-handedly made me rethink my lifelong aversion to lima beans.)
Scotty explained that “sabzi” means “greens” in Persian. So think of spinach or collards or mustard greens and herbs.
Ghormeh sabzi ($11.99) is beef stewed with greens and herbs and
This is everything. The beef is tender like the pot roast you’ve only had described to you by food writers. The greens are soft and sweet, with none of the bitterness you might expect. Served over rice, this stew is incredibly satisfying and savory. It’ll fill you up with everything but regret. There won’t be any room for it.
For dessert, we had this kind of crispy funnel cake-style dish called zulubia that is fried and dipped in syrup. It’s intense and very sweet.
But it was hard to concentrate on that for long when the bastani irani showed up. It’s a traditional Persian ice cream of pistachios, saffron and rosewater. I’d had an Indian version of the dish at my beloved Fusion Kitchen, but this was a much creamier, custardy version. If you have a chance to eat this, do not hold back. Rosewater and saffron may seem strange for dessert, but this is a truly intoxicating dish.
If you fear spice because of the burn, Persian food is just what you need. It’s got a ton of flavor — layers and layers of flavor — but there’s no heat to it. Travel By Taste has won many fans across the metro (including a few members of the OKC Thunder), but they deserve many more. Check them out and I promise you’ll have a new favorite lunch and dinner spot, too.