Nightingales and Roses

… possibly the most romantic title for a cookery book I’ve come across and what a joy it is to read. Maryam Sinaiee won the Guild of Food Writers’  First Book Award this year and she deserved it. This is clearly a labour of love. I’m a pushover for Persian/Iranian dishes at the best of times and Maryam’s recipes are so enticing.

Nightingales and Roses (published by Head of Zeus) is split into seasons with dishes from the classical Persian cuisine as well as specialities from Iran’s various regions. Maryam tells us about her nation’s food culture, traditions of hospitality and eating etiquette and the book even comes with a handy pronunciation guide.

Maryam Sinaiee portrait by Jessica Griffiths

I rarely review cookbooks in spite of having a ridiculously large collection, chiefly because I’m better at cooking than I am at analysing why a book works, but if you share my love of Middle Eastern food I think you will enjoy Nightingales and Roses. It is the sort of book you read through saying ‘oh, I want to cook that …and that … and that.’

Maryam’s passion for the food of her homeland shines through in her words and in her own pictures (although the photos below aren’t hers). The recipes are clearly set out and accessible to the home cook.

I made her Mahi-ye Shekampor-e Jonubi (apologies to the Iranian community for the lack of the correct diacritical marks) or Southern-style Baked Fish, for friends at a recent lunch party and they loved it. I’m sharing the recipe here with permission. Like Maryam, I used seabass, but you can also make this with sea bream, red mullet or snapper. She uses the tamarind you need to soak and sieve but says you can substitute the ready-made paste. The amount you use depends on how concentrated your paste is.

This is such a good dish: the stuffing is addictively good but it doesn’t muddle the clean flavour of the fish.

Southern-style Baked Fish


2 medium sea bass, scaled

3/4 tsp sea salt flakes

5 tbsp oil

1 onion, chopped

60g (2oz) coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

A large spring of fenugreek. finely chopped (optional)

3-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1/4 tspn hot chilli powder (or more)

1/4 tspn ground black pepper

1/4 tspn ground coriander

3/4 tspn ground turmeric

2 tbsp barberries or pomegranate seeds

2 tbsp currants or chopped raisins (optional)

1-2 tbsp tamarind paste

1 tbsp plain (all-purpose) flour


Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4. Rinse the belly of the fish and pat dry with kitchen paper. Sprinkle the inside and the skin of the fish with 1/2 tspn of the salt and set aside,

Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a frying pan and cook the onions until golden. Add the coriander, fenugreek, garlic, chilli powder, black pepper, ground coriander and 1/2 tspn of the turmeric. Cook for five minutes on a low heat, until the mixture is fragrant and the garlic soft, then add the remaining salt, barberries and raisins and mix well. Add the tamarind and cook for two minutes. Remove a tablespoon to use as a garnish.

Cut six pieces of kitchen twine and lay three pieces on a lightly greased baking dish. Gently lay a fish on top, stuff the belly with half the mixture and tie the twine to hold it all together. Repeat with the other fish.

Mix the flour with the remaining 1/4 tspn turmeric and a pinch of salt. Lightly dust the fish with the flour mixture. Drizzle over the remaining oil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes, until the skin is golden. Baste with the oil from the bottom of the dish once or twice as they cook. Garnish with the reserved stuffing and serve.

Picture: Pete Evans

Maryam serves it with buttered chelo (steamed rice). Our feast instead included an orange-scented bulgar wheat pilaf, plus Sabrina Ghayour’s chicken with harissa and preserved lemons from Persiana and among a series of side dishes, Maryam’s tomato and cucumber Salad Shirazi. There weren’t many leftovers. 

9 thoughts on “Nightingales and Roses

  1. Oh! I have had a cookbook moratorium for the longest time and this ever-so romantic volume costs close to fifty dollars here but it has promptly gone atop my wish-list and I know my weaknesses ! Many believe Persian cooking to be the most elegant and stylish on offer world-wide . . . certainly the recipes I have on rotation make it a joy . . . thank you for the introduction which probably will leaf to a friendship !!

    • Glad you like it, Eha. This is one of my favourite books so far this year (and there’ve been a lot published). Maybe one, as Margaret says, to ask Father Christmas for. Or, if the price is too alarming down under, your local librarian? Lx

  2. I’ve only occasionally delved into Persian cooking, but it intrigues me, especially the profuse use of “exotic” herbs and other flavorings, so different from Italian cookery in that way. There’s a store not too far away that sells the most angelic Persian vanilla gelato, laced with rose water. Amazing stuff!

    Now I’m pretty sure fresh fenugreek will be nigh impossible to find around these parts. Any substitutes to recommend?

    • Thanks, Frank. It’s a lovely, subtle cuisine, I think. If you can’t find fresh fenugreek (I can’t unless I decide to grow my own) Maryam’s advice is to simply omit it. It’s only a sprig and when I made the fish the other day it didn’t suffer for the lack of it. All the best, Linda

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