I thought I wasn´t a pudding person. And I probably wasn´t. Until I tasted a life-changing chocolate, pomegranate and pistachio pavlova at a delectable Iranian restaurant, called Banibanoo. Forget those brittle, synthetically sweet friable toothpaste white meringues sold in Mercadona. Instead drift off to your wildest gastronomic dreams as you imagine sinking your teeth into a crispy shell of a fluffy pillow stuffed with gooey marshmallow-textured chocolate and rubicund fig quarters, oozing rosewater-scented cream adorned with sherbetty pomegranate seeds and crunchy pistachios.
This walnut-coloured concoction that reminds me of my erstwhile Latin teacher: hard on the outside and soft on the inside. When she was pleased with us she´d soften her hard-set jaw and draw a blue moon on the blackboard…signifying the once in a blue moon event of no homework. In her classes she used to buzz in around our desks in a terylene black skirt scrutinising our declensions.
On one occasion, aged 12, I decided her funereal attire needed a spot of decoration and decided to see how many white circle reinforcements, (remember those?…they were supposed to stop the holes ripping on your printouts in a ring binder file), I could stick on her hem as she was craning over my neighbour´s excrutiating rendition of Hannibal crossing the Alps. Unfortunately, my audacity and dexterity were not appreciated as the other girls’ sniggers gave me away and I bore the full brunt of the wrath of Miss Jewell when she realised the back of her entire skirt was embellished with tiny white donut rings, rather like those Polo mints actually. Personally, I thought I´d done her a bit of a favour in the trendsetting department but she wasn´t having any of it and I was duly sent to detention.
Anyway, there´s no pain in Banibanoo…just pure pleasure. And a very varied clientele. Everyone seated in eyeshot of the riotously coloured dishes piled high on the counter so that you can choose your dishes from real life as opposed to your phone screen.
Flamboyantly dressed, with ebony-rimmed eyes, Banafsheh Farhangmehr´s striking attire matches the mesmerising boldness of her culinary creations. I caught up with Bani, as she is known, to find out a little more behind this Iranian corner of Madrid.
Iranian food is all about slow cooking as there are lots of stews and very elaborate dishes. At Banibanoo they start cooking at 07:30 prompt in order to have the multitude of seasonal salads, meat and vegetables and rice dishes stacked up on view by 1 pm.
Bani´s earliest childhood memories are of her mother taking leftover stews to the neighbours. “Iranians want to spread the joy and share it”, she explains. “They lavish so much love and attention on each dish they know it´s going to be really delicious so each meal is savoured in company.”
After completing a Cordon Bleu course in London, Bani decided to open a restaurant in Madrid where she had been working in marketing for several years. Keen to capitalise on the novelty factor of Iranian food in Madrid, Banibanoo opened its doors in 2015 and is still very much a daytime affair. Breakfast is a popular phenomenon as tahini and date toasts or avocado and poached eggs in tomato sauce are devoured by a diverse Spanish and international clientele.
Other than the use of saffron I discover that there isn´t much similarity between Spanish and Iranian food as “we don’t tend to fry many dishes and our meals are more akin to a rolling feast than specific courses”, Bani explains.
Banibanoo is very much a mixture of authentic Iranian dishes as well as a place to champion fusion food. Bani likes to add an original twist to classic dishes.
At lunchtime diners are invited to choose 3 dishes from a sweeping list of options such as spicy grilled cauliflower with pumpkin seeds, broccoli and dates; chicken, almond, saffron rice with orange peel or baked aubergines with meat and pomegranate molasses for set price of €16.95. Ruby-red pomegranates, toasted nuts and rich caramel dates feature heavily and most of the rice dishes can be served without meat. The exotic range of flavours and textures make for a very exciting collage of flavours both for the eyes and the stomach.
Most of the combinations are not accidental as in Iran all dishes relate back to some science or medicinal qualities. “Pomegranate is cooling, whilst walnut is hot so you get an ayurvedic balance,” elaborates Bani.
I am amused to see “No Libanesa” pasted across Banibanoo´s extensive menu. “After 8 years I was fed up with the reviews on Trip Advisor saying mine was the Best Lebanese restaurant in Madrid.” Bani explains wrily.
Finally, I try to tempt the recipe for those tantalisingly exquisite chocolate pavlovas out of Bani. “We have a Russian chef”, she explains, “as they also eat pavlova in Russia and we add vinegar to the mix to get that chewy texture”. It all sounds very haphazard to me so I think I´ll be sticking to Bani´s moreish version for now.
Before I go I ask Bani how easy it is for an Iranian woman to fit into Madrid. She explains that the adjustment has been very easy as Iranians share a similar culture. “Even the layout of the streets in Madrid are similar to those in Tehran”, she says wistfully.
Keep an eye out for Bani´s next project as she´s contemplating opening an ice cream shop with Iranian flavours in Madrid´s Justicia barrio. Knowing my penchant for an authentic rosewater ice I will be first in line.