Soups and ash

Soups and ash

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740668620
Photographer
Mark Roper

We leave tehran in the dim light of a new day, creeping through an endless sprawl of outer suburbs that are choked with traffic even at this hour. The road takes us north-west and after a while we begin to climb the scrubby slopes of the Alburz Mountains. Further north beyond their peaks, hidden in a series of deep folds and densely forested slopes, lies the fabled Valley of the Assassins. The Nizari or Hashhashins, to use the name given them by their enemies, were secretive mercenary members of an eleventh-century heretical Shia Ismaeli sect whose goal was to overthrow the newly arrived Sunni Seljuk rulers by a gradual and highly effective campaign of kidnap and murder. The Assassins’ war of terror lasted for nearly two hundred years, and their tiny fortified kingdom remained impregnable until the Mongols swept through the region in the thirteenth century, destroying everything and everybody in their path.

But our journey is taking us to the Caspian Sea, and as we pass over the mountains, the smog of the city and the dun dustiness of the Tehran plateau falls away and we cross into a very different world. Now the road winds steadily downward through craggy gorges and wooded ravines. We sink into shadow and when I wind down the car window and reach out my hand I feel a fine mist of cool rain – the first we have seen or felt for several weeks. As we drive on, the thin cloud seems to evaporate. The road twists around a bend and we enter a narrow valley filled with sunlight.

Eventually, we emerge into gently rolling hills of dazzling, eye-hurting green. ‘Rice,’ says Ali, as we hurtle along. This is the Caspian littoral, a narrow stretch of land that fringes the sea shore and is effectively cut off from the rest of Iran by the impenetrable ridge of the Alburz Mountains. Thus isolated, it has its own distinctive micro-climate that is leafy, fertile and wet. These are the perfect conditions for the region’s two major crops: tea and rice. The rice harvest is nearly finished for the year and the threshed sheaves are stacked in tidy mounds waiting to be carried away for processing. ‘Iranian rice is the best in the world,’ says Ali. ‘You have never smelled a perfume like it.’

We are in a bit of a predicament. Ali has invited us for dinner and to spend a night with his family at their villa near the Caspian. By now we are used to being invited into people’s homes for refreshments and meals – it’s all part of the extraordinary level of Iranian hospitality. But this will be a far greater intrusion and we are unsure how to respond.

The problem is that many social interactions in Iran are wrapped in an elaborate protocol of polite, self-deprecating, back-and-forth exchanges known as ta’arouf: it’s a kind of one-upmanship of flattery and good manners. But there are rules to this game, and after a few desperate exchanges with Ali we are none the wiser. Is he just being polite, or does he really want us to come and stay? Does he want us to accept his offer, or should we decline gracefully? The worst possible outcome will be to offend.

Eventually I can bear it no longer and decide that the only way out of the dilemma is to ask Ali directly. His face falls at my question and he looks hurt. ‘No, this is not ta’arouf,’ he says quietly. ‘You are my friends and I invite you from my heart.’

Well that seems to be that then, and we accept his invitation in a flurry of embarrassed gratitude. He seems greatly cheered by our enthusiasm and whips out his mobile phone to call his wife with the good news. ‘Now you will taste the best cooking in Iran,’ he says proudly.

Ali’s villa is close to Rasht, the capital of Gilan Province, and he takes us to see its impressive fresh produce market before dinner. Here we find stalls stocked with fish from the nearby Caspian Sea – including some monster sturgeon and couli, a tiny local delicacy that the Gilani eat, head and all (earning them the moniker ‘fish-head-eaters’). Even more popular with shoppers are smoked and salted fish and long wedges of pinkish-brown roe. Needless to say, there is no Iranian caviar to be found. This is an expensive delicacy, reserved for the export market.

But there are endless other delights and we are tempted by fresh walnuts, plump olives and all manner of fresh and pickled fruits and vegetables. We’re especially pleased to spot the famous Persian sweet lemons (limonshirin) and sour oranges (naranj).

Ali lingers by a rice merchant’s stall, scooping up handful after handful from each sack and offering it to us for inspection. We can see fine distinctions in the length and girth of the different grains, and Ali tells us that the best costs around two US dollars per kilogram. It doesn’t seem like much, until you remember that the average monthly salary ranges between four- and six-hundred US dollars (for some it is much less) and Iranian families such as Ali’s will get through around three hundred kilograms of rice every year. The best rice on offer is called ‘hashemi’ or ‘ambar-boo’ – which translates rather lyrically as amber-scented – and is grown in only a few very small areas. As we run our hands through the long, fine, translucent grains they leave a light oily film on our fingers. ‘The most important thing is the perfume,’ says Ali, and we all inhale

We are distracted from our rice reverie by another aroma of cooking and we head toward a neighbouring pancake stall. These are reshteh khoshkar, a sort of lacy pancake made, logically enough for this part of the world, from rice flour. They are filled with a mixture of ground walnuts and sugar and folded into neat parcels to be fried in sugar syrup. Naturally we can’t resist buying some for tomorrow’s breakfast.

We arrive at ali’s home in time to watch his wife, Farrah, tip a huge mound of rice onto a serving platter. She carefully lifts the precious tahdeeg – the delectable crisp golden layer from the bottom of the pot – onto a separate plate. Iranian family members fight over tah-deeg in the same way that Westerners fight over roast pork crackling, but I also know that as honoured guests we have the advantage of being served first. A vast array of local Gilan delicacies are already set out on the table and we can’t wait to tuck in.

We are already familiar with sabzi, the mixture of fresh green herbs that grace every Iranian table and are eaten with soft white cheese and warm flatbread, but here we also find a bowl of peppery radish leaves and plump green olives in a paste of chopped walnuts and pomegranate molasses.

Greg and I are both pleased to discover that garlic features heavily in Gilan cooking; as well as a dish of black pickled garlic, Farrah has prepared garlic shoots fried with egg, and mizra ghasemi, a glorious mixture of puréed eggplant, tomato and, naturally, plenty of garlic. The star of the meal is the local interpretation of fesenjun, one of Iran’s most popular dishes. Fesenjun combines chicken (or sometimes duck) with a sauce of crushed walnuts and pomegranate, but in Gilan they favour mouth-puckeringly sour pomegranate sauce, making it quite different from sweeter versions we have sampled elsewhere.

There is genuine warmth around the table. Farrah beams throughout the whole meal, clearly delighted by our appetites, and Amin, Farrah and Ali’s teenage son, peppers us with questions about our incomes, families, work and education. The conversation rambles around movies, television, politics (of course) and religion. Finally he stammers out the question that, sooner or later, all Iranians ask us. ‘Do people in your country really think that Iranians are all terrorists? Or is it just our government that they don’t like?’

It’s a genuine question that requires a truthful answer. Greg begins cautiously: ‘I think that there will always be people who are influenced by what they see on the television or read in the papers,’ he says. ‘I’m afraid that there are Australians who think they don’t like Iranian people, just as there are Iranians who think they don’t like Westerners. But this comes from ignorance.’

Amin and Ali are nodding in agreement and Greg is warming to his theme. ‘Underneath of course, we are all the same. It doesn’t matter what religion you have or where you live.’ A smile breaks over Ali’s face and he smacks his hand on the table. ‘Of course you are right, my friend! And do you know who said this first? A Persian man! It was Cyrus the Great, the first king of Persia, who wrote the very first charter of human rights on the Cyrus Stone. When he captured Babylon in the sixth century he freed the Jewish people from captivity and declared that all people would be free under his rule. You can find his words even today in the United Nations.’

It seems a bold assertion, and we wonder whether this is an example of the by-now-familiar Persian pride. Later that evening we read up on Cyrus and his Stone in our guide books and are humbled to find that Ali is quite right.

It’s a day of rushing clouds and flashing sunshine, but even the sun can’t make the Caspian Sea lovely. It’s a disappointing expanse of polluted steely-grey and the beach is littered with rubble and all manner of rubbish. Proving themselves to be the most determined picnickers in a country of determined picnickers, a young couple has parked their car at the water’s edge and sit together contentedly, apparently oblivious to their grim surroundings. I’m not sure whether this cheers me up, or depresses me.

We spend the morning fighting the traffic along the narrow coast road, but, thankfully, at Astara many of the roaring juggernauts cross over the border into neighbouring Azerbaijan. We turn onto a more peaceful road that curves up into the forested hinterland, and, before long, we are crossing the mountains and emerge into rolling highlands.

Gone is the lush, wet, green vegetation of the Caspian littoral and we are back in a wild, wide landscape that feels more recognisably Iranian. The car speeds along a high plateau that disappears into a ridge of snow-capped mountains; the air has a sharp clarity and above us a brilliant blue sky seems to stretch forever.

We pass tiny villages and small holdings and in the brown fields women wearing brightly coloured headscarves, dresses and sturdy boots bend over crops of potatoes and onions. Here and there we spy a flock of scruffy sheep, and rough-looking men on horseback stare silently as we pass.

It’s all too easy to imagine Mongol hordes riding across this landscape, which might not have been all that different from their home in the broad steppes of Central Asia. The Mongol invaders came thundering out of the East in the thirteenth century in two terrible, unstoppable waves, leaving much of northern and central Iran in flaming ruins. The destruction swept as far as China in the east, to Poland and Moscow in the north and extinguished the Islamic seat of power in the great Persian capital, Baghdad, to the west.

In the wake of this carnage, many Iranians turned to Sufism, a different, more spiritual kind of Islam that flourished in the north-western part of the empire, especially in Ardabil, an old trading city that sits in the middle of this lonely plateau. We are here to visit the shrine of Sheikh Safial-Din, a mystic Dervish, but, first, Ali ducks into a nearby sweet shop to buy a tub of the city’s famous black helva. This turns out to be a dense, sticky, sweet black sort of pudding, flavoured with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and a little goes a long way to reviving us after the drive.

The shrine has a timeless, ancient quality, with three tower-like tombs clad in a graceful counterpoint of baked brickwork and glazed blue and turquoise tiles. Ali explains that Sheikh al-Din came from a clan called the Safavids, and within 150 years his descendants had converted to Shia Islam, reunified the empire and become one of Persia’s most successful and glorious dynasties.

At a livestock market outside Tabriz we stop and watch wiry horsemen test-riding sturdy little horses. ‘This is the first time they have seen a woman in a place like this,’ laughs Ali, and I realise that intense black eyes are following our every step. We buy a watermelon with vivid orange flesh and the seller refuses to accept payment. ‘Ta’arouf?’, I whisper to Ali. The two men engage in a brief, energetic exchange, but eventually Ali turns to me and laughs, ‘No. I think he just likes you!’.

Most of the guide books – and some family and friends – have been warning us that Tabriz will disappoint, and on approach it seems they could be right. We arrive in the afternoon to discover a sprawling concrete city, surrounded by power plants and factories and shrouded in a vile yellow smog. There seem to be few obvious signs of its earlier splendour as an impressive Mongol Ilkhanid capital, under Genghis Kahn’s grandson, Hulegu – ‘Il Khan’ – with extravagant palaces, observatories, mosques, a dazzling jewellery bazaar and a thriving silk trade.

Wracked by regular earthquakes over the centuries, and occupied in between times, Tabriz’s wealth seemed destined for ruin. In the eighteenth century, most of Tabriz’s former glories – along with more than eighty thousand of its citizens – were buried in one of the world’s worst earthquakes, leaving behind little more than a few patches of tile on a formerly blue mosque and several miles of brick-vaulted bazaar.

The rubble from the Blue Mosque has been laboriously reconstructed and it is still possible to get a sense of its former splendour. While the grand entrance portal is a mere ultramarine patchwork of its former self, within the main hall the towering vaulted arches and thick, square columns are covered with friezes of azure, turquoise, sky-blue, teal, indigo and cobalt.

More impressive still, is the bazaar, and we spend a long, happy morning wandering its atmospheric passageways. It is bustling with customers and we quickly lose our way, but that proves to be half the fun. We stumble into two different carpet bazaars (one for old carpets and one for modern) where there are more carpets than I’ve seen in my life. They are strung about the walls, rolled into massive pyramids and stacked flat into towering piles. Old men sit with needle and thread, tilting the carpets towards golden spotlights of sunshine that stream in through the domed roof. These carpets are luscious shades of deep plum, oxblood red and velvety blues – but we are well aware that our lack of knowledge will make us easy prey for these wily bazari, and so we hold back from buying.

A pleasant surprise is the friendliness of the Tabrizi themselves. There’s the taxi driver, who, upon hearing of our interest in food, jumped out of his battered old Paykan and rushed ahead of us into the restaurant to introduce us to the owner personally. There’s the mullah in a tiny tea house who insisted on paying for our chai, with a nod of the head and a hand pressed to his heart, and there’s the kindly lady who walked twenty minutes out of her way to steer us back to the main part of the bazaar. These people all contributed to the glow of wellbeing that washes over us as we dine in a flashy revolving restaurant atop a grand hotel at the city’s edge.

Our fancy dinner is nice enough, with its expansive buffet of soup and salads and an excellent dish of locally caught freshwater trout, but Greg and I agree that one of the best things about the journey so far is the impromptu meals we’ve enjoyed along the way.

Like all good Iranians, Ali has a rug tucked into the boot of his car, ready to be whisked out whenever there’s the slightest chance of a picnic. Yesterday, before leaving for Ardabil, he conjured up an al fresco breakfast of warm turmeric-tinted naan sonetti with local buffalo-milk butter, sheep’s cheese from the nearby mountains and a thick clotted cream called gheymak.

It seems that in these pastoral reaches of Iran the roadsides are cluttered with stalls selling local produce, and we’ve been sampling and stocking up as we go. On the road to Kandovan, a disappointingly touristy troglodyte village near the foothills of Mount Sahand, we stop to buy lavashak, sheets of dried mulberry and apricot paste. A little further on, we spy a husband and wife puffing smoke into a stack of beehives and we come away with an impressive comb dripping with clear, dark honey. In the sleepy village of Osuko we roam among sacks of new-season’s walnuts, their milky-white flesh as crisp as apples.

Outside the village we climb over a stone wall into a small apricot orchard and Ali spreads the faithful rug beneath one of the trees. We feast on golden watermelon, honey and walnuts in the warm autumn sunshine. We must make the most of the solitude and enjoy these last moments with Ali, for tomorrow we must say farewell to our saraban – and great new friend – and head back to the city.

Soup – generally called ash – plays a huge role in the Iranian diet; it’s eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and all through the day, too. On freezing winter mornings people queue up to buy steaming bowls of thick, sustaining ash from street stands and hole-in-the-wall kitchens; it’s served as part of a meal and as a meal in its own right, and certain ash are an important feature on the table during festive occasions.

In fact, ash is far more than just a meal; it also plays a vital symbolic role in many Iranian social traditions, and there is pretty much a different ash to suit every occasion. There is an ash to celebrate a child’s first tooth and one to sustain women during pregnancy. Another ash – ash-e pusht-e pa – is served at farewell celebrations (it translates as ‘thick soup behind the foot’). Ash-e isfandi is a use-it-all-up soup, made as you clear out the pantry during the last month of the old year, while ash-e reshteh is served on the first workday of a New Year to celebrate new beginnings. Abu dard ash (which means ‘father of pain’) uses seven different types of bean you collect from your neighbours, and is made to help disperse pain and suffering in times of ill-health. Ash-e nazri – charity soup – is part of an age-old tradition of community and sharing. Nazri soups are made by families – usually by many families together – to give thanks for significant events, or to mark occasions of sadness. They are nearly always made in vast quantities and distributed throughout the neighbourhood, so they serve not only as a nourishing meal, but as a reminder that someone else is in need of care or that others are aware of your situation – a quiet communal hug, if you like.

There are various fine distinctions between the vast repertoire of ash dishes, but they are nearly all thick and hearty – a far cry from the thin consommés and broths of other cuisines. Some ash are meat-based (although meat is usually only added in small quantities), others are made solely from vegetables or sometimes even fruit. They are nearly all thick with herbs, and some are distinguished by their sour flavour. Some ash are based on rice, others on grains and pulses, yet others on pasta. In fact, many are so thick that they are almost stew-like, and the only thing that differentiates them from khoresht is that they are not eaten with rice, but on their own or with bread.

Abgoosht – and its widely represented derivative dizi, which is what we experienced mostly on our travels – is another distinct and incredibly popular category of meat-based soup that is really two meals in one. A slow-cooked combination of meat on the bone, vegetables, pulses, tomatoes and meat stock, it is defined by the way it is served and eaten. The translation of ‘abgoosht’ – ‘meat-water’, or perhaps more kindly ‘meat juices’ – provides some clues. The tasty broth is strained off and eaten first, and the remaining solid ingredients are pounded to a coarse paste to be eaten with bread and strongly flavoured accompaniments. It’s filling, nutritious and very tasty.

A final word about soups: the Persian word for cook is ‘ashpaz’, which means, literally, ‘soupmaker’. It gives a pretty clear message about how important these dishes are in the Iranian diet.

Recipes in this Chapter

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