From "Culture & Kebabs: A 500-Year Persian Tradition Meets Modern Memorial Day" by Steven Raichlen in the May 22, 1966, issue of The Washington Post.
It's unlikely that a cooking technique as universal as roasting meat on a stick over a fire originated at any single time in any single country. But if it had, Iran would make a likely birthplace. Grilling has been part of Persian culture for hundreds, probably thousands, of years.
Look at 500-year-old Persian miniatures and you'll often find depictions of servants spit-roasting a chicken for a hunting party or setting skewers of meat above the fire. The 10th-century poet Ferdowsi makes room in his poetry for a detailed description of a veal marinade made with saffron, rosewater, musk and old wine. And, after all, that all-American cookout favorite "kebab" is the Persian word for grilled meat.
Persian-style kebabs, with their emphasis on lamb and yogurt-based marinades, turn up as far west as the Balkans and as far east as Bangladesh. They probably inspired Indian tandoori by way of the Moguls, Persian rulers who took Islam to northern India in the 16th century. Even Russia's popular shashlik (beef or lamb kebabs) is a likely descendant of Persian shashlik (skewered grilled lamb chops).
Najmieh Batmanglij is my guru of Persian grilling. A short woman with dark eyes and a cascade of black hair, Batmanglij was born in Tehran, where she taught psychology at the university. Like many of the Iranians living outside their homeland (more than 200,000 in the U.S., almost 18,000 in the Washington area), Batmanglij and her husband fled Iran during the Islamic Revolution, winding up in the south of France, then Washington.
Along the way, Batmanglij turned her favorite hobby into a profession: In 1981, her first cookbook, "Ma Cuisine d'lran," was published in French by Editions Jacques Grancher. Her books in English include the stunning "Food of Life" (Mage, 1986), "New Food of Life" (Mage, 1992) and "Persian Cooking for a Healthy Kitchen" (Mage, 1994) During my visit to her today, she will demonstrate 10 dishes in a little less than three hours with a dexterity that borders on legerdemain. A whole beef tenderloin will be speedily reduced to neat bite-sized strips, which will be doused with onion juice, lime juice and cracked peppercorns.
Lamb and beef shoulder will be fed through a noisy meat grinder, then kneaded together by hand over low heat to make Iran's famous ground-meat kebab, kubideh. Earthenware crocks already hold chunks of chicken and lamb that have been marinating for two days in a colorful mixture of yogurt and saffron. Impressive any time of the year, the display is made more remarkable by the nasty weather outside the glass kitchen doors.
So essential is grilling to Persian cooking that the Washington author-cooking instructor has equipped her big country kitchen with an indoor grill that makes today's weather irrelevant and would be the envy of many a restaurant. That's in addition to the custom-made grill that sits, wet and forlorn, on the rear terrace of her Georgetown town house.
What accounts for the long-standing popularity of grilled fare in the region we now call Iran? "Ours is an outdoor culture," Batmanglij explains. "For eight months a year most Persians cook, dine and even sleep outdoors."
If Iran had a single national dish, it would surely be chelow kebab, skewers of lamb, veal or beef served on a snowy mountain of rice with firecharred tomatoes, raw egg, raw onions and a tart purplish powder made from sumac berries. It's prepared by an important figure in Iranian society, the kebabi man, who can keep 40 kebabs sizzling over a blazing fire at once.
Here's how Batmanglij describes chelow kebab in "New Food of Life": It is served everywhere, from palaces to roadside stalls, but the best chelow kebabs are probably those sold in the bazaars, where they are served with a tin cloche covering the rice to keep it warm.
The kebabs are brought to the table by the waiter, who holds five or 10 skewers in his left hand and a piece of bread in his right hand. He places a skewer of kebab directly on the rice and, holding it down with the bread, dramatically pulls out the skewer, leaving the sizzling kebabs behind."
The love of chelow kebab reaches all levels of society. A few months ago, I had lunch at a Persian restaurant in Manhattan called Persepolis. A striking young man with a handlebar mustache was dining at the table next to me. His name was Reza, son of the late shah, and he was eating chelow kebab.
Almost anything is fair game for the kebabi man: lamb, veal, beef, organ meats, tomatoes, onions, even sumac-dusted fish. But the most popular meat is lamb. "In Iran sheep graze on herbs, which gives them an exceptional flavor," says Batmanglij. Loin and tenderloin are her preferred cuts, but leg and shoulder will do if marinated for at least 48 hours. Tradition calls for interspersing the lamb chunks with moisturizing lumps of tail fat
The marinating process is one of the hallmarks of Persian grilling. The basic marinade consists of yogurt, lime juice, onion, garlic, saffron, pepper and salt. Sometimes candied orange peel is added for a touch of sweetness. Sometimes olive oil is substituted for the yogurt-especially for beef and veal.
Iranians marinate their meats much longer than North Americans do-two to three days is not uncommon. "Iranians always have some sort of meat marinating in the refrigerator," Batmanglij explains. "That way, we can make kebabs at a moment's notice."
There's some controversy over how effective marinades are at tenderizing. Cook's Illustrated magazine, for example, denies that marinades really tenderize at all My own experience in Batmaglij's kitchen suggests that a two- or three-day soak in an acidic yogurt and lemon juice marinade works wonders at breaking down meat fibers. It also produces an uncommon depth of flavor.
Another trademark of Persian grilling is the mixture brushed on the meat as it cooks, a basic formula including lime juice, saffron and melted butter. The saffron imparts a golden glow to the meat and also keeps it moist which is important, given the Iranian fondness for grilling over very high heat.
But grilled fare is only part of what makes a Persian barbecue so remarkable. The side dishes also star. Guests would be welcomed with tiny, goldrimmed glasses of dulcet tea. The table would be sagging under the weight of a mokhalafat, the stunning assortment of dips, salads, chutneys, torshis (pickles) and paper-thin lavash bread for wrapping around the meats
Accompanying the barbecue would be a platter of basil, mint, watercress and other fresh herbs, plus tomatoes, cucumbers and scallions. Other condiments would include chopped onion and delectably tart sumac powder for sprinkling over the meat. To wash it down there would be cool, frothy glasses of dugh a refreshing beverage made from yogurt, mint and rose petals.
Batmanglij gives classes on Persian grilling and cooking at her Georgetown home. For information call 202-342-1642. The next best thing would be reading about it in the "New Foods of Life."
Given the role of kebabs in Persian cooking, it's not surprising that Iranians would have developed highly distinctive skewers: Narrow skewers (1/8 inch wide) are used for chunks of meat, medium skewers (3/8 inch wide) for threading thin strips of chicken and beef. The widest ones measure 1/2-1-inch across and are designed for holding ground meats. So effective are these skewers that their popularity has spread throughout the Arab world. (Locally, they can be purchased at Yekta Middle Eastern Groceries, 1488 Rockville Pike, Rockville; call 301-984 1190.)