It is only natural for any exile living far way in time and space from home and country to seek out experiences that transform her back to her land of birth and childhood. For those like me who have turned away from the religion of their ancestors, eating the food of the motherland is the best substitute to praying in the mother tongue.
While living in exile in the U.S. and Europe for the past couple of decades, I have often sought and found comfort in eating a good chelo kabob.
Now that I have children, wherever we are, I try to take them to the local Iranian restaurant on Sundays. Next to pizza, the favorite dish of many kids world-wide, chelo kabob is their second favorite dish. Their love for it makes me feel good, as though they are somehow closer to being Iranian because of it. As if somehow by devouring a piece of the old country they will absorb its ancient wisdom and grace.
This simple dish of steaming white rice and skewered meat is the crown jewel of Iranian national cuisine. It is usually eaten in a chelo-kabobi. Going out to the chelo-kabobi is a festive, family occasion much like the Sunday roast is in the West.
Iranian kabobs are made with lamb, chicken, mince meat, or filet mignon , and are marinated well in advance in a tangy concoction of lemon, onion and saffron. What sets the Iranian kabob above other Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean varieties is the kabob-e-barg, which literally means leaf kabob.
The name is appropriate because this kabob is made up of flattened filet mignon that has been marinated for at least several hours. The tender-to-the-fork quality of a good kabob-e-barg makes it light and very much “leaf”-like.
No other kabob, in my opinion, comes near the buttery, ethereal quality of kabob-e-barg. It's greatness relies on the right balance of the spices in the marinade as well as the grade and cut of the filet and the proper cooking of it over an open charcoal brazier.
The dish itself relies not only on the tenderness and good taste of the kabobs but also the steaming ripeness of the white basmati rice. Knowing the right proportion of rice to water when steaming it the Iranian way is a delicate art. It becomes even more difficult to get it just right so each grain is fully cooked and fluffy but not too over cooked and sticky when cooking in large volumes as in a restaurant.
It is an understood draw back for Iranian food snobs that the rice at restaurants can never be as good as it is when made for smaller numbers at home. A great chelo kabob has a kabob that tastes like it was carefully prepared and cooked on the open fire by a master chef on top of a pile of steaming rice that tastes like it was cooked at home by a naneh — mother or nanny.
No matter where I travel with my family I seek out the local chelo-kabobi. One of the positive outcomes of the Iranian Diaspora is that in many cities of the Western hemisphere at least one such restaurant can be found. I have had chelo kabob in Paris and London, Nice and Boston, New York and Washington, DC, San Francisco and LA. I consider myself a chelo kabob jet set if you will.
This past holiday I was in LA with my family. In LA, which has a bustling Iranian immigrant community of over five-hundred thousand (supposedly), it is easy to find many chelo-kababis. But, it is not as easy to find a truly memorable one.
From day one we were taken by obliging friends and family from one famous restaurant to another, but was always slightly disappointed. I had come to LA hoping to find the Mecca of all chelo-kabobis. But the usually big name places had not lived up to their promise. Until the day before our departure, when we went to The Persian Grill: Rayhaneh on a strip mall off of Alicia Parkway in Laguna Hills (24781 Alicia Parkway, Tel: 949 855-2271).
Rayhaneh is a tasteful and unpretentious little restaurant. We were greeted with heaping plates of wonderful rayhan (Iranian basil — and where the name of the restaurant comes from), radishes and lavash bread (flaky Iranian flat bread). All free of charge I paid five dollars in LA for a dish of similar fresh herbs, which Iranians normally eat with bread and cheese either before or along with the main course.
Then we ordered the Family Special which was a generous plate of assorted kabobs accompanied by brimming plates of the most aromatic white basmati rice, topped with more saffron than is put on rice trays at weddings!
The kabobs were wrapped in thin lavash which kept them warm and acted as a nest for the oozing saffron and lemon marinade. This bread is much savored after the kabob is eaten because it acts as a sponge to all the succulent tanginess of the marinade.
None of us talked as we ate . We were transformed by the gastronomic experience into a quiet group of devotees concentrating on the meditation at hand.
The kabob-e-barg was so tender that it made me understand how The International Herald Tribune food critic, Patricia Wells, said of a great soup she had had in Hong Kong, — that it made the earth move under her feet. Truly this kabob and that perfect rice that accompanied it made the earth move under my feet.
I ate this simple yet noble piece of my heritage with the humility and quiet gratitude that befits such a sacred endeavor — as if experiencing the essence of all prayer.
The next day on the plane going back to the East Coast, my ten-year old son turned to me and said with his American accent, “Hey mom, that chelo kabob we had yesterday? I think it was the best we've ever had.”
I smiled and nodded in agreement, knowing that I may have myself converted from the pizza camp a boy who, regardless of his Pokemon, Nintendo, and Domino Pizza brainwashed state could tell a great chelo kabob from a mediocre.
Nothing quicker or more complete for getting to the core of a culture than devouring it!