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Goudar gourmet
Roast pork from northern Iran

May 2, 2005

When he was all of two-years old, Stan used to reach and pounce a sip of my beer when I was not looking. One evening at his home we were gathered around the dinner table and the conversation somehow spread to Old Vienna. As the boy was reaching for my glass, I gently sought to dissuade him by promising that when he turned eighteen I personally would accompany him to Vienna where he can have a decent drink of beer.

This April I made good on that promise, as Stan and his father and my son and I flew to Vienna and descended upon a friend who was on an academic sabbatical there. That he, I call him Sabatico, be a part of this story too is because during one of his sabbaticals he had written an article on Iranian cuisine, in which he had made the observation that because of Islam there has been no tradition of eating pork in Iran, even though some tribes in Western Iran used to hunt and eat boar.

Wiener schnitzel is a favorite repast in my household, as every Tuesday night I cook up a storm around this basic notion of breading and frying a pounded piece of veal, chicken or pork and serve it up with potato-and-lettuce salad. My son is the ultimate judge of my culinary efforts.

No sooner than we met up with Sabatico at his flat than we trooped down to the neighborhood restaurant for our first encounter with Wiener schnitzel and a tall cold glass of Ottakringer Beer. We did not care about the academically valuable observation by Sabatico that Austrians usually make the schnitzel out of pork and drink mostly wine. A veritable Weiner schnitzel from veal would be just fine, and the beer was just we all needed.

During our self-paced sightseeing tours we often stopped to replenish. One day as the dads sat at one table and the boys were seated at another, I caught a glimpse of Stan, a self-professing more-orthodox-than-reformed member of the Jewish faith, explaining to my son why he has abjured pork. “I respect your values,” said my son, “but I do enjoy a slab of bacon every now and then and will not give it up for anybody.” And so as I involuntarily thought about Sabatico’s rumination about the influence of Islam on Iranian cuisine I ordered a ham sandwich for lunch and thought of the Goudar.

In the waterlogged rice fields of northern Iran the summer air is often perforated by the sound of the beating of washing pans (tasht) that the night watchmen drum in order to scare away the boars (goraz). For sport alone, in the depiction of Iranian hunt scenes, pre-Islamic and later, a boar is shown at the receiving end of a spear or arrow. In the bas-relief at Taq-e Bostan in Kermanshah a Sasanian king is shown at a boar hunt; many similar scenes have been repeated in ornamental objects like textiles, vessels and such.

In Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the young and hotheaded hero Bijan was itching to fight the goraz, promising to slay the pigs (khouk). The King, finding his bravado too much to bear, asked another hero, Gorgeen Milad, to accompany Bijan on the perilous campaign. On the trail, they built a huge fire and had just taken wine and kabob that Bijan noticed ruffling sounds coming from the woods and ordered Gorgeen to check it out. When Gorgeen refused, Bijan stormed into the woods like a drunken elephant and gave chase to the pig, which he cut in half by a single stroke of his short sword (khanjar) to the pig’s side. In another story, when Eskandar reached the Eastern Sea, he was greeted with waves of goraz, which his army slew in such large numbers that the heap of carcasses blocked the army’s own way.

In these epic struggles, the boars were no slouches either. Every now and then a boar would bag the macho. According to Abu Mansur Salabi’s Shahnameh (written in Naishahpur between 1016-1020 AD), the Ashkanian (Parthian) king Goudarz II ended up with a broken neck when his steed shied from the injury inflicted by the curved tusks of a boar and bucked its rider. The Gorgan ruler Voshmgeer, son of Ziyar, too, met a similar end.

I do not know if any of the pigs, wild pigs and boars slain in the Shahnameh or other accounts made it into the barbeque pit or stew. Nor can I tell you about when the tribes in Western Iran began and ended the practice of hunting and eating boars. I can say this, however, Western and Eastern Iran are more geographically separated than culturally divided. In my own ancestral homeland in northern Iran whole areas (usually called mahaleh or kuy) were devoted to Gorji, Armenian, Kurd, Fars and Baluch ethnics, to name a few, who one time or another came or were brought from other parts of Iran to settle among us since Timurid times if not earlier.

One of the more remarkable people in my ancestral homeland east of Gorgan in the 19th century was the Goudar and they had a roasted pig recipe to die for.

I first leaned about the Goudar in Masoud Golzari’s edition of Gregorii Melgunof’s “Travels on the Southern Littoral of the Caspian Sea.” The work was published originally in Russian in St. Petersburg in April 1863. The German translation of the work by J. Th. Zenker appeared in Leipzig in 1868. Meanwhile in Tehran, in the 1880s, the original in Russian was translated into Persian by one identified only as Petros, a government translator, and the translation was called “Safarnameh navehi-e shomali iran.” The Golzari edition of the work was published in Tehran (1364 shamsi) as “Safarnameh-ye Melgunof beh savahel-e junubi-e Darya-ye Khazar.”

According to the Russian traveler Gregorii Melgunof, the Goudar lived in most of the villages of Kuhsar and Fenderesk districts; they were neither town-dwellers nor villagers, but rather pastoral, roaming in every direction. They made a living as laborers and guardians of the plains. The Goudar were shunned by those who came into contact with them in the villages; they had no religion and ate pig meat. They possessed no rule or custom for marriage. They settled their disputes by recourse to a third among them as arbiter. The Goudar were famous for shooting and they hunted tigers and leopards. In their locations they outnumbered the Torkaman and where they inhabit the Torkaman dared not attack. This tribe had no particular tongue of its own; the Goudar spoke the Mazandarani dialect of Persian and Torkaman and generally were quick to learn a local language.

What the Petros and Golzari editions of Melgunof’s account left out from the aforecited passage was the Goudar’s recipe for preparing pig! “They cook the pig,” wrote Melgunof, “in its skin and before they cook it, pour butter over it; afterwards they throw the skin to the dogs.” What is more remarkable than the suppression of this passage in the Persian translations/editions of the work, no doubt because of Islamic considerations, is the survival of the Goudari pork roast in the midst of a region known for its heavy dose of religiosity, so much so that at one time Gorgan was known as “Dar al-Momenin”, City of Believers.

In contrast to Melgunof’s description, the article on “Astarabadh” in Encyclopaedia of Islam (vol. I, 1913) described the Goudar as an energetic tribe living in many villages of Mazandaran and Astarabad, where they engaged in agriculture, cattle-rearing, cultivation of silk and drying fruits, and they were despised by the Persians.

In any event, I have not focused much on the origin of the Goudar tribe in Fenderesk and Kuhsar. I have a few guesses though. At one level, their settlement in the mountain regions of eastern Gorgan, such as the name “Kuhsar” and topography of Fenderesk imply, may be reason enough to equate the name Goudar with Kuhdar, meaning either the “lord of mountain” or from the word Kuhyar, meaning mountain-folk. Both possibilities have considerable etymological evidence to support them, but it is unlikely that this pastoral and plains-people were mountain types.

Then there is always the possibility of the Goudar descending from or being affiliated in their history with a person named Goudar(z), a name that occurred among the Parthian (Ashkanian) kings of Iran, in particular as the name of a prince who held sway in the Gorgan region for a while.

The best explanation for the origin of the Goudar of Kuhsar and Fenderesk is that they belonged to an ancient people. The German Orientalist Wilhelm Geiger (“Civilisation of the Eastern Iranians in Ancient Times,” vol. II, 1886) identified the Avestan servile class of Vaisu with the Chudra of the Brahmanic society and the Luris that dwelt in Baluchistan. Gypsies and menial workers, Luris lived in small parties formed of a couple of families. They belonged to no particular race, had no landed property, nor cultivated the fields of others. They were partly vagrant musicians, wandering from village to another, and partly engaged in humble industries, such as pottery, rope-making and mat-knitting. The Luris were induced by the Sasanian king, Bahram Gur, to emigrate from India to Iran.

My money is on the Goudar being remnants of a people known to the Achaemenians as Saka (Scythians to Europeans) and who in 1st century AD migrated in large numbers into Sistan (hence the name Sakastana, Sagastan of the Sasanian, land of Saka, before the Arab invasion) and northwest India. A short description by G.P. Tate in his book “Seistan,” written about 1905 and published in Quetta, Pakistan, in 1977, makes the connection. Of Saka origin, he wrote, the Goudar or Gujar of Sistan originally migrated to Sistan from beyond the Oxus River in Central Asia. The Goudar who lived in Harat-Kandahar region of Afghanistan and in Iran, in his time, were agriculturalists and herdsmen, and bore matchlocks. In complexion they were brown, in appearance they were squalid and their women were unveiled. The Goudar of the town of Ashraf on the Caspian Sea were regarded as pariah. In India, however, the Goudar received even less respect: “A desert is better than a Gujar. Wherever you see a Gujar hit him; when all other castes are dead make friends with a Gujar!”

The location of the Goudar in Ashraf is significant for the kind of wild life that abounded there. According to “Daret al-Moaref Sarzamin va Mardom Iran” [Encyclopaedia of Iranian Land and People] by Abdolhossein Saeedian (Tehran, 1360 shamsi), the place was known originally as Kharguran, which was then changed to Panj-Hezar. Beginning with the Safavid period in Iranian history at the turn of the 16th century the place was re-named Asiabsar, which Shah Abbas I the Great then changed to Ashraf, which then became Behshahr at the time of Reza Shah. The town is in on the Caspian coast opposite the Miyankala Peninsula that has been home to a prosperous wild boar (Sus scrofa) population.

One way to control the wild pig and goraz population is for the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to lift the religious prohibition on consumption of pork, just as the Ayatollah Khomeini lifted the prohibition on the eating of sturgeon and thus promoted the decimation of the species, perhaps unwittingly. In Baku, Azerbaijan, another Moslem country, despite the Koranic precepts of sureh 5, ayeh 3 of al-Maidah, some Azerbaijani restaurants serve pork by the name “donuz” or wild boar by the name “gaban” and they are raking in the hard currency!

When in Vienna, I asked for schnitzel of pork and thought of my Iranian countrymen the Goudar of Eastern Iran.

Guive Mirfendereski practices law in Massachusetts (JD, Boston College Law School, 1988). His latest book is A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (New York and London: Palgrave 2001)

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Guive Mirfendereski



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