Simple yet noble piece of heritage
Chelo kabob. What else?
January 11, 2002
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
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
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!