From Persia, with love.

Table Talk chats with Kamelia as she reconciles with the complexities of identity and belonging through memories of koftes, tahdig and shirazi salads.

If you grew up in the city of Pune, India in the last couple of decades, you know this cafe well. You’ve been to it on breezy summer afternoons and on those rare chilly winter evenings. You’ve climbed up the wooden stairs, snaking your way through the maze of tables till you get to your ‘spot’- a cozy diwan, nestled under a canopy of carpets strung together to create the most magical ceiling. You’ve spent Thursday evenings, in candlelight, swaying to live jazz music (in your seat, of course) and never left without meeting an old friend. There’s almost always plates of chelo kebab and berry pulao at hand, hastily shared by a large group. And you always make the mistake of saying how they serve such great parsi food, and are reminded each time that,“It’s Irani food, dear.”

Kamelia and I met 11 years ago, in a land that didn’t belong to either of us. As our friendship strengthened, we moved away from that safe, polite, culinary meeting point that is a slice of Pizza to the more risqué, back-alley stuff of white rice, steaming meat curries and dals, and hot naans that hugged charred kebabs. Our shared love for food made us realise that, growing up our plates were astonishingly similar. Soon her Tehran started sounding a lot like my Pune. So when I caught myself day-dreaming of that plate of chelo kebab, I decided to trace its culinary lineage. And who better to call on to than my azizam, Kamelia.

“My mum was a great cook. She would be up at 5am each day to make sure we had a  warm, fresh meal every day. I remember waking up to the smells of lunch being prepared and being hungry before I had even fully woken up!” starts off Kamelia. In the background, I can hear her fix her first cup of coffee for the day, on the other side of the world. Kamelia, now in the US, hasn’t been to Iran, her home, in many years. I’ve always known her to be “fiercely Iranian”, someone who wears her heritage on her sleeve. She breaks into Farsi seamlessly and devours the words of the 14th century poet, Hafiz. “You know I grew up eating two lunches!? One small one in school and then a proper one at home. Rice and khoresh. My favourite!”, she shares and I know we’ve already arrived at her doorstep back in Iran.

“It was an event for us.

We would line up for hours at kebab joints and we didn’t really mind.

It was always more than food - it was the conversation, the laughter.’’

Kamelia grew up in Tehran, in what she calls a pretty “traditional persian home”. She goes one to explain that loosely implies, that food was central to everything. The Bayat dinner table would see a variety of khoresh (meat stews), kofte (spicy meatballs) with a side of a shirazi salad (a simple salad of cucumber, tomatoes and onions, thinly sliced and dressed with lime and olive oil), kuku (a uniquely Persian vegetable frittata), and of course platters of berenj (rice) to provide the perfect backdrop to all these flavours.

Kamelia also grew up in post-revolution Tehran, which was very different from the Tehran her parents grew up in. While there were massive upheavals in the socio-economic and political fabric of the country, the Persian plate however, survived. Kamelia talks of growing up with limited western influences, sharing how the hot dog on its arrival in Iran was quickly disguised in spicy sauces to adapt to local tastes. While most of the ‘old world’ in the ’90s was lining up for (versions) of American fast food, young teens in Tehran were queuing up outside kebab eateries. “It was always an event for us. We would line up for hours at kebab joints and we didn’t really mind. It was more than food - it was the conversation, the laughter. We would have plates of  grilled kebabs with tomatoes and rice where we would crack a raw egg on it to make it creamy. Did I mention we would talk for hours?!” Kamelia shares with a laugh.

Nudging her to take me further down memory lane, another dish that she talks about fondly is abghosht, a hearty stew made of goat, beans, potatoes, onions left to cook for hours. A more traditional dish, the abghosht is served in two bowls - one bowl with the meat broth and the other with the meat and vegetables; all to be mopped with hot fresh bread. Captured in that memory, she talks fondly of of Tajrish Bazaar – a food market teeming with fresh produce and hot quick eats. When Kamelia would return home from university abroad, she would go straight to Tajrish Bazaar to sink into liver kebabs or jigar, coated with nothing but salt and grilled on a makeshift road-side grill eaten with a thin piece of bread or a bowl of sheep head stew (not for the faint hearted Kamelia warns!) that was only available at dawn. “That’s the taste of Iran for me..”, she shares softly.

“The time we spend cooking and then sitting down together, around a large table filled with platters of food
is almost like an act of preserving culture, our identity. No matter where we are.”

Like most Middle Eastern cuisines, it's often difficult to talk about Iranian food without it’s geopolitical context. So much so that Iranian restaurants outside Iran are often affixed with “Persian”(as Iran was called till the 1930s) as opposed to “Iranian”, perhaps to side-step the complexities of today’s world. Regardless of how one would like to view it, it is impossible to ignore the rich, saffron-and rosewater-scented culinary legacy of Persia that dates back to 6th Century BC when Cyrus the Great, the leader of a tribe called Pars (Persians) created an empire that stretched from present day Egypt to India.

Historical accounts describe the food in the courts of ancient Persia to include subtly flavoured and perfumed stews, fruit-bejewelled platters of pilous or tahdig and gently grilled kebabs and koftes. Dishes that to this day, are found on the 8000-odd mile route connecting Morocco to India, and beyond. Eventually the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great and later to the Arab Caliphate in 7th century AD (converting Persians from Zoroastrianism to Islam). While the Arab invasion irreversibly changed the trajectory of Persia, it also led to the migration of persecuted Zoroastrians to the western coast of India, specifically the state of Gujarat. This first wave of migration, in the 8th century AD, brought in the Parsis (people from Pars or Persia) while the second wave, around the 1980s, brought in the smaller community of Irani Zoroastrians, a consequence of the Islamic revolution.

“The time we spend cooking and then sitting down together, around a large table filled with platters of food, is almost like an act of preserving culture, our identity. No matter where we are.”, shares Kamelia as talks about being Iranian in present-day America. She shares how her family in the US gather each year to cook the elaborate, celebratory meal of Nowroz, the Persian New Year. Nowruz, a uniquely non-political and non religious festival is an important time of year that brings all Iranians and people of Persian descent together. Just the like the kebab? I ask naively. “We’ve got to go beyond the kebab! It’s great, but there is so much more on our plate!”, responds Kamelia with practiced exasperation. A sentiment that seems to extend across the Iranian diaspora. The sharp edges of broad brush strokes and appropriation don’t seem to spare the Iranian plate.

It is clear that one can only scratch the surface of Iranian food at any given point. To truly understand the cuisine it appears that one has to study the wisdom hidden in the food itself. Whether it’s the revered plate of tahdig; a dish that at first glance seems like a familiar plate of rice but it’s crispy goldren crust clearly sets it apart. Or the tall glass of faloodeh (falooda, for those who have fond memories eating at ‘multicuisine restaurants’ in urban India) that heralds the invention of ice cream in ancient Persia. And while the humble kebab continues to open the doors of Iranian cuisine to the world, it is what lies on the other side that makes this cuisine increasingly fascinating.

Grab a chair, get a plate and dig in.