Chelow Kebab: From Iran to Other Worlds
Having worked up an appetite to sumptuous meals in India and over the world, every year queuing up in the streets of Kolkata, I wait for that melt-on-the-mouth kebab.
Chelow or Chelo Kebabs, as they're lovingly called, were reviewed by Fodor’s Travel as: “The Chelo kebab here—a simple dish plated to resemble a cello with buttered saffron rice, a fried egg, two pieces of mutton (goat) kebabs, and one chicken kebab—is wildly popular in Kolkata for reasons best known to the loyals".
In the streets of Kolkata, India
If you’re taking chelo as other Indian kebabs, borrowed from royal courts and now a best-seller at kebab stalls, the answer is no. Chelo kebab, the national dish of Iran, has found a way to India and to the streets of Kolkata through a gastronomic institution, Peter Cat, for unique flavors that satisfy many palates while nourishing souls.
Siddharth Kothari, carrying the legacy of his father, told me:
"My father came across the original version during his travels. He loved the concept of rice and kebabs. Traditionally, we in India have aways associated kebabs with paratha or roti. This was something different and delicious."
His vision was spot on. Come any time of the year and find both locals and outsiders patiently line up for their fill of that 'different and delicious.'
The plate comes in a seekh of minced lamb, grounded with chopped onions, and sprinkled in a zesty spice which is then skilfully molded on the skewers and smoked in the fire. Unlike Mughlai food, Iranian cuisine is subtle without the headiness of shahi masalas.
Before you can grab a bite, the meat breaks into tiny morsels. The other skewer, hot off the charcoal grill, is the Jujeh (chunks of chicken), cooked to perfection.
But it has so much more to it. Roasted tomatoes, onions, capsicum, the delicious buttered basmati rice, and the egg on the top are sides to spoon through.
This goodness filled dish was the center of our universe, and my family and I, being a talkative bunch, hardly indulged in any conversation. At times we would intone a language relishing the kebab, understood only by us. And yet no one paid any heed, turning out the story remained the same at most tables.
Chelo Kebab has been a favorite since the restaurant opened in the '70s, and what beats me is how can they retain the same flavors, year after year. The head chef deserves a shout out for that.
They say all comfort food is homespun, but to me, chelo kebab is that spun of nostalgia. In so many celebrations, get-togethers, first meetings, farewells, reunions, and ordinary outings I'd find myself at Peter Cat, pigging out this classic dish.
I had grown in the comfort of a dish, born out of my culture, and I could live on it forever. These are foods everyone thinks of as old family eat-out favorites. You could be miles away from it, and only a speck of memory, entwined around a meal, can rip open your childhood. We live in a strange and yet beautiful world, don't we?
The London trail
As I grew older, my passion for food grew stronger, so it was all the more interesting to hunt down another variation of this chelo kebab in the streets of London.
You must be wondering, London and Kebabs! But understand one thing: those days when people only preferred fish and chips and could live on other London classics are long gone. That's not to say I haven't had my share of best fish & chips in Brighton, jacket potatoes for breakfast, English bakes, and pub lunches.
"UK’s restaurant scene is the envy of the world," as beautifully put by Fred Sirieix, trained to work in front of the house in a Michelin-starred restaurant in France and now in the London Hilton. He is also that charming French-accented show presenter in Netflix’s top food show, Million Dollar Menu.
High streets across London are filling with food chains selling experimental cuisines like the latest GBK's (Gourmet Burger Kitchen), an Asian-American twist on the juicy, wasabi riddled tempura prawn burger that made a debut in London. Locals and visitors like me drop in such Persian dining when sick of beef steaks and other classics.
As millennials are choosing new things to do, their take on authentic food is way different. We want more flavors, more textures, don’t we?
It was Saturday night in London, and I was surrounded by dozens of young foodies on the packed dining floor of this Persian restaurant, a short walk from Finchley Central Station. The space had a warm and earthy middle-eastern décor, with the wooden furniture and the lamps reminiscing of old Persia, an era bygone. Most people there were millennials and looked in their early or mid-twenties, just like I was the first time I came with my brother and husband.
We settled on a freshly baked nun with mirza ghasemi (yogurt with cucumber and herbs) and kept space for the steller, koobideh, moist and juicy strips of smokey grilled, seasoned ground lamb, paired with grilled potato, tomato, and tahdig, the crunchy aromatic mold of saffron rice.
The finality of our critique post-meal settled in a smile and gasping out 'so good' along with a sigh.
Delicately cooked, the earthy spices soaking through portions of lamb and vegetables got me to thank my brother for introducing us to Persian food in London. Since that experience, I had ambled around middle-eastern quarters of Edgware Street in northwest London and had some admirable kebabs. They come out from the blistering heat of the charcoal grill, lightly charred on the surface, tender and moist below, accompanied by tahdig or mouth-watering fluffy breads like lavash, naan, or taftoon.
However, these carnivorous cornucopia moments were long back. I always loved London, basking in the bounce it brings. I own up to having ignored the London route for a while wanting to see more of Europe and greeking out for off-grid destinations. Going for this article and into those memory lanes, pining for London all over again, came of my efforts.
Chelo kebab is a testimony to the belief that there can be many reasons to come back to your favorite city. I am up for it on any occasion, even if that means doing 100 squats after wolfing down this plate prodding gluttony!
The authenticity of Persian Cuisine
I have never been to Iran to taste the authentic chelo kebab. A short while ago, while researching, I found that Najmieh Batmanglij, lauded as the grande dame of Iranian cooking, has documented Iranian food for Americans living an ex-pat life. She said Persian cuisine came from the influences of different ethnic populations within the country and that this diversity is also a result of Iran's geographical proximity to countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Turkey.
They braise and prepare meat shish-style over hot charcoals. Iranian cooking is infused in olive oil and uses garnishing like rose petals, almonds, walnuts, and pistachio kernels. Barberries, pomegranate, and sumac (dried flower powdered fruit of the sumac plant), an important ingredient of chelo kebab, are their tarting agents. Heavily used, Indian-subcontinent spices like cumin, turmeric, coriander and saffron perfume and flavor their dishes.
Into the other worlds
Persian restaurants have mushroomed in every part of the western world. Louisa Shafia, the author of The New Persian Kitchen, simplified her recipes adding a modern twist to them.
Turmeric chicken with sumac and lime, pomegranate soup, and ice cream sandwiches made with saffron frozen yogurt and cardamom pizzelles are huge hits among contemporary home cooks in Manhattan.
Her Persian pop-ups in the city have Sambuseh, Iran's answer to the samosa, kufteh tabrizi (meatballs bathed in a light tomato stew), kebab-e torsh (lamb skewer marinated in a slightly sour pomegranate sauce and sprinkled in sumac and walnut dressing) have unique flavors to get customers queuing.
In 21st century, I think no one gives a toss about authenticity when it comes to clean flavors such as Persian cuisine. What matters most is how a dish or recipe extends beyond borders, finding a place at your dinner table.