Grills and roasts

Grills and roasts

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
18 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740668620
Photographer
Mark Roper

Our plane leaves Tehran before dawn. we fly south tracking the endless folds and furrows of the Zagros Mountains to the west, and through my window the rising sun spills a rosy wash over the dun-coloured desert. It’s a heavy, humid kind of a day when we land in Bandar Abbas at the other end of Iran, and we are relieved to meet up with Yas, who will be our saraban for the rest of our journey. She is petite and pretty and bursting with energy, and before long we find ourselves whisked away to the waterfront.

Stretched before us is the Persian Gulf, one of the most significant and busiest inland seas in the world – and its largest single source of crude oil. Massive tankers plough these waters day and night, edging through the narrow Hormuz Strait with their cargoes of black gold.

But many centuries before oil was struck, the Gulf – and its towns, villages and islands – was inextricably entwined with trade. From the days of Marco Polo, Alexander the Great and as far back as Darius I, the southern ports of Persia were a natural maritime hub along the Silk Road that transported goods between the East and West. The warehouses that fringed these waters were stuffed with spices, silks, wine jars, precious jewels, porcelain and all the riches of the known world.

Today nearly all cargo ships to and from Iran are offloaded here at Bandar Abbas – and the town is a notorious smuggling centre, with a never-ending relay of small boats bringing in all manner of more prosaic household goods from the Gulf States.

The Persian Gulf is also teeming with fish and the seafood industry provides much of the local population with employment. As we make our way along the waterfront, we can see that the harbour is clogged with large, brightly painted wooden fishing boats that rise and fall lazily on the slow swell of the Gulf tide and that lithe, barefoot men are hurling the morning’s catch ashore with brisk efficiency. From there, the tubs of fish are loaded onto trolleys for porters to wheel to the nearby market.

Inside the shuttered, airy market hall the action is just getting started and stallholders and customers are engaging in plenty of tough, loud bargaining. Things seem to be a model of organisation, though, and at either end of the room teams of fishmongers are scaling, skinning, gutting and filleting to order with murderous-looking knives. There is a huge variety of seafood on offer, including several types of crab and prawn, both tiny and huge. Greg is delighted to spot pomfret and sand whiting as well as massive bonito tuna, barracouta and mackerel and countless unidentifiable others. The gently whirring fans and hardworking air-conditioners are keeping the air cool, but back outside the temperature and humidity is rising. Yas tells us that in the summer the temperature here reaches nearly 50ºC, and that when the deadly local wind, the tash abat – wind of fire, blows, it’s like standing behind a jet aeroplane.

Despite the early hour, the passenger terminal is clogged with porters and waiting passengers and a constant stream of ferries and speedboats churns the green waters of the Gulf. As we queue for tickets Yas explains that most of our fellow travellers are heading to the nearby islands to shop. These are free-trade zones and Iranians flock there in their droves to stock up on duty-free goods.

As we inch our way forward in the queue, a ferry docks and within seconds jostling passengers spew out onto the walkway and begin to push and shove their way back towards the shore. Some people have mounds of blankets, bed linen and pillows piled upon their heads, others are dragging their spoils along behind them – microwave ovens and flat-screen televisions seem to be particularly popular – and all are arguing loudly with each other. It’s complete and utter chaos.

Our destination this morning is Qeshm, the largest of the Gulf islands, and eventually we clamber into a tiny speedboat and our luggage is hurled in behind us. Our fellow passengers are all local women and small children and there is a bit of hasty shuffling around so that Ebi and Greg can sit next to each other, and separate from them. We’re jammed in like sardines, and the smell of petrol is overwhelming, but the journey is mercifully quick.

Over the centuries, traders from Africa, India and the Arab countries across the Gulf have all left their mark on the features and culture of the Bandari people – the people of the ports – and as a result their clothing is highly distinctive. Women wear floral chadors and wrap themselves, sari-style, in lengths of gauzy, colourful fabric. Beneath these layers they wear loose embroidered pants that tighten and button around the ankles like glittering leggings. Many wear burkhas and some older women have tattoos on their faces and hands. The men wear tunics and sandals, and long Arab headscarves or twisty white turbans.

On qeshm island we are met off the boat by another Ali, a friend of Yas. This one is a cheerful, handsome Bandari man in his mid-thirties. There’s no traditional dress for him, though, and his shiny black curls fall over the collar of a fashionable leather jacket. By now our early morning start is beginning to catch up with us, and we stretch out gratefully in his shiny new-model Toyota Hilux. Here on Qeshm, cars are much cheaper than on the mainland, and this is a pleasant and comfortable change from the assortment of run-down Iranian Paykans, Kia Prides and old-model Peugeots to which we’ve become accustomed.

We collect a hot picnic lunch of chicken khoresht and rice with yoghurt and flatbread that Ali has ordered from a nearby restaurant, then head inland through an arid, sun-bleached landscape of rocky hills and mountains. Although Qeshm is a large island, most of the population lives in the main town or in fishing villages around the coast, leaving the starkly beautiful interior eerily empty. We stop in a nature reserve next to a broad, still river and after lunch we spend a blissful hour puttering through the lagoons in a boat, looking for turtles and trailing our fingers in the jade-green waters.

Later that afternoon we drive along the coast, passing tiny fishing villages and boatyards where the traditional wooden cargo boats that plough up and down the Gulf are made. At one yard Yas introduces us to the owner, Abdul Rachman, who proudly shows us around, pointing out how the massive, ark-shaped lenges are still built entirely by hand. The techniques have remained unchanged over the centuries, and the skills are passed down from father to son. Although this boatyard seems busy, with twenty-odd men clambering about the giant wooden frames – like the skeletons of ancient whales, Abdul Rachman seems subdued. ‘This industry is dying,’ he tells us matter-of-factly. ‘Each boat takes between eighteen and twenty-four months to complete, so they are expensive. And anyway, the younger generation are not interested in this kind of work.’

We accept his invitation to have tea with his family at their home in a nearby village, where Greg and Ebi are shunted off with the menfolk, and I am whisked away to cool interior rooms by a gaggle of women and children. They wear colourful, flowing dresses over pretty embroidered leggings and the soles of their feet and tips of their fingers are stained with henna. They seem delighted by the intrusion and feed me tangerines, show off their embroidery and laughingly dress me up in traditional Bandari clothes.

By the time we drag ourselves away from the happy chatter, the heat of the day is beginning to fade and the shadows are lengthening. Ali drives us to the picture-perfect fishing village of Laft, and we sit up on a hillside and look out through the wind-towers as the sun sinks into the sea.

Ali’s family has allowed us to disrupt their lives for a few days. We park in a quiet area of Qeshm Town and he leads us along a twisting alleyway to a low, white-washed house behind a high wall. The rooms are set around a large courtyard and even in the moonlight we can see a large vegetable patch densely planted with tomatoes and herbs.

Ali retreats gracefully to the main part of the house, leaving us to take over his own bachelor quarters. We slip off our shoes and enter a spacious, pleasant room. As is traditional there is no furniture, but the floor is covered entirely with bright tribal rugs, and generous, soft cushions are propped around the walls. In pride of place at one end of the room is a gigantic wide-screen television, and we sprawl in front of it happily.

Before long Ali’s family troops in to meet us. We are introduced to two of his brothers and their wives and children, who all welcome us warmly and ply us with chilled melon and oranges. Soon, on some unseen cue, the women disappear to the kitchen and Ali and his brothers start grilling dainty chicken kebabs on a manqal – a small charcoal brazier – in the courtyard. We are ravenously hungry and the smell is intoxicating in the soft night air. In the glow of a few small lanterns, we help Ali spread a large sofreh – tablecloth – out on the ground and soon an astonishing array of dishes is being ferried out from the kitchen.

Many Iranian families eat their main meal in the middle of the day, so we know that we are being treated as honoured guests with this feast. As well as the chicken skewers, there are two big platters of rice with dill and black-eyed peas. There are baskets of soft warm bread, fresh herbs from the garden and several salads. Gulf cooking, unsurprisingly, makes ample use of locally caught seafood, and is spiced more generously than in other parts of the country. We enjoy tiny fried sand whiting; tender strips of octopus in a thick tomato sauce flavoured with turmeric, black pepper, fennel, caraway and cumin; and a wonderful dish of razor clams in a rich, slightly sweet, cinnamon-spiced sauce. To drink there is dugh, a thin, minty yoghurt drink, which Ebi tells us is good for the digestion and will help us sleep.

Later, Ali arranges mattresses and bedding on the floor of our room and the four of us lie down in a chaste little row. Before long, the dugh starts to work its magic and I am surrounded by a fug of peaceful breathing. It’s curiously reassuring being bedded down with Yas, Ebi and Greg – like being on a camping trip or a school outing as a child. I lie awake for a while, and watch a crescent moon shining through the window, then I, too, fall sound asleep.

From the tenth to the seventeenth centuries this part of the Persian Gulf was the location of the ancient kingdom of Hormuz, one of the most important trading hubs in the Middle East. Originally located on the mainland, a secondary settlement was established on Jarun Island – now Hormuz Island – in the late thirteenth century. These two ports grew into a small but powerful state that controlled all sea trade to and from the Gulf. In its heyday Hormuz was described by visitors as ‘a vast emporium of the world’.

Control of Hormuz was hotly contested over the centuries – at various times it was ruled by Arabs, Persians and even the Portuguese (who identified it as a key strategic location in their plans to establish an empire in the East). In the seventeenth century, the island was claimed by Shah Abbas I, the great Safavid ruler. He decided that this vital trading hub would be less vulnerable on the mainland, so he moved all commerce to a small fishing village that soon became known as Bandar Abbas – the port of Abbas.

We are keen to see if any remnants of Portuguese occupation remain, so we charter a boat bound for Hormuz Island and soon it appears through the seamist: a beautiful rose-pink vision, rising from the waves. But we find the tiny tear-drop island is all but deserted, apart from a few thousand souls who live in the only remaining town. Nothing remains of its former glory except for a crumbling Portuguese castle at the northernmost tip. But it is exquisitely beautiful and its craggy red mountains are layered with striations of pink, cream, yellow and pale green. The light is going down quickly, so we dash around the island, driving close to the cliff-tops to watch the sea churning the blood-red sand below and tasting the salt on our lips. Then rocks, sand and sea sink into inky shadows.

By the time we arrive back at the small harbour it is engulfed by darkness and there are no boats in sight. Nothing daunted, Yas makes a few phone calls and, with the promise of extra cash, persuades two islanders to take us back to the mainland. The boat is tiny and there are no life-jackets. We have a brief moment of crisis and then climb in, half-prepared for the worst.

The boat heads out slowly into the warm, silky darkness, then it gathers speed and begins to crash through the waves. Before long we are drenched. I have to shift about constantly on the narrow plank that serves as a seat and I have never been as uncomfortable or terrified in all my life.

The boatman’s mate stands in the prow of the boat to weigh it down. His legs are braced, he clutches a thick rope with one hand and the other is held high in the air like a rodeo rider. He remains there for the entire journey and his sense of balance is remarkable, given the way we are bouncing about on the water. Ten minutes into the journey I slowly relax my grip on the sides of the boat. I gaze upwards into the night sky, where the stars seem to blaze so close to the earth I feel I can almost touch them, and I throw my head back and laugh out loud.

It feels as if all the world is at the Minab Thursday morning market. It’s an immense, colourful, messy, noisy sprawl on the outskirts of the town and soon we’re swallowed up by the crowd.

We push our way through the outer layers, where the stalls are stocked with plastic toys, cheap clothing and gaudy fabrics, pausing to watch a thin old man haggling over the price of a few stiff sheets of dried tobacco.

Eventually our noses lead us toward elaborate displays of spice mixes and we plunge our hands into hessian sacks of cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon sticks, dried tangerine peel, peppercorns – all the bounty of the Orient. Although it is still early spring, there is an astonishing abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs here – many of which we are unable to identify. There are heavy bundles of sabzi – mixed herbs – and mounds of coconuts, tiny rose apples, lotus fruit, guavas and bananas. We are tempted by vats of syrupy dates flavoured with lemon zest and fennel seeds, and by tubs of tahini in varying shades of beige. But we make do, instead, with a big bag of blood oranges. Less appealing is mahyaveh, a thick red sludge unique to the Persian Gulf. An intensely salty anchovy sauce mixed with red soil from Hormuz Island, mahyaveh is used to flavour bread and to pep up the local version of crêpes.

We are inevitably drawn to the handicrafts section where women in traditional garb sit cross-legged on the ground next to their wares. Here on the Gulf there is none of the constant adjusting of chadors that you get elsewhere in Iran, that pulling of fabric across the face by way of concealment. Here many women wear masks – in woven red cloth, shiny gold or leather – that cover the face from brow to lip. The rest of the head is swathed in cloth and I feel hot just looking at them. When they turn their heads we catch a glint of a dark eye, and I think, rather uncharitably, that they look like evil birds.

By now it is late morning, our fingers are sticky from the oranges, the temperature and humidity are soaring and I’m feeling hot and resentful under my own hijab. In the privacy of our car on the drive back to Bandar Abbas, I rip off my scarf for a short period of respite, and thank my lucky stars

In the old town of bandar abbas, tucked away in a small square in the back streets, we find a crowd gathering for the first night of a traditional wedding ceremony. Carpets have been spread out next to a wall outside the groom’s house, and a group of about twenty men are sitting around drinking tea, waiting for the entertainment to begin, as more and more men arrive in a convoy of cars and motorbikes. The groom is pacing nervously, but politely invites us to stay and watch the fun.

Yas explains that traditional Iranian wedding ceremonies take place over several days. This is the first night of celebrations – the hanabandan ceremony – when the bride is decorated with elaborate henna designs and the groom and his family take gifts to her parents’ house.

Near by three musicians are tuning their instruments and getting dressed in their costumes. As they start up, a few small children and their mothers emerge from the groom’s house to watch. The leader of the group plays a ney ammbooni – a long wind instrument that sounds like a cross between bagpipes and an oboe – and before long the drums are beating faster and faster. A lone dancer jumps up to join the band, clicking his heels and shimmying his way around the square, his eyes halfclosed in a slow, secret smile.

By now night has fallen and it’s time for the gathered crowd to proceed to the bride’s house. And off they go, cutting a vivid, noisy swathe of colour and movement through the dark city streets. They beckon us to follow, and although we would love to join them, we have a feeling that this party will go on all night – and we have a plane to catch.

Make no mistake about it, for all their love of khoresht, which combine meat, fruit, vegetables, nuts and herbs, for Iranians the kebab is king. If there is any such thing as an Iranian national dish, then chelow kabab (lamb kebabs with rice) is it. The anglicisation – kebab or kebob – even comes from the Persian word ‘kabab’, which means ‘to grill’, and as you wander past the open-air food stalls and hole-in-the wall kebab restaurants dotted around the country’s bazaars – from the north to the south, the east to the west – it sometimes seems as though all of Iran is permeated by the intoxicating aroma of grilling meat.

This method of cooking reaches its apotheosis in specialist chelow kabab restaurants, where an extraordinary variety of meat and poultry skewers is offered with platters of plain or saffron rice. The kebabs arrive covered with a piece of flatbread. This method of cooking reaches its apotheosis in specialist chelow kabab restaurants, where an extraordinary variety of meat and poultry skewers is offered with platters of plain or saffron rice. The kebabs arrive covered with a piece of flatbread.

The skewers for kebabs are made from metal, which conducts the heat evenly from the inside out. These are flat, and come in varying widths. The widest are around 2 centimetres, and are used for minced meat kebabs – kabab koobideh. The mince will simply fall off anything thinner. The skinniest skewers are used for spearing small chunks of meat, offal and chicken, while medium-width skewers are used for the superlative kabab-e barg – wafer-thin strips of succulent lamb fillet.

The love of cooking over fire extends to the home as well, and many Iranians have their own small charcoal brazier or manqal for barbecuing. This is lit most evenings over the summer months and will often be packed into the boot of the car to take on picnics. Unlike the ‘bells and whistles’ barbecues that many Westerners seem to feel are essential, the manqal is nothing more than a simple tin box on short stubby legs that is filled with charcoal. There is no grill plate as such – rather, the kebabs rest on the edge of the box, suspended above the coals. The meat is cooked by the radiant lick of flame, instead of direct contact with hot metal – a much gentler, more aromatic way of grilling.

As for roasts, the Persians have been masters of the art for millennia. Spit-roasting whole beasts over an open fire is one of the earliest cooking methods known to man, and by the sixteenth century the Safavid court kitchens were refining the technique by roasting beasts and fowl with ever-more elaborate stuffings laden with fruits, nuts and herbs and sprinkled with flower waters. To this day, a whole baby lamb stuffed with a complex rice filling is essential at weddings, celebrations and religious festivals. Before the days of domestic ovens, roast meats and birds were taken to the neighbourhood bakery for cooking. But these days, Persian roast dishes can be happily cooked at home.

Most of the recipes in this chapter are intended to be eaten with rice, but, of course, they would be just as delicious served Western-style, with a salad or vegetable side dish.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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