Biryani! Oh how I loved when it was on the menu at Em Nazih for lunch! Rice with pieces of chicken meat, spices and nuts. Yummy, yummy. Filling, but not too heavy, so I could continue studying the Lebanese dialect for couple of hours in the afternoon while digesting. Great with labneh on the side.
But then I went to Iran.
In Esfahan, shortly after my arrival to the city and after dropping off my stuff at the hotel, I went on Chahar Bagh street to look for something yummy. On the window of one little place, I saw biryani written in Persian. Great! I went in, and it was really a small, small restaurant, with no written menus. I saw they were making some kind of meal with minced lamb, and I order biryani.
I thought I was getting biryani.
I went to sit upstairs, and there were three guys sitting there by the table, all having the minced lamb. It is good thing they have biryani too, I would hate to have the minced lamb, I thought to myself. I never really eat red meat, and I definitely don’t like it minced.
Finally a guy comes upstairs with what I thought was biryani. Well, wrong. My Lebanese biryani was NOT what I was served here. I got the same minced lamb sandwich that the other visitors of the restaurant were enjoying. How could they dare, I thought while reluctantly eating the biryani that was just introduced to me. I was really hungry, so I tried it. Not that it was bad, but it was still lamb meat, and it was still a betrayal. Biryani is supposed to be rice with chicken … well. The world does not evolve around what I think biryani should be, right?
Sometimes you think you know while you are up for a surprise and an adventure.
Up: Iranian biryani
Down: Lebanese biryani
This amazing drink has saved my life a couple of times. How come? The heat and stomach problems, joined by fatigue and dehydration, is something one encounters more than rarely during the trips in the Middle East. This liquid food fills up, soothes the troubled tummy and calms down the storm in the intestines. I therefore recommend it to each group I take to the Middle East. Ayran can be found in Jordan, Syria, or Lebanon, the brands from Syria are probably the most tasty ones (to me). In Iran, dough is served instead, and it is a must-drink after lunch. No wonder I rarely have aching groups in Iran!
You won’t be far from the truth if when guessing I must have been hungry when I thought of this topic. Exactly. When the stomach cries out for food, the brain starts brainstorming … what was that dish that I ate in Jordan? How about having one of the Lebanese salads? Well, back to reality, I’m back home in Czech republic at the moment, so I can only dream. And this is what I dreamed of today …
Shenklish cheese. Very aromatic and strong cheese, covered by ground spices, served with chopped onions and tomatoes. Rare to find in the Arab world, delicacy in Jebel Ansarya, northwestern Syria. We used to be stopping with my clients at a small, family-owned restaurant with the view of Salah ad-Din castle where they would serve us breakfast with, among other things, a homemade Shenklish. This is truly YUMMY aspect of Orient.
When Marco Polo came to the city of Yazd, what did he see? Sandy city among the hills where Towers of Silence are scattered. He also saw the magnificent Yazdi souk with the quality silk being traded. He saw windcatchers or badgirs, mosques where Muslims pray.
And then Marco Polo got hungry. No wonder, because he saw the sweetest dates, blood-like pommegranets and huuuuge melons. Of course he got hungry! I am pretty sure that Marco Polo, having the experience with Chinese kitchen and coming home via Sri Lanka, did not starve nor ate just whatever. He was a man of developped taste for food and wine, and he was not an ascetic. And I am pretty sure Yazd catered Marco to him utmost satisfaction, just as it caters to me everytime I find myself in the magnificent desert wonderland.
My very favorite are the Yazdi breakfasts. Who said breakfast has to be boring, jam-and-butter necessity? The Yazdi breakfast of watermelon and dates accompanied by the thin bread, is something to crave for.
Lunch is fun when its light and fast, and the barley soup does one good whether in the winter time, when the winds are blowing crazy, or in the summer heat. Nothing is better than a hot, hot and nourishing soup.
And the dinner? The dinner should be a feast, chicken or fish, lamb or beef, and tons, tons of rice. When Marco found out what the meaning of his last name (Polo – rice in Persian) was, no doubts he was proud.
Now here comes the most delicious one – the Dizzy soup!
I have to admit that I have always watched, and never, except for a couple of sip of the clear soup, tried it. This is just way too much for me.
The Dizzy soup comes in a big bowl, meat and the soup all together, and what you need to do is separate …. you pour the soup into another bowl. Then you take the mashing instrument to mash the pieces of meat, yes the brain as well, to make it into a spread to put on the bread … quite a process, isn’t it? I’ve heard my friend say that this is only doable when one has enough time not only to eat, but also to digest afterwards …
I admit this is a challenge for me.
Only in Iran you go straight to the sleep after the meal because only there it’s not only possible but even recommended and expected. I talk, of course, about the tacht, or a sitting area for meals, that looks like something between a large bed and a sofa, for 2 to 10 people, that can be found in most of the traditional restaurants.
First of all, the shoes off! Nobody is interested at looking at the soles of the shoes, and it is not even comfortable to sit so. Then, find your seating space! In the corner or on the side, maybe by the “exit” if you need to pee often. Next, get comfortably seated in the best position – Turkish style or legs on the side, just stay comfortable so that your legs or back don’t fall asleep. Once this is all achieved, eat well and eat light, your twisted stomach won’t let you take in much anyway. And then, finally, collapse! Lay down, stretch your legs and digest!
On my way from Damascus to Tehran I didn’t have a chance to get hungry. The train crew in the Syrian train was feeding me more than well with the fish cans, bread and eggs, sweets and coffee. But the Iranian train crew introduced me to the Alpha and Omega of the Iranian cuisine … the Chalou Kebab.
After about 48 hours on train, one meets a lot of different people even if he or she is not too social. I was social only because I shared the berth with a Lebanese Shia family traveling on a pilgrimage to Iran. They had some Lebanese goodies with them, but then the time of lunch came and with it came my first Chalou Kebab. Marinated pieces of chicken meat buried deep under the rice mountain, with a juicy onion and a grilled tomato. Extra butter for the rice? Yes, why not. And it was a true love at the first sight, and a staple for the month to come.
I have to say that for someone who does not like meat apart from chicken and turkey, this was a great treat. I always think of the healthy Iranian chicken having real, natural meat as opposed to the chicken we get in Europe. Or at least, I hope so. Kebab is a real comfort food, the only discomfort brings the look at the scale after a month of this staple – four kilos more of weight!