In Iran Episode 24

About Nilanjan Hajra

Nilanjan Hajra, 49, is a poet, traveller and gourmet. He earns his living as a journalist.

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I return to the Cultural Center with confused heart and mind.

When I had planned my trip to Khoy to pay my respects to Hazrat Shams-i-Tabrizi, I had at the back of my mind a whole lot of curiosity buzzing about the place. The visit to the tomb had so prosaically put an end to all of that, that a strange of dissatisfaction seemed to be lingering in my thoughts.


 It is nine in the morning. Mortaza and some of his colleagues of the Center invite me for a rudimentary breakfast. Bread, honey, eggs and tea. We chat. I tell them about my feelings. They are surprised. Hadn’t Shams always fled from the possibility of any institution around him? That was the reason why he had run away from Konya. It is also no less surprising that despite being such a great Sufi saint, very little is known about his life. Sufis believe that no one can reach the saints of such order unless the saints themselves so desire.

When in the evening, to my endless embarrassment, the Mayor of Khoy – Mehboob Tiz Paz Niyati and the head of the city’s powerful Islamic Council, Muhammad Reza, organize a small programme to felicitate me, I pick up the thread from my morning conversation with the Center’s friends, and tell the audience that I do believe Shams has brought me to Khoy; I didn’t come on my own. In that programme I receive as gifts two things. A stunningly beautiful decorated edition of Mawlana Rumi’s Masnavi, complete in two volumes (each of the volumes being about 10Kg in weight. Look at the Mawlana’s fate, could he ever imagine that his magnum opus would be measured in Kgs by some uneducated fool! But the moment I was handed over the volumes, their breathtaking beauty notwithstanding, my knee-jerk reaction was to ponder over how much overweight I might be during my flights!) I am also given a beautiful blue flower vase.

 Don’t worry dear poet, I will make sure that the volumes are passed on from generation to generation in my family as precious heirlooms.

 At the end of the programme the Mayor asks Mortaza where had he arranged my stay? “In my home.”

“Why not in the city’s best five star hotel?”

(Actually he had named the hotel, which Mortaza later told me was the city’s best hotel, but I don’t remember it now as I write.)

For a moment I see Mortaza caught off-guard. He had offered me what he thought would be the deepest of courtesy, his home. The Mayor clearly has got it completely wrong. I quickly come to Mortaza’s rescue.

 “Aga!,” I tell the Mayor, “Staying at a five star would have been a pleasure. Staying at Mortaza’s home with his family is an honour. In Shams’ land must we not choose the latter?!” We all laugh and the momentary cloud is blown away. Before departing, the Mayor instructs Mortaza that all needs of the Musafir must be taken care of. I assure him that since the moment of my arrival at Khoy airport, I have not had to ask for a single thing.

 After breakfast and a tour of the Centre, Mortaza takes me out for a tour of the city. It’s a very small town, we just walk around for a few hours. We visit the bazaar, which is miniscule in comparison to the ones in Tabriz, Tehran or Isfahan. Next, Mortaza drives me around the outskirts of the city. Finally around two in the afternoon he declares that he will treat me to the best Khoy cuisine in Khoy’s best restaurant. I have forgotten the name of the restaurant. It’s small and plain. After we take our seats Moraza announces, “Now I shall treat you Iran’s best food: Chello Kebab. This restaurant specializes in Chello.” I don’t know what to say beyond polite thanks.

 Dropping into Park Street’s landmark restaurant Peter Cat for a plate of Chello and a couple of chilled beer for lunch is a very long time habit. There was a time when in the whole of Kolkata you got Chello only in Peter Cat. It is still the restaurant’s signature dish, and certainly offers good value for money, though not really anything to write home about. I remember the Peter Cat menu also declares it to be an Iranian dish. What arrives is elementarily similar to what we get at Peter Cat. But there are important differences too. On a plateful of rice, here in Khoy, the poached egg is missing. Instead of two small cubes of butter is a large lump that we, in an average Bengali home, could use with our morning toasts for a good one week. There is no sliced cucumber and only one kind of meat kebab is served: about 10 inches long, couple of inches wide and equally thick. The first bite into the meat confirms, it has nothing to do with Peter Cat’s Chello.

If I must compare, I shall compare it with the Kaburge Kebab served in two tiny restaurants, Afghan Daurbar and Kabul, tucked in the enormous bustle of New Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar Market. The similarity is in the simplicity of taste: a simple tapestry of lamb meat, onion and garlic. In the Mughlai and Punjabi kebabs served in many Indian restaurants there’s an ugly jostle among cinnamon, clove, cardamom black and green, nutmeg, mace, cumin, coriander, bay leaf, coriander leaf, ginger, onion, garlic, turmeric and anything else you can imagine. More often than not that is a disaster. And in some restaurants they actually boil the meat before preparing Kebabs! What do you do with those chefs! One notable difference between Kaburge, as served in the two Delhi restaurants, and authentic Iranian Chello is that the former is much more chewy.  As I proceed into the food, with every bite, I realize that if Shams left leaving us the wisdom about the sufferings of the worldly traps, his compatriots have equally mastered the art of preparing the bait!


Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra


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5 Response Comments

  • Doug13/06/2017 at 8:50 PM

    Nilanjan – How did the food compare to the kabobs we ate at the Bihar Restaurant near New Market? Doug

    • Nilanjan Hajra14/06/2017 at 7:37 AM

      The Kabobs in Iran were far less oily and don’t have the confusion of spices that is a problem with Bihar restaurant beef Kababs. I like elementary food, like the one you treated me to: raw mussels and red wine in Baltimore, remember? What a day it was!!

  • Doug30/08/2017 at 1:15 AM

    How would you rate the Chello Kebab at Peter Cat, after being in Iran and tasting the real thing?!?

  • Nilanjan Hajra30/08/2017 at 3:25 PM

    Well Mr. Kelly: The Peter Cat restaurant’s Chello is basically different from the restaurant in Khoy’s Hojali Restaurant. A. Peter Cat’s kebabs served in Chello lacks the amazing flavour of Saffron and Sumac. B. At Hojali it was lamb-meat, with a far deeper flavour than goat-meat. C. In Peter Cat the kebab meat is ‘boti’, that is small pieces, at Hojali and elsewhere in Iran the Chello meat is sliced, which gives a completely different texture.
    The only thing in which I shall give Peter Cat more marks is the rice. The Basmati here is far more aromatic.

    • Doug30/08/2017 at 8:19 PM

      Laurel agrees with you on the sumac – she spent 6 years in Tehran as a child, and is still obsessed with sumac!

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