It’s punched-up barbecue, barbecue for the nose: smoky grilled meat swathed with heady scents of saffron, butter, onions and aromatic rice.
No wonder the shah of Iran wanted his chelo kebab.
About 150 years ago, Naser od-Din Shah was yearning for the kebabs he’d grown up on in Azerbaijan, so he ordered an Azerbaijani homeboy to open a chelo kebab stand just outside his palace in Tehran. That way he could send out for a fragrant skewer or two whenever he felt like it. (It’s good to be the shah.) As a result, chelo kebab fever spread through Tehran, then all of Iran.
Generations later, it was bound to reach Southern California because we have the largest Iranian colony in the country -- nearly half the Iranians in the U.S. live here. Today there are about 60 Persian restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange counties, ranging in stature from food court stalls to splashy supper clubs.
All those refugees from the Iran of the mullahs (and the oppressive Reza Shah, who ruled the country before them) have made us the national headquarters for one of the world’s great cuisines, one that has influenced cooks from India to Morocco. Chelo kebab -- literally pilaf (chelo) and roast meat -- is just the tip of the iceberg; this is a cuisine of fresh herbs and long-simmered stews, of walnuts and pomegranate juice, of rosewater and dried limes. Above all, of saffron -- Iranians are the most saffron-happy cooks in the world.
Whether you’re in a plain little spot such as Vanak in Tarzana, where the decor is basically a couple of prints of the old country and a wall menu written in Persian with a felt-tip pen, or a grand restaurant such as Darya in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, with its marble floors, Corinthian columns, mirrored bar and grand piano, as soon as you’re seated you’ll get flatbread ... and a whole onion. Some people like to alternate their food with bites of onion, while others will eat the whole thing, just like an apple. Raw onion is considered good for the health.
On the appetizer list, you’ll find, along with Middle East cliches like stuffed grape leaves and cucumbers in yogurt, a few unique specialties: cold eggplant slices dressed with tart whey (kashk-o-bademjan) and a very rich warm dish of eggplant with yogurt and fried onions (borani). There are always pickled vegetables, because Iranians like very sharp vinegar pickles -- cucumbers, cauliflower, carrots, even pickled whole garlic cloves.
There may be a couple of salads, including olivieh, a sort of cross between potato salad and chicken salad, and a couple of thick, substantial soups (Iran has bitterly cold winters), such as ash-e jou: barley, lentils, kidney beans and rice, topped with fried mint.
But the most Persian starter of all is sabzi khordan, a plate of fresh raw herbs, always including basil, often with other herbs such as mint and tarragon. It’s a wonderfully light and refreshing way to begin a meal, and many diners keep the herbs on the table throughout the meal to alternate with bites of kebab, just as they do with the pickles and onion.
Then there are the kebabs, mostly beef or chicken, elegantly perfumed with onion and saffron. The most distinctive type of chelo kebab is barg (“leaf”), a chunk of filet carefully cut so that it unfolds into a long, thin strip, to be threaded onto a skewer for grilling.
The other classic chelo kebab is more familiar. Kubideh (koobideh) is ground meat molded into a sort of skinless sausage around a skewer with a relatively broad, flat blade that keeps the meat from slipping around. Outside chelo kebab places, this is what’s known as luleh (“tube”) kebab. In other Middle Eastern countries, it’s called kofta kebab, kofta and kubideh both being Persian words meaning “chopped.”
In Iran, the usual meat is lamb, but the American way of butchering lamb makes the proper cut for barg, the filet, prohibitively expensive. At chelo kebab places, beef filet nearly always replaces lamb in kebab barg, though more traditional, or upscale, places usually offer Turkish-style lamb shish kebab or baby lamb chops grilled on skewers. Chicken and fish are also grilled chelo kebab-style.
Chelo kebab became the staple of Iranian restaurants because it’s short-order food. Classic Persian home cooking, though, is very much slow food, based on khoresh, a long-simmered cross between a stew and a sauce, which is served on rice. Generally speaking, the grander the restaurant, the more khoreshes it offers.
The commonest are ghormeh sabzi (a hearty but relatively plain stew with beans, parsley and perhaps other herbs such as fenugreek) and gheimeh (with split peas and tomato sauce). Ferdussi in Santa Ana is one place that serves a gheimeh memorably scented with pickled lime. The most spectacular khoresh is fesenjan, based on the inspired combination of pomegranate juice and ground walnuts.
Often these flavorings are cooked separately from the meat and treated as a sauce that can appear with more than one meat -- the usual fesenjan comes with stewed chicken, but the Shamshiri chain has a particularly appealing lamb shank version. Some places serve khoreshes without meat at all, as rich, aromatic vegetarian entrees.
Of course, every entree comes with rice pilaf. The Iranians invented pilaf, and they are still the masters of it, every grain fragrant and perfectly cooked. Often you can order a special pilaf (polo) mixed with fruits or other ingredients.
Rice is treated with reverence in the Middle East. Mothers sometimes warn their children that on Judgment Day they’ll be obliged to seek out every grain of rice they’ve ever wasted -- and pick it up with their eyelashes. Persian-style pilaf is so fragrant and attractive, it’s hard to imagine wasting any.
On the other hand, the tradition of lavishing the guest with hospitality means that chelo kebab restaurants traditionally give you a real mountain of rice. (In general, portions are very large and meant for sharing, and Persian restaurants presume that you’ll be taking home a doggie bag.) But recognizing that not everybody wants so much rice in this low-carbohydrate age, some places now offer the option of half rice, half salad.
That’s not the only sign that chelo kebab is encountering the American mainstream. There’s an old Persian custom of making a little well in your rice and mixing melted butter and a raw egg yolk in it, making an ultra-rich sauce for dipping your kebab into. This has totally gone out of fashion, because Iranians now worry about cholesterol too. For that matter, traditional chelo rice is doused with melted butter, but these days a lot of Persian places just offer diners a pat or two of butter on the side, to use at their discretion.
Another custom that may be declining is sprinkling everything with a tart purplish powder called somagh, which is ground sumac berries. It’s the Iranian equivalent of squeezing a lemon on your food, but quartered lemons seem to be replacing it. Still, there’s usually a somagh shaker on every table.
Persian restaurants congregate where there’s a high concentration of Iranians, such as the Westside; you can find a dozen in the Beverly Hills-Santa Monica corridor. There are another dozen in Orange County, and even more -- 16 -- in the west end of the San Fernando Valley. About nine are hidden away in downtown Los Angeles, serving the fashion and jewelry districts.
Most Persian restaurants also cater, and for a lot of them that’s their main business, because Iranians are inveterate party-throwers. While apartment-hunting in Tehran, L.A.-based filmmaker Aryana Farshad recently found to her dismay that all the bedrooms, bathrooms and closets were intolerably small to her now-Americanized tastes. They were built that way to leave as much room as possible for living and dining rooms.
Most of the Iranians who’ve come to this country since the 1970s are professionals, and they’ve done very well here. In upscale neighborhoods such as Irvine or the West Valley, restaurants compete for customers with extravagant decor. They may look almost like private clubs, but they’re very welcoming to strangers, because of the Persian love of hospitality.
Javan, located at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Butler Avenue in West L.A., has a particularly sophisticated bar, with windows looking onto both streets. The grandest place has to be the huge Caspian Restaurant in Irvine, full of Corinthian columns, marble floors and trompe l’oeil murals. You can’t miss it because of the carvings of bulls out front, done in the style of old Persia -- very old Persia, 2,500 years ago. But even many a little strip mall place can surprise you with sumptuous features, such as the Art Moderne disk in the ceiling at Shoomal in Tarzana.
Most of the fancier restaurants have live entertainment: Persian crooners, Persian pop tunes, the Persian version of the belly dance (very big on graceful hand movements) and familiar American hits. I once heard a singer segue from a warbling Persian love ballad to the ‘50s classic “Rock Around the Clock.”
Outside the major Persian areas, chelo kebab often takes on a local coloring. Tajrish Persian Kabob House in health-conscious Marina del Rey advertises low-carb food. In largely Latino Van Nuys, there’s a place named Paraiso Kabab. In remoter neighborhoods, chelo kebab cafes may hedge their bets by adding pizza or gyro sandwiches to their menus.
A few of the restaurants advertise that they use halal meat, but most are not ostentatiously Muslim. In fact, the high-end places all serve wine and liquor, no matter what the mullahs may say. A number of Javan’s cosmopolitan regulars order Scotch or Cognac by the bottle. Generally the wine lists are pretty basic.
Because of the large numbers of Iranian Jews who have immigrated here, we have several kosher Persian restaurants in our area. You’re not likely to see anything like them elsewhere in the country. At Kolah Farangi in Santa Monica, one side of the menu (written in Persian) is all chelo kebab and the other is kosher Chinese food. In Encino, Ravak serves kosher kebabs -- and also provides hookahs and backgammon boards for your Old World enjoyment.