It’s almost 3pm in Iran’s bustling capital city of Tehran, and everyone is eager to settle in front of the television for another edition of Bahooneh – excuse – the longest running cooking show in Iran, hosted by Saman Golriz.
The 42 year-old is Iran’s first male Chef whose show has been broadcast on Iran’s national television for the last 16 years. In addition to being the handsome, vivacious male figure, Saman Golriz is also the keeper of the traditional Persian cooking rites. His commitment to and the deep love for his country is underscored in every remark he makes about Persian cooking, history of his land and people – and its rich, diverse cuisine stemming from 31 provinces of this vast land.
As the 18th-largest country in the world in terms of area (636,372 sq mi), Iran has a population of nearly 77 million – with nearly 22 now living in its capital city of Tehran dwarfed by the Alborz mountain chains that hug the expansive city. Since 1979, the country has been ruled by the Islamic clerics as an Islamic Republic.
A world traveler, eager to discover parts of the world through their cuisine, Golriz educates his audiences – TV viewers and radio show listeners — about Iran’s rich cultural history with a focus on its cuisine that is as ancient as the Persian Empire itself.
Spending a day with the young Chef means site visits to Tehran’s best eateries, frequent stops to admire ancient architectural sites in Tehran’s old – pre-revolution – streets, and of course photo-ops with his growing fan base who in-spite of his disguise of baseball hat and sun glasses, manage to spot him. Our roller coaster-like taxi ride with Golriz spits us out at the old shopping district of Tehran, untouched by the forced modernization of the Islamic regime. Here at the heart of Iran’s antique district is a bustling financial stronghold of antique dealers predominantly controlled by the Jewish merchants. Yes, despite the reports in the western media of the two nations’ animosities, the thriving Jewish community of Tehran has not lost its pre-revolution hold on the financial, fabric, carpet and antiques market. We rush through the bustling streets of Manuchehri, in central Tehran, flanked by Ferdowsi and Saadi streets – named after renowned 7th and 13th century Persian poets respectively.
Most Americans probably are unaware that Saadi’s famed poem is engraved at the entrance to the Hall of Nations in New York:
Of one Essence is the human race,
Thusly has Creation put the Base;
One Limb impacted is sufficient,
For all Others to feel the Mace
Today the streets of the poets are lined up on both sides with endless antique shops offering estate jewels, antique ceramics, pottery, sculptures and retro objects. Here eager shoppers practice the fine art of bargaining – the national sport here at the heartbeat of the commercial exchange district of Tehran. Golriz, who frequents these shops, greets shop owners by first name and makes quick stops to point out authentic architectural gems hidden away in alleyways and Passages and side streets as the commotion of Tehran’s outdoor stock market echoes a short distance away with leery characters armed with cellphones determining Tehran’s financial market and currency exchange rates.
Golriz leads us down Saadi Street to Khoshbeen Restaurant – claiming the place offers the most authentic of northern cuisine dishes. Iran’s 31 provinces pride themselves with distinct climate, cuisine, dialect and cultural traditions. Opened 30 years ago by Mr. Navidi and now run by his three sons, Khoshbeen has a sentimental value for Golriz: this is where his late uncles, local businessmen themselves, often met to have lunch. Moving through the sea of customers waiting for a table, Golriz reaches the front desk, just off the front door, and after the usual Persian formalities with the owners, we are led to an emptying table in the packed restaurant. Wasting no time, Golriz quickly orders and the waiter disappears into the small kitchen at the end of the one-room restaurant to reemerge with: Chicken and Beef Kebab Toursh marinated in pomegranate juice and crushed walnuts and aromatic herbs; fried fish delivered daily from the north in small batches. The kebabs melt in our mouth tantalizing our pallet with a fine balance of the tangy savory taste of the pomegranate and finely barbequed meat. The side dishes of marinated olives, Baghali Ghatough stew of lima beans in a juice of dill and garlic and Mirza Ghassmi eggplant, tomatoes, onion and eggs mixed to a perfect paste add more color and taste to our small feast.
As we sample each dish, Golriz is inundated with customers who stop by our table to comment on his show. One customer even asks why he’s at the restaurant – to which the quick witted Chef answers “I like to eat good food just like you.”
Next we’re off to the renowned Nayeb Restaurant on Vozara Street for a taste of the most authentic Chelo Kebab the city has to offer. The restaurant is run by Mohsen Rafijamal (Nayeb), the grand Nayeb’s daughter’s son who mastered his culinary touch by working at his grandfather’s chelo-kabab restaurant during summer vacations. The grand Nayeb-Gholamhossein and his family moved to Tehran in 1875, bought a public bath and designated a section for businessmen to enjoy a unique rice made with butter and a kabab dish which has since become the national Persian cuisine – the Chelo(rice)-kabab.
Since 1990, the Nayeb of Vozara has offered a high-end, elegant restaurant experience housed in basement level setting where white cloth covered tables are accentuated with Persian antiques, cast iron motifs and a professionally efficient operation. The “reception” desk is staffed with beautiful women in headscarves processing customer bills as a large crowd of customers await for their tables at a small waiting room adorned with a large marble bust of the grand Nayeb. Golriz quickly moves through the long line of customers waiting for a table, greets the owner and soon we are rushed to a table. Our entry creates an obvious stir as diners whisper and point to our table. Golriz spares no time to order the house specialty – Chelo Kabob. The dish most fervently claims its ancient fame and place at top of the best regarded Persian cuisine. The meat is moist and juicy and aromatic and a perfect accent to the buttery saffron rice accented with Tah-Chin a savory, saffron rice-cake. The experience is nothing short of exquisite.
As we say goodbye to the young Chef who rushes off to the recording studio to prepare for his show, he highly recommends we visit the city of numerous UNESCO registered historic sites, Isfahan and the Jarchibashi restaurant. We take his recommendation and traveling nearly 340 km south of Tehran, to visit Isfahan’s grand bazaar and then begin our search for the newly renovated historical “Jarchibashi” bath-house now turned into an authentic Persian restaurant.
Once one of the oldest bath-houses dating to the Safavid era in Isfahan, the restaurant is now accessed from an unassuming dirt alleyway off a side street close to the grand monuments of Naghshe-e-Jahan (Map of the world) Square – another UNESCO registered site.
The humble arched entryway to the restaurant is most definitely deceiving. The breathtaking interior welcomes us with crisscrossed archways that hug private dining nooks. Long elongated rectangular, blue-tiled shallow pools splatter with short gurgling fountains that soothe away weary travelers’ fatigue. Every nook of this restaurant is masterfully restored and colorfully painted by local artisans in ancient mosaic motifs. With a capacity to hold nearly 300 guests, the restaurant’s traditionally attired waiters are armed with mobile ordering gadgets. The menu is bi-lingual (English and Farsi) and each table is adorned with a fancy digital gadget where customers can push different buttons to call their waiter or request their bill.
The restoration of the dilapidated bathhouse started in 2003 and was spear headed by owner Haj Sayed Ahmad Eftekhari. Completed nine years later and some 4,350,000,000 Tomans (nearly $400,000) later, the restaurant opened for operations in 2012 with notable local and national public officials inaugurating the site as a historical, national monument.
Copper trays and samovars, handcrafted here in Isfahan by local artisans are placed elegantly throughout the restaurant as are shallow, square grills where tea pots are perched to a perfect brew. Although sitting underground, sunlight showers down from domed roof openings above where perforated openings capped with glass capture the sunlight and drop it down below ground.
We quench our thirst with a large glass of ice-cold Dough, a yogurt and herbs drink. Then our Baghali Polo – lima bean rice with dill and chicken arrives. The aroma of dill and saffron mix to a superb blend with tender chicken meat roasted with the rice and dill to create a crispy Tahdig flipped upside down on a plate.
The mouthwatering blend of the local cuisine, the re-imagined ancient bathhouse adorned with aesthetically placed copperware and the friendly service leaves us lingering long after we complete our feast.
Thankful for Golriz’s recommendation, we walk through this back alley to find our way back to the grand plaza. We find Golriz’s recently released cookbook – Back Streets and Alleyways of Cooking – a great companion to discovering authentic Persian dishes.
You can watch segments of Golriz’s Bahooneh show on YouTube. Some of his unique recipes are also available online at http://bahoone.tv3.ir/. Make sure you translate the site from Farsi to English and as they say in Farsi, Nooshe jan – Bon Appetit.
Jackie Abramian is a freelance writer based in Maine.
Copyright © 2013 Jackie Abramian