Monday, November 5, 2012

Home Cooking in Gilan’s Misty Mountains


View of the Caspian Sea from
Khavar Khanoum's back porch

By Heidi Noroozy

I have a confession to make. For me, travel is all about the food. Sure, I like to visit museums, explore the back streets of ancient cities, and admire the myriad natural wonders our planet has to offer. But at the end of the day, you’ll find me in a café or restaurant, people watching and sampling the local cuisine.

Tehran has many culinary delights, everything from melt-in-your-mouth lamb kebabs at the Lux-e Talaee Restaurant on Vali Asr Avenue to Turkish coffee and pastries at Café Naderi, once a gathering place for writers and philosophers, where you’re served by aging waiters in red jackets who hark back to the days of the monarchy. Between exploring these local eateries, I can often be found sitting in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, helping prepare her famous kufteh Tabrizi, large meatballs made of lamb, rice, split peas, and herbs, simmered in a tomato sauce. For what better way to delight your taste buds than to offer them a home-cooked meal?

But if I want the best of both worlds—a home-cooked meal away from home—I head out of Tehran and over the Alborz Mountains to Gilan Province on the Caspian Sea, a five-hour drive on the scenic Chalous Road. High in the misty hills above the sleepy fishing village of Chaboksar, an energetic woman named Khavar Khanoum invites guests to enjoy Gilani specialties based on her family recipes and serves them on the back porch of her modest home.

Khavar Khanoum with
an assortment of fruit preserves
It’s not easy to get a table at Khavar Khanoum’s. Until recently, the first step was to get your hands on her phone number, which got passed along from friend to friend and relative to relative according to a system I call the Persian Grapevine. The day before you planned to visit, you’d call her up and tell her what you wanted to eat and when you planned to arrive. She’d do the shopping for your meal and those of the other guests who’d called that day, and by the time you arrived, your kebabs would be marinated and ready to slap on the grill.

At the agreed upon time, you’d get in your car (or call a taxi) and navigate the narrow, switchback road that leads up the mountainside, winding through green forests, fruit orchards, and past red-roofed farmhouses. Khavar Khanoum’s service includes a weather report because heavy rains often wash out the local roads, and when that happens she’ll tell you to come back the following week.

In those days, the restaurant was an extension of its owner’s expansive hospitality, with tables set up on her double-decker back porch. Every seat had a clear view of the green landscape, so while you waited for your hostess to cook your food on the open grill in her front yard, you admired the orange groves clinging to steep mountain slopes and the knobby tea fields tucked into hilly corners. Or let your gaze sweep over the blue expanse of the Caspian Sea as it stretched endlessly to the horizon.

Tables with a mountain view
A few years ago, Khavar Khanoum expanded her establishment and built a second structure next to her home. On the ground floor, it houses a new kitchen, built right into the hill. Two upper floors accommodate dining rooms that can seat two or three times the number of guests as the original restaurant’s wraparound porch. She even sells an assortment of home-made fruit pickles and preserves. The only downside is the pity I feel for the poor waiters who have to climb many flights of stairs carrying heavily laden trays.

Although you no longer have to call ahead of time, it’s still not easy to get a table due to the restaurant’s ever growing popularity. If you want a seat with a view these days, it’s best to arrive early. I miss the intimacy of the old arrangement when I’d sneak around front and watch Khavar Khanoum cook my meal, practice my Farsi (I’ve always been far more fluent in conversations about food than any other subject), and try to decipher her nearly incomprehensible Gilani accent. But the food remains as delicious as ever, and the menu still features the proprietor’s family recipes.

The meal begins with a tray of appetizers: yogurt, olives, and mirza ghasemi (a thick spread made of eggplant, tomatoes, eggs, and loads of garlic), served with paper-thin lavash bread. Next comes the main dish, a choice of kebab torsh (lamb or chicken marinated in a sweet-sour sauce made of pomegranate or plum paste and ground walnuts), grilled trout served with Seville oranges freshly picked from the orchard below the house, or roast chicken stuffed with zereshk (barberries) and herbs. All entrees come with rice topped by crispy tadigh (the golden crust from the bottom of the pot.) The meal ends with glasses of amber tea, syrupy dates, and perhaps a plate of rosewater-scented cookies.

Kebab torsh with...
...chelo (rice) and tadigh
I once convinced Khavar Khanoum to part with her precious recipe for kebab torsh, which she gave to me in the usual Iranian fashion—by listing the ingredients and leaving it up to me to figure out proportions. (You can find my version here.) My back yard lacks the spectacular view one sees from hers, but whenever I fire up the grill and slap on lamb skewers marinated in her special sauce, I’m transported back to the misty mountains of Gilan.

4 comments:

  1. It is lunch time here in Vermont. Our fist snow is falling outside. I'd give just about anything to have some of that delicious sounding food! When will you be coming to visit again???

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    1. You can try out the recipe in the link - though you might have to wait until the snow melts to fire up the barbecue. :) Is the snow sticking on the ground?

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  2. What a fun place to go! Sounds like a feast for the eyes and and the palate.

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