Wednesday, November 30, 2011

And Justice For None

There are too many social injustices that we find difficult to wrap our heads around. Most recently, here in the United States, the reckless and brazen improprieties of many chief executives who mismanaged and, in some cases, outright pilfered the accounts of their employees and investors is among the most recent. We scratch our heads at the Bernie Madoffs and Kenneth Lays, and how long justice takes and, often, overlooks altogether. Many retirement funds and nest eggs were completely wiped out by these egregious crimes. Then there was this: “We had no idea how derivatives even really worked,” some lenders cried after the U.S. subprime mortgage lending industry crashed in the late 2000s, in essence letting most of the perpetrators off the hook, despite the many home foreclosures and bankruptcies suffered by ordinary Americans as a result.

It’s truly devastating, it is, and I don’t mean to minimize any of it one bit by the story I’m about to tell. But seriously, try wrapping your head around this one. It’s a nearly 30-year-old story that you’ve no doubt heard about, but I’m thinking, like me, maybe you haven’t given it much thought since the mid-80s or followed it down to its climax and recent denouement. But it’s a doozy.

As you may know, on December 2, 1984, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh, leaked 40 tons of poisonous gas that killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people and permanently injured between 100,000 and 200,000, including causing severe birth defects of 3,000 yet-to-be-born babies. Overall, the government has recorded more than 550,000 injuries. More than a third of those affected were under the age of 15.

If you think about all the horrible, horrible industrial accidents caused by mega-companies all over the world then realize that the Bhopal tragedy was the world’s worst industrial accident in history, it’s truly mind-boggling.

By the morning of December 3, mass funerals and mass cremations were being performed. It was so overwhelming, bodies were just being tossed into the local Narmada river. Some 170,000 people were being treated at local hospitals and clinics. Thousands of farm animals dropped dead. Within days, the leaves on the city’s trees turned yellow and all fell off. Stillbirths went up 300%, and neonatal deaths by 200%. Autopsies showed lungs, brains, kidneys, and liver all affected. Children were hit harder than adults because of their shorter stature and because the gas cloud stayed closer to the ground. Many people were trampled as they tried to flee. Imagine this – those who ran died faster than those who escaped by vehicles. The survivors suffer cardiac failure; immune, respiratory, and neurological disorders; reproductive issues; severe eye damage; and all those many birth defects. In many cases, birth defects affected the children of women who weren’t even pregnant at the time but became pregnant much later than the accident.

It’s awful, but you’ve probably heard about most of this before. Or maybe you read Amulya Malladi’s amazing novel, A Breath of Fresh Air, and were familiar with the kind of personal devastation such an accident could create. Even so, it’s a tragedy almost impossible to wrap your head around, no?

But there’s more. So much more.

At the time of the accident, formal statements were released saying the air, water, vegetation, and food in the city were all safe. (They were not.) The official Union Carbide doctor was asking the Indian government for information on the chemical properties of the gas cloud and how to treat the injuries because he didn’t have this information himself. In fact, none of the area hospitals or clinics had any clue how to treat the thousands upon thousands of patients streaming in but were instructed just to provide cough syrup and eye drops.

From 1976, many (more than a dozen) serious safety violations by the company had been reported. These violations had resulted in at least one death, several hospitalizations, and one burn victim. It was a well-known fact that most of the company’s safety systems weren’t operational, that employees weren’t required to wear even protective masks let alone other safety gear, and that a whopping 70% of Union Carbide’s Indian employees had been fined for refusing to deviate from the proper safety regulations because of pressure from management. The company was in serious cut-back mode, especially when it came to training and maintenance. Most Bhopal workers had no proficiency in English but had to figure out how to perform their work using only English manuals. The local authorities were not informed of what chemicals were being used at the plant. There was no action plan in case of any accident. Most of the alarms and safety systems weren’t working that night, by Union Carbide’s own admission.

And yet….

Union Carbide and the Indian government to this day maintain that the accident had nothing to do with the permanent injuries that have been documented. Despite all the many safety violations, company executives – including CEO Warren Anderson, who fled the country – claim the incident occurred because of sabotage by a disgruntled employee.

Not one person was so much as indicted or convicted for 25 years after the incident occurred.

Union Carbide, during litigation offered $350 million (think about that!) for damages whereas the Indian government asked for $3 billion. They settled at $470 million. By the early 1990s, the average amount that had gone to families of the dead was about $2,200.

And finally, in June 2010, seven former employees were convicted. They were all Indian nationals, and all released on bail shortly after the verdict. Had they not posted bail, they would only have had to serve out a two-year prison term, about the same, commented an official of Amnesty International, as for a traffic violation.

When Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson tried to leave the country a few days after the leak, Bhopal police arrested him at the airport but released him after he posted bail. The now-89-year-old maintains homes in Florida, Connecticut, and New York. The Indian government has tried extraditing him ever since, to no avail. The U.S. government hasn’t been cooperative and has made no move to facilitate an extradition. In 1986, Anderson retired from Union Carbide and has never quite understood all the hullaballoo about extradition and civil suits that followed. After all, he helped his company reach the $470 million settlement, didn’t he? What more could they want from him?

In an interesting story, a CBS reporter knocked on Anderson’s front door in 2009, right after the Indian government had released a recent warrant for his arrest. Lillian Anderson, the former CEO’s wife, answered the door and said her husband wasn’t home. When she learns about the warrant, she assumes it’s “some political thing.” She adds that, “When you get to be 87 or 85 years old, you just don't remember anything. You try to put bad things out of your mind."

Her husband is “haunted” by the events that took place in Bhopal, she admits, but she doesn’t approve of the witch hunt to try to punish him. “Every time somebody wanted to sue the company, there would be some kind of a thing that happened, and they would be chasing after Warren, following him to the dump with our trash," she said.

"This is 25 years of unfair treatment, before CEOs were paid what they're paid today."

She’s referring to the unfair treatment of her husband, of course, not the real victims who grow older, their injuries and pain over lost loved ones irreversible. These victims say they’ll keep on fighting, but with this week marking the 27th anniversary of the tragedy, justice seems farther out of reach than ever.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Crime of Being Different

If I lived in Iran and had the choice to wear the mandatory hejab (scarf and knee-length tunic) typical in that country, or to go bare-headed, I’d choose the latter. It’s a lot more natural to me, and I’ve not yet mastered the fine art of keeping the scarf on my head. It tends to fall off, and I have to constantly tug it up again, which can get rather tedious. There are certain situations where I’d wear hejab voluntarily – while visiting shrines, attending religious ceremonies, or as a guest in a traditional family’s home. But these things are not frequent items on my itinerary during a trip to Iran.

Of course, I don’t have much say in what I get to wear on the street, since hejab in public spaces is the law in the Islamic Republic, and I’m a law-abiding traveler who respects the rules and customs of every country I travel to, whether I like them or not. The way I see it, my struggles with the elusive scarf are more than worth the price of entry into such a fascinating society.

Still, I’m well aware that many Iranian women do find the hejab requirement a burden. But not for the reasons often cited in the West, where may people see hejab as the most visible symbol of women’s oppression in the Islamic world. But to Iranian women, hejab itself is not a sign of oppression, but the fact that the generic garment removes the choice of expressing one’s personal style and individuality.

I wish someone had mentioned this to French President Nicolas Sarkozy last spring before his government passed a law prohibiting Muslim women from wearing the full veil in public. The item the law refers to is the niqab, a piece of cloth worn across the face and hiding everything but the eyes.

Sarkozy sold the niqab ban to the public as the need to “liberate” women from the “prison” of their Islamic dress code. Huh? Did anyone ask the women whether they wanted to be liberated? Whether they felt “imprisoned?” Does anyone in the 21st century still believe that Muslim women are not allowed to draw breath unless their fathers, brothers, and husbands grant permission?

It could be (and has been) argued that the niqab is a religious symbol and a secular society is justified in banning it in public, along with the symbols of other religions. In fact, this was the argument behind the 2004 decision to prohibit girls from wearing headscarves in French schools. (At least there was no pretense about “liberating” them from their scarves.)

But is the veil really a religious symbol, like a Christian cross, the Star of David, or the Muslim crescent? I doubt many veiled Muslim women would see it that way. They wear the veil because, to them, it is required for a woman to protect her modesty. And if the niqab is a religious symbol, then why not the khefiyeh (the checked scarf that many Arab men wear on their heads)? Why should only women be singled out?

Interestingly, in the months since France’s niqab law went into force, it has rarely been applied. Only a handful of veiled women have been arrested or fined, even though many are simply ignoring the ban. Unfortunately, attacks (both verbal and physical) against veiled women are on the rise. Bus drivers refuse to allow these women to board, shopkeepers and restaurants deny them service, people on the streets hurl insults and sexual innuendo at them. For many, a trip to run errands or drop children off at school has become an ordeal.

This unfortunate trend isn’t coming out of the blue. There has long been an attitude of suspicion against Islam in Western societies. Even here in the United States, I sometimes feel a sense of disapproval when people give me startled and sometimes pitying looks after learning I am married to an Iranian. But when a legislative body passes a law as discriminatory as the niqab ban, it gives people license to express and act on attitudes they would otherwise have kept to themselves.

But let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? The niqab ban isn’t a form of liberation. It’s islamophobia.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Off the Beaten Track: A Tibetan Wedding in Kathmandu

Tibetan Bride
Tracy Tyson is an American educator living in Nepal, where she trains teachers and helps schools set up Montessori programs. Several years ago, while living in a village near Charikot, she attended a Tibetan wedding on a trip to Kathmandu. This is her account of that experience.

Not long ago, a Tibetan friend in Kathmandu was preparing for her daughter’s wedding and invited me to the festivities, which were to take place at her house. I leaped at the chance to experience this fascinating tradition.

On arrival, my hosts escorted me into the living room, where I was shortly joined by a group of older Tibetans. The women sat cross-legged on the floor, while the men took the couches that stood about the room. Most of these men carried a bottle of either beer or whiskey, which they set down on a low table near one of the couches.

One man, who seemed to be officiating, took up position behind an urn where burning incense scented the air, and a couple of elderly men joined him, one on either side. On the wall behind them hung a poster of Avril Lavigne in a rather Goth outfit. What an image!

After the hosts handed beer around, a toast was made, and everyone received an honorary white scarf, draped around their necks. Next, the men started chanting, much like in a Tibetan monastery, and then the women sang something in response. They repeated this ritual several times.

When they’d finished, the "master of ceremonies" picked up a long leaf, dipped it into an urn that held some kind of liquid, and flicked the leaf toward the guests sitting around the room. He dipped the leaf back in the liquid and put a few drops of it in each person's palm. We all licked the liquid off our palms and smacked our lips with a loud flourish! (It tasted a bit like oil with lemon.)

Next, everyone received a fistful of rice and, after a few words from the MC, threw a bit of rice into the air and shouted "ho!". This ritual repeated three times, and then it was back to the chanting and singing. Later, I learned that the older Tibetans who’d joined me in the living room were elder relatives of the bride and groom, and by licking the liquid and throwing the rice, they were indicating that they had no objections to the match.

Khapsey Wedding Pastries
At one point, the bride and groom came in the room to receive blessings from the assembled elders. The bride wore a traditional Tibetan dress (that wraparound style you see in the movies) and had a woolen shawl draped around her shoulders. Her hair fell down her back in a long braid with a red ribbon interwoven at the end. The groom had on a Nepali-style suit with narrow-legged pants and a suit jacket, and on his head he wore a light-pink turban!

After the marriage ceremony came the reception, held at a Tibetan temple located a 15-minute bus ride from my friend’s house. Here the guests enjoyed course after course of food, along with plenty of beer. The bride and groom sat behind a table at the head of the room, with around 150 guests assembled cross-legged at low tables on the floor.

Interestingly, the bride's mother, my friend, sat on the main floor along with all the other guests and not at the dais with the groom’s relatives (the bride's father lived in the U.S. and wasn't able to attend the wedding). So I took a spot on the floor beside her. She understood little English, and I didn't know the right kind of Nepali to ask questions about what was going on, so the meaning of a lot of what I saw remains a mystery to me! But I did notice an unopened bottle of beer up on the dais with a white scarf draped around its neck, and I wondered if blessing your beer prevented hangovers!

Tibetan Butter Tea
After the first course of the meal, the guests stood up table by table and formed a line. Then each guest approached the bride and groom and draped a white scarf around each of them. They also deposited an envelope filled with money into a big bowl that stood in front of the newlyweds and was decorated with, you guessed it, another big white scarf!

Given the huge number of guests, this took quite a while and periodically, when the volume of the scarves around the necks of the bride and groom threatened to swallow their heads, they were removed to make room for more. (The scarves, not the heads!) The newlyweds apparently received quite a substantial fund to start their married life with!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Abroad

Edith McClintock is one of our new contributors to Novel Adventurers and will be blogging every other Thursday. She is a globe trekking author whose recent travels have taken her to Central Asia and the Middle East. You can read more about her travels at: A Wandering Tale.

I’ve only celebrated four Thanksgivings abroad—three in Suriname, and one in the Republic of Georgia. Most have been in the United States, where we travel cross-country on crowded flights to visit family, squabble, cook for days, and eat until we’re semi-catatonic.

In my immediate family, when we were young, we were always reminded that the Pilgrims eventually slaughtered their Native American friends, just as all those poor turkeys were being slaughtered across the country. Fun stuff when you’re ten. But eventually my family stopped arguing about Native Americans and began eating meat. The few holdouts were accommodated with an ever-rotating version of vegetarian Turkey. Thanksgiving became about visiting and appreciating family. Celebrating gratitude, not lingering anger. And drinking lots of wine.

Celebrating abroad is not so different, just minus the traditional family. In Suriname, the American Ambassador threw us Peace Corps volunteers a Thanksgiving pool party each year. We celebrated the old-fashioned way—turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and canon balls into the pool. Like in the US, it was a time to offer thanks for our two-years together, not to mention a free meal.

Last year, as a Peace Corps Response volunteer in Georgia, I celebrated, as one should, in excess—attending three Thanksgiving dinners. The first was a few weeks early since the volunteers were gathering for a training. Everyone contributed to the food and various preparation tasks, and the staff brought wine. The Ambassador came and over a hundred of us sat down together—at a very long table—then moved outside to mingle around a bonfire.

On the actual Thanksgiving weekend, I traveled to Borjomi, a small mountain town, where a friend threw a Thanksgiving dinner for her Georgian co-workers, combining traditional American Thanksgiving fare with a touch of Ukrainian from her own heritage.Her host family added Georgian dishes and brought out their homemade wine for hours of toasting our gratitude.

The following night, we celebrated again, this time with a blend of Peace Corps volunteers, American teachers, and Georgians. Our host was Chinese-American and added a specialty from his own family’s Thanksgiving dinner—delicious fried rice. The Georgians, of course, brought homemade wine.

Thanksgiving in Georgia was a time to feel nostalgic for my family and home, but also reminded me of the diversity of America, from the Native Americans, to the Pilgrims fleeing England, to every immigrant that’s arrived since. To all the world traditions we’ve blended into our celebrations.

I think it’s what Americans should remember this year, if only for one day. Not lingering anger over history. Not the divisive, angry politics currently polarizing the United States. Because while none of us celebrate it quite the same way, we can all be grateful, both here and abroad, for a few shared desires—peace, a good harvest, and friendship.

But not football. Football is boring.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Favorite of the Pharaohs

As I write this, I’m preparing to drive 15 hours to Tennessee to a huge family gathering where, on Thanksgiving Day, we’ll mark the occasion by dining on both traditional American and Indian meals. But my mind right now is on my latest manuscript, set in Cairo, and the big spread of comfort foods Egyptians enjoy there every year. 

Not at Thanksgiving, mind you, but on a smaller scale, every evening during Ramadan with the iftar fast-breaking meal just after sunset, and especially on the final evening of Ramadan, with the traditional feast of the Eid ul-Fitr. Muslims the world over celebrate the end of Ramadan with the Eid dinner in celebratory fashion, surrounded by family and friends.


Each country has its own special dish (dishes, really) that you can count on to be served at either the iftar or especially on Eid. In Algeria, it’s harira, a lamb and chick pea stew simmered in tomatos and herbs, or lahm lhalou, a dish of lamb stewed in prunes. In Turkey, it might be kobete, a savory pie filled with chicken and buttery rice. In Iran, it could be aash, a hearty herb, bean, and rice-based soup. In South Asia, it might be rogan josh, a thick, dark Kashmiri stew often made with lamb or mutton; chicken jalfrezi, a colorful saute of onions and bell peppers; and maybe pakoras, an appetizer of deep-fried savory fritters. All over Southeast Asia, ketupat, a type of rice-filled dumplings, are enjoyed. In Saudi Arabia, it’s mofatah al-dajaj, an elaborate braised lamb dish garnished with sauteed sliced onions, almonds, and raisins.


In Egypt, as in most countries, Eid is marked by giving out sweets and taking small holidays, maybe to the beach or to visit family. Egyptians feast, party really, for three days. Families either buy and distribute kadk, a type of Middle Eastern sugar cookie, or make them together as a holiday tradition. 


The Egyptians usually break their fast by eating dates or a drink of qamar-eddeen, an apricot juice filled with bits of nut and fruit. The first dish is usually a lentil soup, and all over the table, you’ll find tiny bowls and plates of small savory treats, such as baba ganoush, pureed roasted eggplant with tahini and garlic, bowls of olives, and so on.


One small dish that is commonly seen on an Egyptian table during iftar, Eid, or even as a common breakfast item is ful medames, a thick, savory dish of slow-cooked fava beans seasoned with lemon, garlic, olive oil, and a few spices. It’s a simple comfort food that even the pharaohs once enjoyed.

Bon appetit, or as the Egyptians would say, bil hana wish shifa'!


Ful Medames (recipe borrowed from

  • 2 cups small Egyptian fava beans (ful medames), soaked overnight (and left unpeeled)
  • Salt
  • 1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 lemons, quartered
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4–6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • Chili pepper flakes
  • Cumin


As the cooking time varies depending on the quality and age of the beans, it is good to cook them in advance and to reheat them when you are ready to serve. Cook the drained beans in a fresh portion of unsalted water in a large saucepan with the lid on until tender, adding water to keep them covered, and salt when the beans have softened. They take 2-2 1/2 hours of gentle simmering. When the beans are soft, let the liquid reduce. It is usual to take out a ladle or two of the beans and to mash them with some of the cooking liquid, then stir this back into the beans. This is to thicken the sauce.

Serve the beans in soup bowls sprinkled with chopped parsley and accompanied by lavash or pita bread.
Pass round the dressing ingredients for everyone to help themselves: a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil, the quartered lemons, salt and pepper, a little saucer with the crushed garlic, one with chili-pepper flakes, and one with ground cumin.

The beans are eaten gently crushed with the fork, so that they absorb the dressing.

• A traditional way of thickening the sauce is to throw a handful of red lentils (1/4 cup) into the water at the start of the cooking.
• In Iraq, large brown beans are used instead of the small Egyptian ones, in a dish called badkila, which is also sold for breakfast in the street.

Optional Garnishes
• Peel hard-boiled eggs—1 per person—to cut up in the bowl with the beans.
• Top the beans with a chopped cucumber-and-tomato salad and thinly sliced mild onions or scallions. Otherwise, pass round a good bunch of scallions and quartered tomatoes and cucumbers cut into sticks.
• Serve with tahina cream sauce or salad, with pickles and sliced onions soaked in vinegar for 30 minutes.
• Another way of serving ful medames is smothered in a garlicky tomato sauce.
• In Syria and Lebanon, they eat ful medames with yogurt or feta cheese, olives, and small cucumbers. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Is It Cow or Chicken?

Villa Carlos Paz, Argentina
The Argentines observe their independence from the Spanish on the 9th of July every year. This celebration takes place in the middle of the Argentine winter, and as is the tradition with Argentines, they love to celebrate the special occasion with food.

The first Argentine Independence Day I celebrated in that country, I was travelling with an Argentine friend of mine. We were holidaying in Carlos Paz, in the province of Cordoba, and my friend was determined I’d take part in the celebrations, which included eating locro.

At the time, my Spanish was dodgy to say the least, and as his English wasn’t crash hot, we spent a lot of time drawing stick figures on serviettes and miming. It always gave us a good laugh, especially when we went to a restaurant on the evening of independence day and my friend tried to explain what ingredients were in Locro.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Locro. What’s in it?” I throw my arms thrown out in a questioning manner.

Him: “Es rico.” He rubs his stomach and rolls his eyes like he’s just tasted the best food on earth.

Me: “Yeah, but what’s in it?”

Him: He holds his arms out in a circle to signify a pot then makes a chopping motion like he’s murdering vegetables and proceeds to moo like a cow and oink like a pig.

Me: “So there’s no brrk brrk brrk?” I flap my arms like a chicken.

Him: He shakes his head and moos and oinks again and we both dissolve into laughter which causes the waiter to frown and tsk-tsk us.

The waiter eventually arrived with our dish and the aromas made me want to rub my stomach and roll my eyes just like my friend had done. We added chimichurri, a spicy sauce popular in Argentina and dipped bread into the casserole-like meal. That was the moment I fell in love with locro, and now, even after all these years, when I’m craving some comfort food, I make locro and it always does the trick.

For those of you heading into the cooler months of the year, here’s a recipe for Argentine locro. It’s easy, although a tad fiddly, but I promise you the effort will be worth your while. Just remember, the secret is to cook it slowly over a low heat for an extended period of time.

This recipe is borrowed from the wonderful blog, Seashells and Sunflowers.

Photo by Stevenge
1 cup dried white corn (hominy)
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2- ¼" thick slices of smoked pancetta or slab bacon, cubed
2 chorizos colorados or other slightly spicy sausage, sliced
2- 1" thick pieces of osso buco (beef shanks), or similar cut
2 ears of fresh yellow sweet corn, cut the kernels off the cobs
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. paprika
2 bay leaves
salt to taste
½ tsp. freshly-ground black pepper
1 ½ c. butternut squash, peeled and diced small
1 ½ c. yams, peeled and diced small
1 large baking potato, peeled and diced small
2 plum tomatoes, cut in small wedges
chopped green onion for garnish (optional)
chili oil (see directions)

Soak the hominy in 2 cups of water overnight (a minimum of 12 hours).

The next day, prepare the chili oil in advance by soaking a teaspoon of ají molido (or crushed red pepper flakes) in a tablespoon of olive oil for 2-3 hours.

Place the onions, garlic, pancetta, chorizo, and osso buco in a large stewpot. Cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent. Add the fresh yellow corn, cumin, paprika, bay leaves, salt, and pepper. Continue to cook, stirring regularly, for roughly 10 minutes. Add the soaked hominy, including the soaking water. Add hot water to the pot to about 2 inches above the level of the ingredients. Add the remaining vegetables, stir, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, stirring every 15-20 minutes, for at least 2 hours.

At this point, uncover the pot and remove the bay leaves. Remove the pieces of osso buco and discard the bones. Cut the meat into bite-sized pieces, then return it to the pot. Continue to stir over low heat, and using the back of a wide spoon or spatula, press the ingredients up against the sides of the pot so that the starchy vegetables and tomato break down into the soup (the corn and meat will resist being mashed). As you continue to stir, mash, and cook; the soup should gradually thicken. Continue until the locro reaches the rich consistency of a stew. Add salt to taste.

Serve in bowls, and garnish with green onions and a touch of chili oil.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chelo Kabab – Comfort on a Plate

With Thanksgiving only a few days away (at least here in the United States), our thoughts turn toward food, especially the traditional meals of childhood – in short, comfort food. For me, that special meal usually involves cheese: fondue, pizza, or even just a simple cheddar and tomato sandwich.

But I usually write about Persian culture on this blog, so I asked my husband what comfort food meant to him. Without hesitation, he replied, “chelo kabab.” What’s more, he insisted that every Iranian would consider this dish to be their idea of the ultimate comfort food, associated with warm childhood memories. In fact, chelo kabab is so popular, it’s regarded as Iran’s national dish.

The centerpiece of this meal is a big plate of steamed white rice, topped with a splash of golden saffron. That’s the chelo part of the dish. Chelo’s distinctive feature is tadiq, the crispy layer that forms at the bottom of the pot. Tadiq is so highly prized that dinnertime battles can arise over who gets the biggest piece.

The kabab part involves large chunks of marinated meat (usually beef, lamb, chicken, or fish) that are grilled on skewers over a charcoal fire. Actually, in colloquial speech, Iranians refer to any grilled meat as kabab, regardless of whether it’s been cooked on a stick.

One of my favorite versions is koobideh, a kabab made with ground lamb or beef that is wrapped around wide, flat skewers and cooked on a special grill. Known as a manghal this grill has no grate, since koobideh is so delicate it would stick to the grate and fall apart. Instead, the skewers are fitted into slots, and the meat cooks right over the glowing coals.

In its most basic form, kabab is marinated with onions and lemon or lime juice, with saffron added to chicken. But the marinades are as varied the cooks who make them, with everyone contributing her own special recipe. My mother-in-law adds chunks of bell pepper to beef to make the meat more aromatic, and a friend from Shiraz marinates her chicken kababs in yogurt, which acts as a tenderizer and helps avoid a tough, dry texture.

Check out this recipe for joojeh kabab (saffron-scented chicken). A recipe for chelo can be found here.

When I have guests over for dinner, I like to make kabab torsh because it is such an unusual version, a regional specialty of Gilan Province in the north of Iran. Torsh means “sour” in Farsi, and this type of kabab has a sweet-and-sour taste from the alu (plum) or anar (pomegranate) paste added to the marinade.

I first sampled kabab torsh in a restaurant high in the mountains, where diners sat at balcony tables that offered views of the Caspian Sea, with its expanse of cobalt blue stretching beyond the mist-draped hills. When I asked the proprietor (who was also the cook) for the recipe, she answered in typical Iranian style by listing the ingredients and leaving it up to me to figure out how to put them together and in what proportions.

After much experimentation, I came up with this:

1 pound of boneless beef or lamb (tenderloin is best), cut into large chunks
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons of pomegranate paste* or ½ cup of pomegranate molasses
hot water for dilution
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1—2 cloves garlic, crushed
¼ cup walnuts, very finely ground

* Iranians call this rob’ anar, and it’s available in Middle Eastern markets.

Mix the meat cubes and onions together in a bowl.

Dilute the pomegranate paste with enough hot water to make a thin soupy consistency, and mix in the parsley, garlic, and walnuts. Pour the marinade over the meat/onion mixture and toss to coat the meat thoroughly. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour (though overnight is best).

To grill, remove the onions and excess marinade. Slide the cubes onto skewers (5—6 chunks per skewer). Barbecue on a grill until the meat is cooked to the desired doneness, turning several times. Noosheh jaan!

Chelo kabab is always accompanied by grilled tomatoes, an undressed salad made of fresh herbs (usually basil, mint, tarragon, and green onions), chunks of feta cheese, walnuts, and flat bread. A dish of plain yogurt, assorted pickles, and olives are optional. The traditional beverage accompaniment is doogh, a minty yogurt drink.

So what about you? What is your idea of comfort food?