Aab gosht translates, less than fecilitously, to water meat. It is more descriptive of Iran’s meat, beans and potato dish than Kashmir’s far more refined lamb cooked in reduced milk, and no! It’s not just my prejudice. Iran’s homely dish is always cooked in a stone pot with a lid. The ones I saw in shops in Shandiz, a hill-station near Mashad that is reminiscent of Pahalgam, were made of a grey stone. All attempts at finding out what stone was used met with failure “Marmar” was the invariable reply, which translates as “Stone”. No matter. Lamb, a cannellini-like bean, a few dried peas, a couple of whole potatoes peeled and a dried lime for sourness. I know it looks red, but there’s no trace of chilli in this, or any other Iranian dish I had during my all too brief one week. You eat the gravy mopped up with bits of lavash (identical to Kashmiri lavas) and then scoop up all the solids bits at the bottom of the aab gosht into the pewter bowl in the foreground, and pound it gently with a mallet-like object that restaurants and homes have on hand. You eat the mashed solids with sighs of delight. Unless you have tasted the superior version in Kashmir. In which case, you eat the mashed solids with a poker face.
I’m pretty sure that I saw no fewer than three such domes, all virtually indistinguishable to my (untrained) eye. All three were in Isfahan. The reason why I was so taken with this image was because of a fascinating parallel with Kashmir. First of all, the Dargah at Hazratbal, Srinagar, also has a ‘crown of thorns’ around it, which a Kashmiri poet has immortalized in verse. Indeed, if you are a poet, scaffolding around a dome does look as if it is in pain of some kind. The second parallel is the proximity of the chinar tree. Not to denigrate Iran’s treeline at all, especially because Kashmir’s chinars were reportedly procured from Iran, but the sheer splendour of Kashmir’s chinars, the majesty of their contours, the way they dominate the landscape in most places in Kashmir simply leaves Iran’s chinars in the shade (No. That was not an attempt at play on words!) In case anyone’s counting, that’s two points to Kashmir (for aab gosht and chinar trees). One example will suffice. Everytime I saw a dried brown chinar leaf on the pavement, I would involuntarily squeal with delight. Whoever it was who was accompanying me would question the fact that I knew about chinar trees and what’s more, gave a damn about them! In Mashad and Isfahan, chinar trees don’t grow as tall as their Kashmiri counterparts and do not have the autumn colours. Even the trunks are just regular brown, not the mottled brush-stroke multi-hues of a Kashmiri chinar. Can you even imagine a Kashmiri not knowing or caring about a chinar tree or not being able to recognize it when he saw a leaf on the pavement. The mind boggles!
So this picture rights the balance in a couple of areas. Isfahan’s handicrafts beat the hell out of the ones in Kashmiri ones. Sorry guys, there’s no polite way of saying this! These are metal plates, with Islamic and Zoroashtrian motifs. Both lie completely unselfconsciously alongside each other, and chador-clad women and their bearded husbands have a 50-50 chance of buying one or the other. All the copper pots that you see behind the glass cupboard have been tinned from the inside. Yours very truly was happy to buy one. It is good for warming stews in it and cooking rice, but it is not one of those heavy bottomed vessels that you can pass on to your great-grand-daughter. I loved that devout Muslims had internalized their Zoroashtrian motifs to the extent that they may or may choose one over another that says “Ya Allah”. That’s a culture that has my respect.
The lovely – and classy – Leila Vaezzadeh would never dream of actually buying any of these trinkets. She and I trawled through the historic grand bazar of Isfahan, that is at least three centuries old and that forms a living heritage that has no parallel anywhere in the world. You see local families shopping for mops, kettles and chopped dried greens. you see trendy young things evaluating the relative merits of turquoise look-alike pendants versus ear-rings and you see Iranians buying Isfahani handicrafts and the irresistible chewy nougat called Gazz with gusto.
What else does a poor restaurant critic do when she travels? She checks out the restaurant scene. This heritage restaurant could give our Rajasthani havelis a run for their money, and the unselfconscious way in which tradition and modernity march hand in hand left me wishing that we in India could match them. But of course we won’t. You have to be proud of your heritage for that. This restaurant, in a forgotten terrace in one corner of the unparalleled Grand Bazar, is exactly eleven years old. Like its other counterparts in Isfahan (at least those that we visited) this one too has beds on which to squat. Western style cutlery is the norm here too. The food was less than outstanding, let it be said: minced chicken and pounded cooked rice and another dish of smoked aubergine in a tomato sauce.
The one seeming anomaly about Iranian ladies that I discerned is that while they are cloaked from head to toe in Islamic-compliant dress, they have a childlike delight in being photographed. These two young, lovely, and fashionably dressed ladies were posing besides a wall of an ancient Armenian Church to be photographed by a member of their group. When they saw me, camera at the ready, they happily presented their best profile to me, without a trace of self-consciousness. In India, and of course elsewhere, puritanical, rigid, retrogressive and burqa are quite often spoken of in the same sentence. That is why my week in Iran delighted me so: some of my carefully constructed prejudices melted away.
Ladies I met during my one week told me of the parties they routinely attend. They drive to the venue in full manteau and head scarf, to do a strip-tease at the host’s house. There is usually a room with a very large mirror where a gaggle of young ladies adjust their make-up, do up their hair and wear slightly more skimpy dresses than you’d see in other metropolitan cities. But then, life does have to offer some compensation, doesn’t it? And as we used to say in college “Rules are made to be broken.” Quite.
The Isfahanis at their finest restaurant. Gracious, old and serving a far more refined menu than anything you’d get in poor, bucolic Mashad. There was a yellow paste, flavoured heavily with saffron and mixed with – heaven help us – sugar. Khoresht e Mast was the most unique thing I tasted in Iran. Its texture was silky, quite unlike anything I had ever tasted before or since. It was lamb pounded and pounded – rather like Kashmiri ristas and gushtabas – and mixed with yoghurt.
Fesenjoon was a chicken ‘curry’ (and I use the term in the loosest sense of the word, there being no trace of spice in the thick, clinging sauce) made with pomegranates and pounded walnuts. As Leila and I made our way back to the airport to catch our flight back to Mashad, we said goodbye to the elegant young lady who was our friend in Isfahan, and who had taken us to the best spots in her gracious city.
It must be a record of some sorts, but in the four times that I have flown into/out of Mashad, the plane never did quite manage to fly on the particular runway that gives an unimpeded view of the shrine of the Eighth Imam. I believe it is quite a sight to behold, and passengers in the know ask for seats on the appropriate side of the plane in anticipation.
Ah well. That – and a few other things – are some reasons for which I will have to go back to Iran!