A Day with Najmieh Batmanglij: The Persian Grill

Serves: 5



Najmieh Batmanglij is my guru of Persian grilling. I met her on what was probably the least likely day of the year for a barbecue. The charcoal lay neatly piled in her custom-made grill on the terrace of her Georgetown townhouse in Washington, D.C. But by the time I arrived, a freak snowstorm had blanketed the grill, terrace, and gardens with a thick layer of snow.

Never mind-Najmieh Batmanglij is not the sort of cook to let a snowstorm ruin a cookout. A short woman with dark eyes and a cascade of black hair, Najmieh is an author and cooking instructor who comes by her passion for Persian barbecue naturally. One of 11 children, she was born and raised in Tehran in the country now called Iran, but with the ancient and more exotic name Persia. Her books include the stunning Food of Life, New Food of Life, and Persian Cooking for a Healthy Kitchen. So essential is grilling to Iranian cuisine that she has equipped her kitchen with an indoor grill that would be the envy of many a restaurant. I shook the snow off my overcoat and boots and we set about the task of marinating and skewering meats for Iranian-style grilling.

On the day I visited, she demonstrated 10 dishes in 3 hours with a dexterity that bordered on legerdemain. A whole beef tenderloin was speedily reduced to neat bite-size strips and doused with onion juice, lime juice, and cracked peppercorns. Lamb and beef shoulder were fed through a noisy meat grinder, then kneaded together by hand over low heat to make Iran’s famous kubideh, ground meat kebab. Earthenware crocks held chunks of chicken and lamb that had been marinating for 2 days in a colorful mixture of yogurt and saffron. Impressive any time of the year, the display was made more remarkable by the inclement weather outside.

It’s unlikely that a cooking technique as universal as roasting meats on a stick over a fire originated at a single time in a single country. But if it had, Iran would make a likely birthplace. Grilling has been inextricably interwoven with Persian culture for hundreds, probably thousands, of years.

Linguistic evidence suggests Iran as the wellspring of Near Easternnstyle grilling. After all, kebab is the Persian word for meat. Early Persian literature and art abound with images of grilling. A fourth-century coming-of-age manual, for example, describes a spit-roasted capon that had been raised on a diet of hemp seeds and olive butter. The tenth-century poet Ferdowsi gives a detailed description of a veal marinade made with saffron, rosewater, musk, and old wine.

Persian-style kebabs, with their emphasis on lamb and yogurt-based marinades, turn up as far west as the Balkans and as far east as Bangladesh. They probably inspired Greek souvlaki and Indian tandoori. Souvlaki may have arrived via the Turks during the Ottoman Empire (if not before, during the Persian Wars in the sixth century b.c.). Tandoori was imported by the Moguls, Persian rulers who brought Islam to northern India in the sixteenth century a.d. (The spicing is more extravagant in the Indian version, but the yogurt- and garlic-based marinade is the same). Even Russia’s popular shashlik (beef or lamb kebabs) is a likely descendant of Persian shishlik (skewered grilled lamb chops).

What accounts for the long-standing popularity of grilled fare in the region we now call Iran? "Ours is an outdoor culture," explains Najmieh. "For eight months a year, most Persians cook, dine, and even sleep outdoors." This love of the outdoors has given rise to a singular style of grilling.

If Iran had a single national dish, it would surely be chelow kebab, skewers of lamb, veal, or beef served on a snowy mountain of rice with fire-charred tomatoes, raw egg, raw onions, and a tart purplish powder made from sumac berries. But, almost anything is fair game for the kebabi man: lamb, veal, beef, organ meats, tomatoes, onions, even sumac-dusted fish. Of course, the most popular meat is lamb. "In Iran sheep graze on herbs, which gives them an exceptional flavor," explains Najmieh. Loin and tenderloin are her preferred cuts, but leg and shoulder will do if marinated for at least 48 hours. Tradition calls for interspersing the lamb chunks with moisturizing lumps of tail fat.

Lengthy marinating is one of the cornerstones of Persian grilling. The basic marinade consists of yogurt, lemon or lime juice, onion, garlic, saffron, pepper, and salt. Sometimes candied orange peel is added for a touch of sweetness. Sometimes olive oil is substituted for the yogurt-especially for beef and veal. Iranians marinate their meats much longer than North Americans do-2 to 3 days is not uncommon. A 2- or 3-day soak in an acidic yogurt and lemon juice marinade can work wonders for breaking down tough meat fibers. It also produces an uncommon depth of flavor. "Iranians always have some sort of meat marinating in the refrigerator," explains Najmieh. "That way, we can make kebabs at a moment’s notice."

Another hallmark of Persian grilling is the basting mixture, brushed on the meat while it cooks. The basic formula includes lime juice, saffron, and melted butter. The saffron imparts a golden glow to the meat. And the mixture as a whole keeps the meat moist, which is important, since Iranians are fond of grilling over very high heat.

Given the importance of kebabs in Persian cuisine, it’s not surprising that Iranians have developed highly distinctive skewers: long, flat ribbons of steel of varying widths with pointed tips for easy penetration. Narrow skewers (1/8 inch wide) are used for skewering chunks of meat medium skewers (3/8 inch wide), for holding thin strips of chicken and beef. The widest skewers measure 1/2 to 1 inch across and are designed for holding ground meats. So effective are these skewers, their popularity has spread throughout the Arab world.

But grilled fare is only part of what makes a Persian barbecue so remarkable, as I learned at my cooking class with Najmieh. The side dishes are also stars of the show. Guests would be welcomed with tiny, gold-rimmed glasses of dulcet tea. The table would be sagging under the weight of a mokhalafat, a stunning assortment of dips, salads, chutneys, torshis (pickles), and paper-thin lavash bread for wrapping around the meats.

Najmieh accompanied her barbecue with a platter of basil, mint, watercress, and other fresh herbs, not to mention tomatoes, cucumbers, and scallions. She also included chopped onion and delectably tart sumac powder for sprinkling over the meat. To wash it down, she served cool, frothy glasses of dugh, a refreshing beverage made from yogurt, mint, and rose petals. Such was Najmieh’s hospitality that by the end of the day I felt like I was at a cookout in Tehran, not in a snowstorm in Washington, D.C.

This A Day with Najmieh Batmanglij: The Persian Grill recipe is from the The Barbecue Bible Cookbook. Download this Cookbook today.

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