‘In Iran it is customary to eat noodles before embarking on something new. For us they symbolize the choice of paths, among the many that life spreads out before us. Eating those tangled strands is like unraveling the Gordian knot of life’s infinite possibilities in order to pick out the best.’
– Najmieh Batmanglij, Food of Life, Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies.
I had missed this poetic cuisine so much. After the original Abshar in Deira closed in 2015, I would embark on a 27-month journey of yearning for Iranian food. And 27 months later, as I tentatively sampled a bowl of warm osh reshteh, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia came flooding back.
We have many Iranian restaurants in the city, but nothing could strike the chord that the motley crew of Iranian, Filipino and Indian servers at Abshar had managed to hit when I would host my guests for the mandatory Iranian feast. The wiry-framed, bespectacled maître d’ with his immaculately fitted black suit and full-toothed smile always looked like he had just stepped off the sets of a black and white silent film. He was committed to teaching me Farsi, and I was a committed but terrible student. I would incessantly chant the same phrases over and over again – chittori (how are you), khaylee khoobam (very good) and ek seekh koobideh (one skewer of minced lamb) – because I found the language irresistibly romantic. I’d flutter out of Iranian saffron shops in the souk cooing bay omiday deedar! – literally “with the intention of seeing you again!” or “until we meet again!”
Once Abshar closed, the maître d’ and I did meet again. Not surrounded by plates of barberry-jeweled pilafs and slow-cooked lamb shanks over dill rice, but outside on a dusty street of Deira. We met like old friends, he with this full-toothed smile and me with my forgotten Farsi phrases, and I promised to visit him at the new Iranian restaurant to which he had transferred. But I never did – I hadn’t moved on from Abshar and a year later when I was finally ready for ek seekh koobideh, he had moved on again too.
No other cuisine can conjure up the funky swamp of fragrant flavours that slow-cooked Iranian food does, with its heavy use of dill, fenugreek, mint, legumes, dried limes, dried buttermilk curds (kashk) and caramelized onions. These are flavours with the personality of thick forests with wise gnarled trees, damp wintry nights with the spitting sparks of wood fires, enchanted courtyards with the lovesick strains of the goatskin bagpipe, ney-anban. This is not me being poetic – such courtyards do exist.
They exist in the historic city of Isfahan, which I visited back in 2014 along with my mother. We stayed at the Abbasi Hotel, a 17th century caravanserai whose timeless splendour still leaves me breathless when I think of it. We waited in line as the courtyard cook ladled his thick murky broth of herbs, beans and noodles into bowls, handing each one over with the mandatory splash of rehydrated gamey kashk and fried onions. The sky started to sob gently over us as we drank our osh reshteh, our ‘soup of noodles,’ surrounded by fountains and gardens and arched iwans. It was the same weeping sky that weary travelers through the caravanserai had gazed up to 300 years ago.
Over 700km south of our bowls of osh reshteh was a city called Lar. Ma and I didn’t make the trip there in 2014, but it is the city that Saeeda calls home. And if there is a noodle soup in this world that could fix a broken soul, I would wager it was the one made by Saeeda.
Saeeda and I met at Bait Al Qadeem in Al Ras, a heritage restaurant built around a pearling merchant’s home from the 1890s. I was already a regular patron before she joined the team, a management move to bring in someone who could establish order in an operation that promised potential, but lacked the ongoing leadership to achieve it. When I first met her, I had the same feeling you do when the cops pull up to halt the rowdy 3am party next door – intimidated, but relieved.
Saeeda turned out to be exactly the stern matronly presence the restaurant needed. I treaded cautiously around her, until the day she served me her seven herb and five bean osh reshteh. Managers don’t brew something so wholesome, nourishing and deeply healing – mothers do. We sat after lunch on sunburnt cushioned benches, sipping tea as we chattered through the afternoon lull. Giggling with embarrassment, she admitted to preferring her tea in the old fashioned Iranian custom – with a knob of sugar clasped between her front teeth as she sipped the black brew over it.
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I obsess over such customs that have been handed down over generations. I remember hearing the one around osh reshteh from an Iranian resident in Dubai who recently joined my food tour in Deira. She described how osh reshteh must be made on the third day after a family member departs on a journey – unless the traveler is her mother, in which case the mother has to make her own delicious soup for the eager family before she leaves. The reason behind this custom is similar to why it is served during Nowruz (Persian New Year) – consuming the noodles in the soup is a culinary metaphor for luck and success in finding the best path forward.
After Abshar closed, I was at a dead end. More restaurants closed and a few other stalwarts caved in by replacing Iranian specialties with pizzas and burgers. But slurping up the tender noodles and fragrant dill broth at the newly opened Yashar Palace, I just might have stumbled on the right path again. I recognize old faces from Abshar, I notice my plate of generous sabzi khordan (herbs) arranged a similar way, I make the same futile attempt to be heard over a musician that is singing his heart out about love and love lost. And I realize that osh reshteh hasn’t tasted as good in two years.