Iran’s Favorite Dish: the Chelo Kebab

The article below on Iran’s Favorite Dish, the Chelo Kebab (ČELOW-KABĀB), by S¡oḡrā Bāzargān and Ṣoḡrā Bāzargān was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1990.

ČELOW-KABĀB is a popular Persian dish which consists of cooked rice (čelow; see berenj) and a variety of broiled (kabāb, see below) mutton or veal (though less popular) and is served with butter, egg yolk, powdered sumac, raw onions, broiled tomatoes, and fresh sweet basil.

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ČELOW-KABĀB, a popular Persian dish which consists of cooked rice (čelow) and a variety of broiled (kabāb, see below) mutton or veal (though less popular) and is served with butter, egg yolk, powdered sumac, raw onions, broiled tomatoes, and fresh sweet basil. It is served in the form of a mound with some butter buried inside. Different čelow-kabābs are usually named after the type of kabāb served with it (for examples see below). The drink traditionally served with čelow-kabāb is dūḡ, a beverage made with yogurt and water; in the past two decades, however, beverages such as Coca Cola have also become popular. Accord­ing to Nāder Mīrzā (pp. 240-41), the people of Tabrīz used to eat čelow-kabāb with cotton candy (pašmak) and sekanjabīn (sweet-and-sour mint drink, q.v.).

Nasseredin Shah-KamalolmolkOne the  Čelow-kabāb’s first distinguished (and regal) fans: Nasser-e-din Shah (1831-1896) of the Qajar Dynasty (1785-1925) as portrayed in a painting by  Kamal ol Molk (Picture Source: Public Domain).

The dish is not mentioned in the two culinary tracts of the 10th/16th century (ed. Afšār) and was probably created in the Qajar period. It was part of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah’s diet (Āšpazbāšī, p. 8) and, according to Nāder Mīrzā (loc. cit.), a favorite dish of the people of Tabrīz, where it was served in restaurants (čelowpaz-ḵāna).

Chelo Kabab-Tabriz[Click to Enlarge] Serving of fresh skewers of Čelow-kabāb in the city of Tabriz, Iran’s Azarbaijan province (Picture Source: Payvand News). Tabriz is famous throughout Iran for its culinary style of the Čelow-kabāb dish and is also known for having popularized this throughout the country as well. There are still traditional restaurants in Tabriz that serve skewers almost a meter long!

Čelow-kabāb-e solṭānī

Strips of the fillet of the best-quality meat are marinated overnight in a mixture of finely chopped onions and saffron, then gently beaten flat with the back of a kitchen knife, and finally broiled slowly on a skewer over charcoal fire. After the kabāb is cooked, it is placed on a platter or tray and pulled off the skewers with a piece of flat bread. The kabāb is then brushed with butter, decorated with onion rings and fresh sweet basil, and served with rice, butter, sumac, and broiled tomatoes. This highly regarded dish is a specialty of Tabrīz restaurants. In some restaurants it includes both kabāb-e barg and kabāb-e kūbīda.

Chelo Kakab-Soltani-Pars Times[Click to Enlarge] The Čelow-kabāb-e solṭānī (Picture Source: Pars Times).

Čelow-kabāb-e barg

This kabāb is prepared like kabāb-e solṭānī except that the meat pieces are cut into smaller chunks and saffron is omitted from the marinade.

 Kabab-Barg

[Click to Enlarge] A serving of Čelow-kabāb-e barg (Picture Source: How to Cook Persian Food Blog).

Čelow-kabāb-e kūbīda

The ingredients consist of ground meat, grated onion, minced fresh sweet basil (only in a recent variety popular in Shiraz), salt, pepper, and egg yolk, which are mixed together and thoroughly kneaded. (In the past, the meat was placed in a bowl over steam and kneaded to melt the fat and mix it well with the meat.) Then, small portions of the mixture are placed around wide skewers, which are slightly damp­ened with water, and pressed with the fingers. The skewers are then placed over a hot charcoal grill, and the fire is fanned immediately, until the kabāb turns brown­ish; then the kabāb is left to cook until it is done. Finally the kabāb is placed between layers of flat bread to soak the fat and sprinkled with sumac and served with čelow. In another variety, kabāb-e dīgī (pot kabob), strips of the kabāb are broiled on a stove in a pot or a broiler tray. Kabāb-e kūbīda is also eaten with bread (nān o kabāb) instead of rice, and in recent years many fast-food restaurants specializing in kabāb-e kūbīda have opened in large cities.

Kabab-Koobideh[Click to Enlarge] A serving of Čelow-kabāb-e kūbīda (Picture Source: Akbar Joojeh Restaurant, Thornhill, Ontario).

Kabāb-e ḥosaynī

Chunks of meat (often marinated in a mixture of yogurt, saffron, grated onions, salt, and pepper), sheep tail fat (donba), small white onions, and green peppers are put on skewers made of pomegranate or fig branches or stainless steel, and then layers of tomato rings, chopped onion, and kabāb skewers are arranged in a large pot and simmered over low heat. An almost identical variety is šīš-kabāb (or kabōb-e sīḵī, kabāb-e kenja), except that it is broiled over a low charcoal fire rather than in a pot.

Kabab-Husseini[Click to Enlarge] A serving of Kabāb-e ḥosaynī (Picture Source: Armandeep Singh 1980).

Bibliography:

Ī. Afšār, ed., Āšpazī-e dawra-ye ṣafawī, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981.

Mīrzā ʿAlī-Akbar Khan Āšpazbāšī, Sofra-ye aṭʿema, Tehran, 1353 Š./1974, pp. 8-9.

Nāder Mīrzā Qājār, Tārīḵ-ejoḡrāfīā-­ye dār-al-salṭana-ye Tabrīz, Tehran, 1323/1905.

N. Ramazani, Persian Cooking, New York, 1974, index.

Żīāʾ Laškar Dāneš, Kollīyāt-e Ḥakīm Sūrī, Tehran, n.d., I, pp. 3, 40, 61, 68, 75.