Iranian Recipes & Cuisines

History of Most Famous and Most Popular Iranian Dish, Chelo-Kabab


In 1352 (1973-74) a meal of chelo-kabab barg (made of mutton fillet and grilled on skewer) served together with butter, grilled tomato, raw onion, and sumac would have cost IR 60 for those who were at work and could not go home for lunch. Sometimes when a number of colleagues were on leave, others had the chance to order jojeh-kabab (roast chicken) which would have cost IR 120.

Tenfold in Thirty Two Years
Thirty two years earlier in 1320 (1941-42), the Iranian daily Ettela'at wrote that Tehran restaurants would charge IR 5 for a meal of chelo-kabab including an extra large kabab barg, butter, 330 grams of rice, onion and bread as much as demanded. At the same time a meal of chelo-kabab kubideh (made of minced meat) cost IR 4.

Chelo-Kabab Koobideh

Fifty Years Earlier
E'etemado-saltaneh, Naser-e-Din Shah's minister of publications and head of translation office, used to order a highly qualitative take-out chelo-kabab in Nayeb restaurant, which had just opened in the Tehran bazaar and furnished with dining tables and chairs as in European restaurants, for IR 3 to 5. Also in 1295 (1916-17), Abdullah Bahrami, the deputy general of the Tehran police used to pay maximum IR 4 to 5 for each meal of chelo-kabab that he ordered for his respected and unrespected (the criminals who confessed to their crimes but promised to cooperate with the police) guests.

Twenty five years have passed since the time when a meal of chelo-kabab cost IR 60.

Now it would cost something between IR 7,000 and 40,000 while the 25-rial kabab kubideh would now cost IR 4,500 to 15,000. Considering the fact that the average income of the veterans in Iran is within a range of IR 250,000 to 600,000, and that chelo-kabab used to be a very popular and the most common national dish, now one can say that it has turned into a luxurious one.

A Dish Loved by All
During his tour of Russia, Caucasus and European countries, Naser-e-Din Shah enjoyed three things: the elegant clothing of the Russian Kazak, the Saint Petersburg's and Muscovite ballerinas' pants, and finally Caucasian chelo-kabab which was different from Iranian kabab mainly prepared from chops of veal, mutton and hunted birds and grilled on skewers. The Caucasian chelo-kabab is what is now known as kabab barg, sultani and luleh or kubideh.

Not Before Qajar Era
In their writings about Iran, the European explorers who visited Iran during Safavi era (1500-1736), though mentioned a lot about different kinds of chelos (cooked and drained rice) and polos (cooked rice), stews, pickles, and jams, but wrote nothing about chelo-kabab in the sense that we talk about it today. Most probably the recipe of chelo-kabab has been given to the Iranian people either by the Caucasian people or by the Iranians visiting the region, or as written by Mirza Mohammad Reza Mo'tamed-ul-Ketab Shams Larijani, an author of Qajar era, has been demanded by Naser-e-Din Shah himself from the Caucasians and soon learned by Iranians all over the country.

Being an Asian dish, chelo-kabab was well received in Iran and now has turned into the most delicious Iranian dish.

Feeding a Battalion or a Regiment Naser-e-Din Shah had 87 wives, four of whom in permanent and the rest in temporary marital conditions, as well as 300 slave girls who together with the female and male servants formed a battalion or, better to say, a 1000-strong regiment. Writing about Naser-e-Din Shah, Doust-Ali Khan Mo'ayer-ul-Mamalek, a descendent of the Shah, narrates that on Fridays whenever he wished to pilgrim the holy shrine of Hazrat Abdul-Azim in Shar-e Rey, then a village in the south of Tehran, his servants used to rush to the village one day earlier and order 1,000 to 2,000 kabab kubideh. Kabab was a dish not in the court menu but loved by his wives.

Thus, whenever they planned to go there, they did not want to lose the chance to have kabab served with basil, onion, and spring onion on copper platters.

Chelo-Kabab Barg
Political Chelo-Kabab, First Punishment, Then Reception
In 1324 (1945-46), the price of the imported sugar cubes from Russia went up due to the breakout of the war between that country and Japan and also the slump in imports to Iran. The tyrant governor of Tehran, Ala'e-doleh, considered the merchants and brokers such as Seyyed Hashem Qandi and Esmaeil Khan who had deals with Russia, as the ones responsible for the price hikes. Summoning them, Ala'e-doleh asked them to lower the price of sugar cubes.

However, they did not accept and consequently were lashed extensively. While being lashed, the son of the merchant Hashem Qandi arrived and asked the governor to lash him instead of his father. He accepted and ordered his subjects to whip the son who received more than 500 lashes before a servant arrived and announced that chelo-kabab was ready to be served. Ala'e-doleh left the area while invited the three punished men to join him. He said that at the time of lashing they had to receive lashes and at the time of lunch they had to have lunch. "Now the time is for chelo-kabab. Help yourselves and enjoy it."

Oldest Chelo-Kabab Restaurant in Tehran
Nayeb Chelo-Kabab Restaurant was the oldest one established in the Tehran bazaar 120 years ago. Since its establishment till some 15 years ago when it was closed down, to please the customers, Nayeb waiters used to serve the extra-filled plate of pyramid-shaped hot rice crowned with the melting butter while kababs on skewers were served by a waiter who used to go from one table to another and provide customers with extra kababs as soon as they ran out of them and as long as rice was still left in their plates. First, the customers used to sit on bunches but later they were served at tables. The restaurant did not mind how many kababs a customer would eat and used to charge everybody the same, a generous manner that was characteristic of Iranians at that time, because of which it managed to run a brisk business.

Talking about the generosity and kindness of Mr. Nayeb, a gentleman who was the boss boy of a stingy merchant when a young boy, said that he used to go to the Nayeb restaurant in the bazaar every day to buy chelo-kabab for his boss who never thought that he was hungry too and that he wished to have lunch too. But Mr. Nayeb, realizing that the boy was hungry, used to treat him with bread and kabab before he prepared the chelo-kabab for the merchant and kept mentioning to his workers that he was only a child and that the smell of kabab made his mouth watery.

E'temad-ul-Saltaneh, in his notes, mentions of a shop in the bazaar which like Europeans served food at tables in 1292 lunar Hijra (some 121 years ago), a reference most probably to the Nayeb restaurant as the first chelo-kabab restaurant in Tehran. However, chelo-kabab restaurants were most likely first established in the northwestern city of Tabriz which borders with Caucasia. Nowadays, chelo-kabab is a national Iranian food in Tehran and other cities.

The reputation of the Nayeb restaurant was passed on from one generation to another and now there are tens of chelo-kabab restaurants in Tehran and other cities that are named after the original one. But the most famous of them in Tehran are the ones located in downtown near Shamsul-Amareh, and in Sa'adat-abad , Aban, and Vali-e-Asr streets, the owners of whom are most probably the descendent of the founder of the original one in the bazaar.

The reputation of the Nayeb chelo-kabab restaurants has crossed the borders and now tens of them have been founded in other countries. In the downtown of Los Angeles, for example, there is a Nayeb chelo-kabab restaurant, which according to an Iranian who has recently been there, offers pseudo-chelo-kabab. When asked what he meant by pseudo-chelo-kabab, he said that chelo-kabab is a dish prepared with aromatic Iranian rice and fresh mutton fillet. When prepared with beef, it would be better to name it steak and rice rather than chelo-kabab, something similar to but not real chelo-kabab.

Kabab Shops
Till 1330-35 (1951-57), one kabab kubideh would have cost IR 3.5 in Tehran and other cities while two of them together with bread and grilled tomato would make a full meal costing about IR 8 and you could buy a lemonade or water milk for 2-4 rials. Thus you could have a perfect lunch for IR 10-12.

At that time when stocks still used to feed on natural pasture, meat seemed to be more delicious and aromatic and the aroma of kabab could be smelled from a far distance and make passerby feel hungry. Kababs used to be wrapped in different kinds of Iranian breads such as taftoon, sangak and lavash (the dough of all of which are spread out in the shape of an almost 23-inch-diameter circle or a 12 x 30-inch rectangle) topped with basil in summer and with a big-size onion in winter.

People used to say that if a young boy under the age of puberty smells kabab, he must immediately be provided with some or otherwise he would lose his state of manhood forever.

Nowadays, after so many years that kabab shops have served people with kababs in the traditional way, and after the opening of so many modern restaurants and deli, hamburger, pizza, and fried chicken shops, the business of the kabab shops is not brilliant and no longer elegant people go to their shops to sit amidst the smell and smoke of kabab to have kabab.

However, the kabab shops in Hazrat-e Abdul-Azim bazaar managed to enjoy their reputation for few more decades. Also the kabab shops in Sarband and Darband villages of Shemiran, north of Tehran as well as certain shops in smaller cities such as the ones in and around the northeastern city of Mashad and the one in Shiraz opposite the historic site of Hafezieh where it serves a lot of people who consider going to the restaurant as a national and traditional obligation, were famous and could attract a lot of customers.

Most of the kabab and chelo-kabab restaurants had interesting names such as Salamat (health), Keramat (dignity), or Nezafat (cleanliness) entailed with the name of the city of Tabriz, with the aim to attract more customers.

A short period of time after the victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran in 1979 and after a period of bankruptcy, a number of big and modern kabab shops were opened in the uptown and renewed the tradition of serving kabab and bread grilled right on the spot. These shops which named themselves as kabab-khaneh (kabab houses), were quite different from those in the old time filled with smoke and smell of kabab. Soon their business flourished so that they are now among the most crowded restaurants in the city. Many of them have also special ovens for baking Iranian bread and presenting fresh bread to their customers.

Famous Chelo-Kabab Restaurants in Tehran
Presently, there are hundreds of chelo-kabab restaurants in Tehran the most famous of which are Nayeb in Sa'adat-abad district (there are several Nayeb restaurants in other parts of the city including the ones in Aban, Vali-Asr and Vozara streets), Shater-Abbas, Madayen, Alborz, Yas (two of them belonging to Naseri Bros.), Royal Vanak, Lux-e Talaei, Apadana, Orkideh, Javan, and Tabriz. Sahra restaurant (in Sahra Hotel in Ayatollah Taleghani St., opposite the former American embassy) has also the reputation for presenting delicious chelo-kabab.

However, it is unfortunate that chelo-kabab has not been registered as an international food although it is definitely much better and more delicious than many other dishes belonging to other nations.

In Abroad
Javad Farifteh, Ahmad Shah's (the last king of Qajar dynasty deposed in 1925) special chef immigrated to Paris some 70 years ago and established the well-known Farifteh chelo-kabab restaurant there. Also, Ahmad Khan, an Iranian resident of Germany, set up a restaurant when Nazis were in power and once, it is said, Hitler, the Nazi leader, accompanied by his two aides went to the restaurant and tried the Iranian chelo-kabab. In recent years, you simply find tens of chelo-kabab restaurants in every European and American city and there are so many of them here and there that it is not simply possible to give an exact statistic of them.

Nayeb Restaurant
Nayeb restaurant is owned and managed by Dr. Hossein Yazdan-Manesh, a Ph.D. graduate in sociology from France. He administers his restaurant in the best way possible and with an excellent taste.

Dr. Yazdan-Manesh believes that administering a well-known and honorable restaurant is nothing less than having the title of a doctorate in sociology and that many educated people may run such businesses successfully.

Nayeb is known as one of the best restaurants in Tehran and the way its personnel treat their customers would certainly please them. Dr. Yazdan-Manesh is surely successful in his business.

Chelo-Kabab Pahlavani (Extra Large)
In recent years, preparing extra large barg and kubideh kababs which are sometimes three times bigger than ordinary ones, have become common but they are usually too big to be eaten by one person.

It is said that at the time of the Constitution Movement in Iran (1900's) the owner of a chelo-kabab restaurant in Tabriz listening to a speech in favor of the movement asked the speaker what constitutionalism meant and what would happen if Iran enjoyed a constitutional government. The speaker who himself was not very much aware of the details said that constitutionalism meant cheap chelo-kabab available for all. If Iran adopted constitutionalism, then you would get a kabab this large (at this moment the speaker showed the length of his fingertip to elbow) and with this diameter (then he pointed to his muscular and athletic arm). The man became very happy and said that he sincerely would accept constitutionalism and that he would tell others about it too.

Hajj Hassan Shamshiri
The owner of the most famous Iranian chelo-kabab Restaurant was Hajj Hassan Shamshiri whose restaurant was located in the eastern wing of Sabzeh-Meydan square in downtown at the time of Reza Shah. Later, he moved to a four-storey building, the first floor of which was the kitchen. The second floor was for the reception of local shopkeepers and single men while the third floor was for the families and high-level customers and in each floor there were lots of full-length mirrors. Mr. Shamshiri used to supervise the third and fourth floors of the restaurant.

As of 11.00 a.m., the aroma of kabab and the high-quality cooked rice as well as fresh butter used to fill the air in and around the restaurant and make every passerby hesitant about not going inside. Shamshiri used to offer double-deck chelo-kabab, that is, he used to crown a pyramid-shaped pile of cooked rice with two kababs in a plate.

Mr. Shamshiri was a staunch advocate of the oil industry nationalization movement and a sincere follower of Dr. Mosadegh (the then prime minister who nationalized oil industry) and in the winter of 1330 (winter of 1951-52) paid the very large sum of IR 1,000,000 to buy national bonds as an effort to support the nationalization plan. Several months after the 1953 coup against Dr. Mosadeqh, he was arrested on charges of struggling against the coup government of Zahedi and was exiled to the Kharg island in the Persian Gulf. His co-prisoner in Kharg, the late Karim Keshavarz wrote in his diary that Mr. shamshiri had promised to treat his co-prisoners with high-quality Shamshiri kabab barg and kubideh but that unfortunately no such chance became available.

Shamshiri's reputation of his chelo-kabab was such that an Iranian author wrote a novel about it in which he described it as the most pleasant dish adored by both Iranians and Westerners.

Even now, some chelo-kabab restaurants carry the name in an effort to convince the customers that their chelo-kabab is of high quality, while some others claim that they have hired the Shamshiri's chef. However, the fact is that he died almost 30 years ago and that his chefs are either too old to work or have passed away already. The only probability is that his chefs' trainees may be now engaged in some of the restaurants.