tehranbureau An independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora

Cuisine | Too Much Is Never Enough: Making Ghelye Mahi


26 Apr 2012 23:02Comments

Redefining "leftovers," "hot," and "cold," and more lessons from the Iranian kitchen.

SanaseriPortrait.jpg[ life+style ] Every time we had people over for dinner, my husband would say to me, "Tori, we didn't make enough food."

"How can that be?" I'd ask. "There are leftovers." It wasn't until we moved to Iran in 2003 for a four-year stay that I understood what he meant. A chicken leg or two is not leftovers. It's ta'rof -- good manners. It's what the guests leave behind so you won't think you served them insufficiently. "Enough food" means that another party can be fed with what is left over at the end of the evening.

The first time we were invited out in Iran, we were served omelets, fish, whole roasted chicken, yogurt and cucumbers, yogurt and spinach, tomato, cucumber, and onion salad, salad with iceberg lettuce and Thousand Island dressing, spring chicken kebabs, and chopped lamb kebabs. All of this was brought to the table just before midnight. Kamran whispered, "Do they think we're cows?"

I tell you this so you won't balk at the amount of food my friend Zohreh Sanaseri (pictured) prepared for our dinner of ghelye (ghalieh) mahi -- a stew of fish, herbs, and tamarind paste. She invited three others to share the stew with us, but made enough for at least ten people.

In four years of living in Iran, I never once encountered ghelye mahi. In fact, it wasn't until a night out at a Persian restaurant in Amsterdam that I ate it for the first time. The flavor was surprising: sharp, sour, sweet, and fishy all at once. It was made with many of the ingredients found in other stews I'd eaten in Iran, but tasted nothing like them. I searched for recipes and tried making it a few times before giving up. None was as good as my first time...

And then I ate ghelye mahi at the home of my friend Zohreh, who hails from the city of Abadan in southwestern Iran. "It was the Paris of Iran," the eldest of her two daughters, who were born in the Netherlands, tells me. "Was," Zohreh emphasizes. "Before the war."

It was the war with Iraq that drove Zohreh and her family out of Iran. She settled in the Netherlands with her husband when she was just 25. "I had never cooked before in my life," she says. "I learned everything here."

"My father tells us she used to burn food all the time and that her cooking was awful," her daughter adds. This seems impossible now because Zohreh's "cooking hand" (dast pocht) is renowned among friends and family. Like many migrants, she learned cooking by calling her mother long-distance and working at her side during extended visits. "For me, ghelye mahi is the most important dish. This is our dish. It is the dish of Abadan and the one food that makes me feel connected to my family and my city."

For our dinner of ghelye mahi, Zohreh had assembled the following ingredients:

6 pounds of cod
A colander full of fresh cilantro
The peeled cloves of a large head of garlic
4 chopped yellow onions
Fresh tamarind paste with the pits in
Jarred tamarind paste
Fresh fenugreek leaves (dried will do if you cannot find fresh)
Black pepper
Red chili pepper

1. Zohreh covers the frying pan with oil and when it's hot adds the four chopped onions. Then she lowers the flame so the onions cook slowly. Her pan was not large enough to hold the entire stew in the end, so she had to divide it into two pans. If you have it, use an extra large sauté pan with deep sides.


2. While the onions are cooking, she puts the peeled cloves of an entire head of garlic into a mortar and smashes them with plenty of turmeric. While doing this, she takes an occasional break to stir the onions.


3. When the onions are soft and a tiny bit brown at the edges, she adds the paste of garlic and turmeric, stirs once or twice, and then turns off the heat. "You don't want this to get too cooked yet."


4. Zohreh takes the cilantro out in bunches, chops it into pieces and places it in the frying pan with the onions and garlic, turning the heat back on to simmer. "I use the whole cilantro, stems and leaves."

Because she is making a huge amount of ghelye mahi, she adds the cilantro in batches, letting each handful simmer down before stirring in the next.

"It seems like a lot, but when it is cooked it's not so much."


5. Zohreh pulls out a bag of fresh fenugreek she sautéed earlier in the day and gives it to me to smell. "Oh, so that's the key to the dish," I say. The fenugreek is, how can I describe it? Fragrant, musky, sweet, bitter. All of those. As the cilantro is cooking, she adds one spoonful of cooked fenugreek. "This is very important. Don't add too much. Too much fenugreek and the dish becomes bitter." Even in small amounts, fenugreek is the secret to this recipe. It can be hard to find fresh, but is available dry at most stores specializing in Middle Eastern foods.


6. Zohreh cuts off a chunk of tamarind paste and adds it to a bowl of water. The chunk is about the size of your average candy bar. She squeezes the paste with her hand until it is mixed well with the water and the pits are loose. Then she strains it into the greens using a ricer. She also adds a spoonful of prepackaged tamarind paste.

"The tamarind already has salt, so I don't add any salt to the dish. If you don't have fresh tamarind paste, you can just use the paste in the jar. But the fresh paste is better."


7. While this is all simmering, she cuts the fish into large chunks. We are using cod. You have to use a tough, flavorful fish that can be cut into thick pieces. Don't use fish that can't stand up to stewing. Salmon, for instance, would be a bad choice. Aside from cod, monkfish works well.


8. Before adding the fish, Zohreh tastes the stewing greens several times, adjusting as she goes. She adds a bit more fenugreek (not too much) and a bit more tamarind. She adds water a little bit at a time, telling me, "It shouldn't be too thick or too thin. It is not a porridge and it is not soup." She asks me to stir it a few times so I can get a sense of the proper thickness.

9. Zohreh takes an extra step, one in no recipe that I found. She coats the fish in flour and turmeric. "It keeps the fish together." She cooks it quickly in oil.

Zohreh adds a bit more sunflower oil to the greens before adding the fish. "The oil brings all the flavors together. In total this dish has about half a glass of oil in it." As she delicately places the fish in the stew, she tells me, "Be very careful adding the fish. It should not break apart."


10. As the flavors come together, we sit and talk. A neighbor brings over matzoh ball soup left over from a Passover seder. Zohreh's daughters and their friends tease each other and then head off to McDonald's because, perversely, they "hate fish." After about 30 minutes, Zohreh adds a liberal amount of black pepper to the stew. "It should be a bit spicy," she says. "The pepper is important." Thirty minutes later she asks, "Is it okay for me to add chili pepper?" When I agree, she puts it into the mix.

11. The fish simmers in the greens for a total of 90 minutes. Before we are ready, Zohreh lifts the lid from the pot to show me the way the oil has risen to the top. I feel like I'm looking at an algae-filled swamp with stones peeking above the surface. "When the oil floats to the surface, you know it's ready," she tells me. "This only happens when you simmer it slowly."


12. Serve the stew in the pan. "Don't put it in a serving dish, because the fish will break apart."

What you serve with ghelye mahi adds to the whole experience. It needs rice. (If you want to cook rice as well as your Iranian friends do, I recommend the instructions in Food of Life, by Najmieh Batmanglij.)


"You never eat salad with ghelye mahi," Zohreh explains. "Salad is cold. Fish and cilantro are cold. Garlic is warm; that's why we use so much garlic in the dish, to balance it. Instead of salad, we eat torshi [pickled vegetables, often garlic, or fruit]."


Zohreh, like most Iranians I've met, divides foods into categories of hot and cold. What's cold or hot has nothing to do with temperature: it's a way of categorizing food that is supposed to lead to a healthful balance. Many Iranians I know swear by the method, claiming that when they eat too many foods of one type they end up sick.

Ghelye mahi is a balance of hot and cold. The garlic, fenugreek, and turmeric are hot. The fish and cilantro are cold. The torshi is hot. Together the flavors are perfect.

Trust me. It's delicious, and when we are finished eating there is enough left over for five more people. In fact, writing this piece has made my mouth water. I just might call Zohreh to see if she still has any left. Hmmm...

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

SHAREtwitterfacebookSTUMBLEUPONbalatarin reddit digg del.icio.us
blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.