Cooking sholeh for the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

Iran’s Religious Holidays: When men cook
I helped cook more than a ton of an 800-year-old recipe

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Feeding people is part of Iran’s many religious holidays

Jesus fed 5,000. Iranian men feed millions – when they take over the kitchen during Iran’s religious holidays.

They cook on an industrial scale because cooking and feeding the community in honor of Shia Islam.

For me, getting delicious free food is a bonus for living in Iran. It happens all the time because of Iran’s many religious holidays. 

Making Sholeh in Mashhad is an ancient tradition

I’m at the home of my wife’s Uncle Javad in Mashhad, northeast Iran, witnessing the making of a ton of an 800-year-old recipe in giant pots that have been violently gurgling over fire since yesterday

Sholeh Mashhadi is perhaps this city’s most famous delicacy.

It’s a hearty mixture of lamb and calf meat with beans, mung and pinto beans, onions and half-a-dozen spices, including turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom. 

Sholeh covered with a layer of ghaymeh, a common Iranian Persian stew. Mashhad, Iran. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh
Sholeh covered with a layer of ghaymeh, a common Iranian Persian stew. Mashhad, Iran. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh

A lot of Persian recipes go back centuries

It’s a recipe dating back to the 13th century, legend has it, when silos were destroyed by the invading Mongol troops. Facing starvation, Iranians made a mélange of any protein they could find.

Now sholeh is an iconic fare during Iran’s religious holidays and also funerals, particularly in Mashhad. It just takes so much time and patience to make it, that it’s easier to wait for someone to die or for a religious holiday like today. 

Iran’s Religious Holidays: remembering the death of Prophet’s daughter

Today’s sholeh is being prepared to commemorate the death of Fāṭima al-Zahrāʾ (pronounced Fatemeh – FAW-TEH-meh – in Iran), the daughter of the prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali, Shiites’ first and most revered Imam. 

To many Shias, she’s the equivalent of Mary in the Catholic religion – the ultimate archetype for Muslim women and an example of compassion and enduring suffering.

“The mother of the two world” (here and afterlife) said a street poster I saw this morning.

The observance of Fatemeh’s death is a huge holiday in Iran, preceded by ten days of ceremonies – with plenty of weeping and gnashing of teeth because Shias believe she died violently and unjustly.

During Iran’s religious holidays, there is the distribution of free food and tea in the streets that are heavily decorated with fervent slogans.

(Actually, they’re not sure when she died so all the commemoration of her passing happens three times a year – just to be sure they got the right date covered.)

Iran’s religious holidays are also about socializing

I am standing around two giant pots steaming on top of portable gas stoves brought into Uncle Javad’s kitchen.

Everyone takes turns to stir – because just helping to cook is an honor. As men stir, others recite salawats (salutations upon the Prophet).  

Cooking sholeh for the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
Cooking sholeh for the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

Through the day, various ingredients are added – including huge piles of domba (fat from the sheep’s tail).  

Iran’s religious holidays are for anyone and everyone

The men, old and young, wearing black, come from all walks of life. Some are very rich. They closed their businesses to be here, because they are related to or friends with Uncle Javad.

Some arrived last night for the first stage of the process – when the cooking of 100 kilos of meat went from 11:30 pm to 4 am this morning.

Cooking sholeh for the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
Cooking sholeh for the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

It’s religious – it’s an honor to help out in any way – but it’s a social event too. I know several of the men are not religious at all. They’re here just out of respect for Uncle Javad, who has been cooking and handing out nazri (promise) food every year for at least 30 years, a tradition that goes back to his father and generations before. 

“I enjoy doing it. Gives me energy. Plus, it has afterlife rewards,” Javad tells me. He says he paid for all the food himself plus all the tea and fruit he’s been passing to guests for the past ten days. 

And just consuming the food is supposed to offer spiritual rewards. Gosh, I can’t think of a better religion if you like free food. And skeptics get to eat too. 

Life in Iran is never boring during Iran’s religious ceremonies

It’s my turn to stir and I’m handed the giant metal steering rod. 

Which is very true. You’re never alone and there’s something to do, someone or somewhere to visit, every single day. It’s never boring here. 

We eat abgoosht for lunch while another group of new arrivals steers the pots. It has to be constantly steered, so it doesn’t stick to the bottom. 

Men eating abgoosht on the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

Then they lay the flames above the pots, cooking the sholeh from the top. No more steering. Just waiting.

It’s winter outside and the windows are open, but it’s hot like a sauna. 

Cooking sholeh on the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
Cooking sholeh on the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

After an entire day of cooking, I help pack the soup in buckets that will be gifted to the several hundred visitors upstairs attending roze-khani (an emotional tear-filled recounting of Fatemeh’s death). 

Boys and men crowd around to pack about 550 packs after a greasy layer of ghaymeh (a common stew) is carefully poured on the top of the sholeh. 

Men packing sholeh for distribution on Mashhad, Iran, on the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
Preparing sholeh in Mashhad, Iran, on the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

Every person is handed the food on their way out.

Uncle Javad was at the door overseeing the distribution of the food, supervising the volunteers, shaking hands with guests, and sometimes bending down to pickup and stack guests’ shoes. 

Extremists spoiled the reputation of the good Muslims

On a side stands a poster (above) depicting Javad’s late father (my wife’s favorite grandfather) as well as his only brother, who died fighting in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. He was 16. The alley outside is named after him.

I thought to myself how much I like this man. He is beloved in the community. He’s always fixing someone’s troubles, that of strangers or one of his five kids and many grandchildren.  

I admire his commitment to his beliefs and his kind heart. 

I shake my head when I think of all the ugly stereotypes about Moslems. It’s because the nutcases naturally grab all the headlines. 

People getting free food on the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
People getting free food on the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
Boy and my Uncle Javad in Mashhad, Iran, on the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com
Boy and my Uncle Javad, the commemoration observance of the death of Zahra Fatemeh, daughter of Prophet Muhammad. Copyright Ali Torkzadeh, EscapefromTehran.com

We’re taking home six buckets of sholeh. One for ourselves and the others to deliver to the homes of relatives and acquittances on the way home. Distributing and eating the food, I hear, also has heavenly rewards. 

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Ali and Saeideh plan their Iran roadtrips from their home in Mashhad. More about us here >>

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