Last year winter was a weakling. This year, winter is a brutish pahlavan! When it is bitter cold out there, nothing beats coming home to the aroma and flavor of a bowl of hot and delicious abgoosht (also spelled abgusht.) Literal translation of abgoosht is “meat broth” which sounds decidedly … not that appetizing. Proving that a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet. Sorry Shakespear! Less literally, abgoosht may be translated as a hearty lamb soup with marrow, chickpeas and white beans — a wintertime staple across every corner of Iran.
My beloved Kermanshahi paternal grandmother, Shah Bibi (khoda biyamorz, RIP) made my favorite kind, where the color of the broth was almost red. Shah Bibi used a good bit of ghoreh (sour grapes) – my father reminds me – and she topped it with a generous heap of freshly sauteed dried mint so that the whole house turned mouth-wateringly fragrant – I vividly recall myself. One of the best smells you can possibly imagine!
Abgoosht is an informal dish with a customized ritual of eating. One custom is to take a piece of bread, tear it into many small pieces, and drop it in the broth. This is called “noon terid kardan.” My mom cleverly points out this is somewhat reminiscent of using crackers or croutons with soup. So yes – think of it as insta-cracker-croutons — just ancient Persian style!
The other custom is to make goosht ‘eh kubideh (which literally means “mashed meat”) by removing (using a slotted spoon) all the solid bits (the beans, potatoes and meat) of the broth, mashing it all up to a mashed-potato type consistency, seasoning it with salt and pepper to taste, serving it seapartely alongside with the broth, and gobbling it up with bread and torshi (Persian pickles.) Noosheh jan! In my humble opinion, perhaps the best part of eating abgoosht is the goosht kubideh. I could rant and rave, but until you try and taste it for yourself, you’ll have no earthly idea of just how good it is. So. Good. However, a cook must decide which part of abghoost she wants to shine more brightly. If favoring the broth, the cooking time should be longer to release the flavors of the ingredients, which in turn means the goosht kubideh part won’t be as rich and tasty. If opting for the tastiest possible goosht kubideh, however, the cooking time should be shorter so that the meat, chickpeas and beans retain their flavor.
It is not Sophie’s Choice – but it is a choice that a cook must consider when making abgoosht.
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing via email Ostad Najaf Daryabandari, the researcher and author of an invaluable 2 volume encyclopedic Persian cookbook. Among other things, I posed the following questions to Mr. Daryabanari: 1) What would you consider the masterpiece of Iranian food? 2) What is your favorite Iranian food? 3) If it were possible to only share one Iranian dish with the rest of the world, which would you pick? And to each question, Mr. Daryanbandari’s answer was … wait for it … abgoosht!
Which initially, I confess, perplexed me. After all, we have such show-stopping stunners as jeweled rice, or fesenjoon (pomegranate & walnut Persian stew) in our cuisine. Surely more deserving of the spotlight and admiration. But admittedly, while not at all glamorous, abgoosht has a plain yet profound goodness about it. It is a dish that delivers — solidly, pleasingly, without airs, yet with abundant flavors, sweet fragrance, texture and it is filling and nutritious.
My mom points out to me that when meat is cooked with its bones and donbeh (fat) such as it is traditionally meant to be when preparing an authentic Iranian abghoosht, it releases all its nutrients and good fat. “Good calories!” My mom notes. She further points out that abghoost is a bidardesar recipe (hassle free, easy peazy, made in a dizi) that could be made in one pot, simmering slowly, so that even in the busiest of households, they could start one, leave it on the stove, and get on with other things. An economical way as well for even the poorest of households to make sure that each family member got the nutrients and flavor of even a small piece of meat. No less important historical a figure than Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna) observed that abgoosht is a balanced and important type of Iranian food that could even be eaten daily. So in sum: a convenient food, full of nutrients, economical, and one specifically singled out as special by at least two important figures in the culture of Iran. You couldn’t ask for better P.R.!
The recipe I’m sharing is of a basic abgoosht my mother makes. Picking up after my lovely paternal grandmother, Shah Bibi (khoda biyamorz, RIP) my mom also uses lemon juice (or abeh ghoreh if she can find it) for the broth; and plenty of sauted dried mint as a garnish. The room fills with a heavenly scent, stomachs grumble with happy anticipation, and one, if one is mindful that is, says shokreh khoda (“thank you God”) w
ith each lovely bountiful spoonful.
- 1 lb lamb shoulder with bones
- 3/4 cup chickpeas
- 1/2 cup white beans (we used fagioli Cannellini)
- 2 medium-sized potatoes (peeled, then halved or quartered)
- 2 black limes – aka black limes or as limoo amani (or substitute the juice of 1-2 lemons instead)
- a few cloves of garlic
- 1 large onion (peeled and quartered)
- 1 tablespoon white rice (just a little – to add some starch to the broth)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste – dissolved in a bit of hot water
- 1 teaspoon turmeric (or a bit more, to taste)
- dried mint for final garnish 1 tablespoon
- 2-3 bay leaves
- salt & pepper to taste
- Soak lamb in cold water and add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar for 15 minutes. (Helps remove that particular lamb odor.) Drain. Pat dry. Trim the meat but do not rid it of its layers of fat (donbeh) – which are quite desirable to use in abgoosht, adding depth of flavor. Chop meat into a few pieces.
- Sprinkle a bit of salt on the beans and chickpeas, add hot water to cover. Soak for 10-15 minutes. Drain.
- In a big pot, bring meat, garlic cloves and 6 cups of cold water to a rapid boil. Boil for a few minutes – skimming foam in the process. Add rice, onion, turmeric, bay leaves, chickpeas, and beans (basically everything except for the potatoes and tomato paste and lemon juice), and bring to a gentle boil again. Lower heat, cover lid, and cook slowly until cooked. (Usually around 1 1/2 – 2 hours.)
- Half an hour prior to the meet being fully cooked, add the potatoes.
- 15 minutes before it being done, add the tomato paste and lemon juice (if you were not using the dried limes, OR, in addition to the dried limes.)
- Once done, check seasoning and adjust to taste with salt, pepper and more lemon juice if desired.
- Heat a tablespoon of oil in a skillet till sizzling. Crumble dried mint between palms and sautee in oil for just one minute, stirring it frequently. (No longer than a minute because it can easily burn.)
- Abghoosht in its authentic traditional way was cooked in something called dizi sofali (clay pots which enhanced the flavor) or in cooper pots. In modern times, we will have to make do with what is at hand. If you’re lucky enough to have dizi pots, place a diffuser on the oven to use.
- As mentioned in the body of the post, a cook must decide whether to favor the broth or the mashed-up meat+potato+chickpeas+beans gusht koobideh mashed-up paste. If the broth, cook it very slowly on a low heat and for long enough till the ingredients have fully released all their flavors. If favoring the gusht kubideh, cook it just long enough till the ingredients are fully cooked yet still retain their flavor.
Serve hot. Transfer broth to a big bowl and top with dried mint garnish.
Generally, and as is customary with most Persian food, abghoost is offered alongside with yogurt, soft flat bread, sabzi khordan (plate of mixed fresh herbs) and torshi (Persian pickles.) It is customary to break the bread into several pieces and drop it into the broth.
If you’d like to make and serve the gusht koobideh (not made or pictured in this recipe post but described in detail in the body of the post) use a slotted spoon to remove most of not all of the beans, chickpeas, meat and potatoes; mash it up; season with salt and pepper and serve separately. YUM!