Kalleh Pacheh (head and trotters)
One of the things I love about Iran is that you can never get so chicken-nuggetly away from your dinner to forget where it comes from. Here in England if you don’t like the idea of cute little lambs being slaughtered, you can very easily walk into a supermarket and pick up a pack of lamb shops, neatly arranged in a cellophane tray and pretend that like chickpeas that actually have nothing to do with chicks, lamb chops have nothing to do with lambs either and essentially grow on trees.
In Iran however things are very different. There are some supermarkets around now but since there are not that many of them, most people still prefer to shop in their local stores. Being squeamish and shopping for meat in Iran, do not go together. If you are one of those people that like to pretend that lamb chops grow on trees, then you are probably better off becoming a vegetarian since the first time you walk into a butcher’s shop and see every body part of sheep from fillets to shoulders to livers to kidneys to brains being proudly displayed on trays in giant refrigerators along with their trotters and their skinned, smiling heads (with their big eyes staring back at you) decorated with some plastic parsley, any illusions you might have had about what meat comes from where, will be totally shattered.
Even though confronting my dinner’s head has always made me feel a little uneasy, I absolutely love the idea of every part of a slaughtered animal being used and nothing going to waste.
One of the most memorable meals I had on my last trip to Iran was the Kalleh Pacheh (head and trotters) we had in Tajrish on our way back from the mountains one Thursday. I’d had Kalleh Pacheh many times before but I had always had it at home and never in an actual kalleh pacheh restaurant.
It had been my idea to have kalleh pacheh for lunch but as we walked in and the steam from the three sheep heads boiling away in the special pan hit me and I saw those six melting eyes and those three toothy grins, I was ready to run out screaming.
Meanwhile my dad who had already decided that the bread the kalleh-paz (head boiler) was going to give us was not going to be eatable and had already unsuccessfully tried to buy some bread on our way there by hurling himself out of the taxi and into a bread shop at the traffic lights, had popped into the kebab shop next-door in search of some fresh bread and having for some reason come back empty-handed again, was confronted by one of the kalleh-paz guys who had become extremely offended by my dad’s lack of trust in his bread. As my dad did his usual hovering around the place, poking his head here and there, (as though he was trying to secure an escape route when in reality he was only putting off sitting down since for some reason he can’t stay still for too long) he was chased around by the kalleh-paz guy who incessantly spoke of the freshness of his bread and got more and more wound up as my husband also entered the discussion by offering to go to the bread shop at the other side of the roundabout.
As the bread wars continued, I finally managed to pull myself together and so my mum and I went and sat down.
The man’s bread did actually turn out to be quite good and after we had each confirmed his bread’s freshness, he went over to the boiling heads and trotters pot to bring our lunch of face-meat, trotters, two tongues and one brain.
While my dad’s bread brawl opponent arranged the pieces of face-meat on plates and using a ladle, very theatrically let the juices run over each piece of meat, his colleague very coolly broke the jaws of two sheep heads (by putting his hands on either sides of the jaws and pulling forcefully in opposite directions) to extract the tongue and the brain.
I had been the one who had ordered the brain but now that it was about to be put in front of me, going over my last memory of sheep brain, I was beginning to get worried.
As a child I had always liked brain but since I’d left Iran, I had not had it and so one time when I’d gone back, I’d said to my mum that I quite fancied having some brain. Which in English might sound like a bit of a crazy thing to say to your mother but in Farsi is quite normal and can get replies such as ‘Yeah alright then, we’ll pick up a couple on our way back home today.’ Which we did. We picked up two fresh brains from the butcher’s which were dropped into a clear plastic bag and handed to me. It wasn’ta pretty sight and to complete the horror, some blood had got into the bag with them as well. I was feeling very nauseous but I still managed to carry them all the way home with a little help from Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
And a few others of my favourite things.
When we got home, naively thinking that the grim part was over, I pleaded with my mind to somehow forget the image of the two brains bobbing in the shallow pool of blood in that plastic bag or if that was not possible, maybe just not make the connection between that horrid image and the tasty, mushy, cream-cheesy type stuff I was going to have later that night.
Little did I know that a few minutes later, as I walked into the kitchen, I would witness a scene that would not only as we say in Farsi, put the other brain image in its pocket (meaning that was nothing compared to this) but also become one of my top five all time craziest things I have ever seen in my life.
As I walked into the kitchen, I was faced with what I can only describe as Hannibal Lector’s dream punch. The two brains were now swimming around in a big bowl full of water (made pink from the blood) with some ice!
This was certainly a far cry from all those times I had been called out as a child to have some of the nice, white, gooey stuff which I would smear on pieces of bread with a few drops of lemon juice without giving much thought to its original form or where it had come from.
As I struggled to stop myself from fainting, my mum who had taken all my staring at the brains without saying a word as a sign of interest in the art of brain boiling, came and picked up one of the brains and in her usual smiley manner said, ‘I really like this part. If you put the brains in some icy cold water, you can then come and pick out one end of the veins and peel them all away in one.’ Or something along these lines. I can’t be sure about anything that happened in those few minutes as I was too busy concentrating on standing up. But I think she also said something like, ‘It looks like a little net at the end.’ And it did as well. And I have not been able to look at a hairnet the same way ever since.
Needless to say, that night I did not have any brain on account of all the weird images in my head. Now many years later, I was about to make my peace with brain.
And it was really nice actually. The only slightly dodgy thing about it was that my brain was brought to me covered in cinnamon which is really the last thing I would think to put on a brain and it really should be the last thing too since it didn’t really go with it. Saying that, the cinnamon did cover all the veins which was probably a good thing and might hopefully help with my hairnet phobia as well.