By Nasser Zarrabi
To appreciate the culinary culture of Abadan, it is important to understand the geography, local products, history, and influences on the culture of the region in question. Abadan, an island in the province of Khuzestan, is situated in the south-west of Iran, next to the border with Iraq. This island is bordered on all sides by rivers, waterways and the Persian Gulf.
The local products are predominantly sea food from the Persian Gulf and the rivers to west and east of the island. Dates are the principal agricultural product.
Until the early 20th century Abadan was inhabited by Persians of Arab origin. It gained its geo-political importance due to two significant events. First was the construction of a port and a huge oil refinery for exporting and refining crude oil by the British. They had acquired licenses to exploit Iran’s crude oil reserves and export the crude and refined products. For years the refinery in Abadan was the largest the world. This triggered a flow of British as well as Iranians and local Arabs to Abadan. The second was the creation of Iraq as a new state which added to the importance of this island.
In the said flow of immigration, the British became the key personnel of the refinery. The Indians (India being a colony of the UK), came as unqualified workers. In the case of Iranians and local Arabs, there was a limited flow of qualified and unqualified workers from other parts of the country to Abadan.
The British did not mingle with local inhabitants. They had their designated residential districts and clubs. The Indians, likewise, had their district called Sikh Lane. They used to socialize with their Iranian and Arab neighbors. Each group of immigrants brought with it its own culinary culture.
However, the main influence on the cuisine of Abadan came from Bushehr. For almost a hundred years Bushehr, the main Iranian port in the Persian Gulf, had culturally influenced most of the cities in the western part of the Persian Gulf and Fars province. But in Bushehr, as in Abadan and other cities near the Persian Gulf, many ingredients were not available locally until early 20th century (around 1920s). Products such as rice or tomatoes were new though nowadays they are extensively used.
Like all other littoral cities, both Bushehr and Abadan count fish and sea food as the main ingredients in their dishes. Of the fish caught in the Persian Gulf, Rashgou halva, Zubeidi, Sorkhou, Sangsar, Shourideh, Shir, Ghobad, Hamour, and Shark ( Bombak in Bushehr ) can be mentioned. These were usually fried or grilled and eaten with bread or rice.
Ghelieh Mahi is the most popular fish dish in the region. It can be made as a stew served with white rice, or as a soup (similar to the Bouillabaisse in south of France) accompanied by bread. There is another way of eating it and that is to wrapping a small piece of fish in bread and dunking it in the soup. The fish for this dish is usually Sangsar, Rashgou, Sorkhou, or Hamour. Fenugreek and coriander are the herbs and together with garlic and red pepper they make up the ingredients of Ghelieh Mahi.
Another popular dish is the shrimps with onion, Dopiazen Maygou, which is made with fried onions and shrimps and served either with bread or rice. Maygou polo Ghalebi has rice and shrimps as the main ingredients. Some households add raisins to this festive dish which is meant to be take the shape of the pot i.e. ghalebi or molded. The rice is served turned out upside down on a plate. Nowadays it is easier to make this dish using a rice cooker.
Of other fish dishes to mention is Moaydab. This is a sticky rice dish (dami) with fish borrowed from the Arab Emirates in the southern part of the Persian Gulf. Another dish originating from Bushehr is Saloneh which is believed initially to have come from India and the fish used in it is Halva.
As stated earlier, the culinary culture of Abadan, was influenced by India, either directly by the Indian immigration to Abadan, or indirectly from Bushehr which was in turn influenced by the Indians passing through many decades before. Among the dishes of Indian origin Potato Chops is one which is a patty made with mashed potatoes stuffed with a spoonful of a mixture of mince meat, herbs, and raisins and fried till golden brown. Another recipe, which is in fact a sort of mezze is Sambouseh, believed to be an ancient Persian dish. It is a mixture of meat and herbs wrapped in a thin layer of bread in the form of a triangle and fried in oil. It is very hot and spicy. As for Curry, it is usually made as they do in Bushehr. Some Abadanis incorporate coconut and coconut milk in the Curry as they do in south of India.
Sobur is a fish found only in Shatt-el Arab, the river separating Abadan from Iraq. It is the main ingredient of Hashou, a highly popular dish in Abadan and Khorramshahr (an adjacent city). This fish is stuffed with herbs and garlic and roasted in “tanour” ovens. Hashou, the stuffing, is also very smelly because of the fenugreek and garlic used in the recipe. That is why even nowadays when most kitchens have ovens, it is preferred to roast Sobur elsewhere in a ‘tanour ‘. Because of its numerous bones, it is usually eaten with fingers. It can be served with ‘Baghali polo‘(rice, broad beans and dill) but it is usually eaten with bread.
The most important dish in the cuisine of Abadan was Shekar Polo. Received from the local inhabitants of Arab origin, it is a festive dish made with rice, Saffron and Sugar and served with chicken. Another dish of Arab origin is Kobbeh, a meat ball of minced lamb sometimes with added chopped walnut. Another popular recipe is Bamieh Stew. This popular stew has gombo (lady’s finger or okra) as its main ingredient and is made with meat, garlic and red pepper. It is served with plain rice.
Today, influences from Tehran and other major cities prevail in Abadan. Modern conveniences in the kitchen have helped to make old traditions obsolete. Products which were not readily available half a century ago are everywhere. Tomato and tomato paste have almost replaced turmeric. There are more pizzerias and hamburger shops in Abadan nowadays than those selling Sambouseh. Bushehr is no longer the port it was and after the war of 1980-1988 with Iraq, Abadan and its refinery have lost their attraction. May be the only thing which has remained the same is Sobur.