Bushehr - Town of Gheliyeh, Fish Kababs and Dates
Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Bushehr is the city of sunshine and the sea, although in our short stay on the Persian Gulf we picked days full of rain. Still, the rain brought sweet fragrances of coastal Iran, which is gastronomically quite different from the interior. In summer, scorching heat in Bushehr makes most of the locals run away in the mountainous Shiraz, but in autumn and winter, this is a very enjoyable place to be.
The Bushehr Province is a thin and long stretched piece of coastline, famous for its palms and date production. It is these endless rows of palms that moves the economy of this region, along with the important port activities. Iran is the third producer of dates in the world, but this beautiful tree gives also material for beautiful handicrafts that the local people make. Bushehr is one of the most important ports of Iran and the vastness of the harbour is striking. It is probably not the main port of Iran because it cannot spread anymore; it is situated right next to the old city. It specialises particularly in imports and exports of fruits, so next time you’ll buy the Iranian dried fruit or pistachio, know it was probably shipped through Bushehr!
We were having a food tour of the city with Mr Abbas Chaharbaradari, who was graciously reserved to be at our disposal by the Land of Turquoise Domes travel agency. He took us to the first place possible – a street fish market! Sea is, of course, the natural backbone for the flourishing fishery industry in Bushehr. The fishermen sell the catch from the previous night and as it seems the crowd is very successful in giving them a reward for that. Lots of blue and white fish are on offer, some known to the European readers, others somewhat exotic.
Big fishing nets are a testimony to fishermen’s work, day and night. They head out to the turquoise Persian Gulf sea in motorboats but also in lengthy boats called Lenj. They are big enough to carry Gargur, a very old kind net, huge and spherical, with a mouth opening, where fish can easily come in but it is almost impossible to get out. We were close to some of them in the huge port, where we also encountered some old seamen and fishermen, still dressing in the local costume, dedicatedly weaving the metal nets of Gargur.
When a fisherman throws it into the water, he must make sure it is tied to a rope, otherwise, he will have problems in bringing it up. It also has to get thrown into the water in a way that it lands on its circular surface at the bottom of the sea and if it doesn’t, then fish won’t go inside of it. Most of the fish that are caught in Gargur will stay alive because there is water and there is food for them in there. It is very rare to see fish dies when it is caught in Gargur. The fish caught have a bright future of ending at the local bazaar, while others are shipped in different Iranian cities.
After discussing the possibilities of lunch, we went to sit on a long promenade along the sea. It was pouring but Iranians nevertheless walked around joyfully. The day before it was the weekend and many decided to camp along the promenade and just relax on the coastline. Locals pride themselves of this promenade telling it is one of the cities with the longest coast in the world.
The sea has always been the main source of food for the inhabitants of Bushehr Province. Still, don’t expect too many fish meals that look… well, like fish. Iranian gastronomy traditions never particularly favoured fish in its natural image. You will probably be presented with the cubes of fish, prepared in kababi way, just as we tried it in the beautiful Meydaf restaurant. It is situated across the fishing wharf, guaranteeing fresh ingredients coming in every day. Before venturing into the splendid dining hall, we had a chat with the chef, who introduced us more to Bushehri cuisine. Meydaf specialises itself in seafood and is filled with old fishery items. The waiters wear traditional costumes while serving packed restaurant on several floors.
The first flavour distinct from the rest of Iran is the spiciness of the food. Persian Gulf cuisine is spicier than the rest of the country, save the far south of the Sistan and Balochestan province. Of course, the reason is the heat and general climate features. Spices resemble Arabian, Pakistani and Indian influences, mixed with Iranian traditions. Hot sauces are particularly prevalent and it is the magic interplay of tastes that arise on the table of Meydaf, when one dips crispy fish fillet in red and green sauce – itself an ominous predicament of the spicy flavour!
For those not courageous enough, Meydaf offers classic Māhi Kabāb or fish kababs, the chunks of fish with rice, where one can choose Shoorideh (tiger tooth croaker), Rashgo (four finger threat fins), Sorkhoo (Crimson snapper), Dovolmi (Pick handle barracuda), Kokhoo (Indian thread), Jash (herring) or some of the fish or shrimp stews (ghaliye māhi or ghaliye meygoo). For those who never heard for these fish types (like us), don’t worry. The fish is tasteful and plentiful, and it is a welcoming change of diet after so many meat kababs. We had something from everything and enjoyed this place immensely. A particular surprise was bread, baked in a bread oven, crispy and smoky, a real treat on the table!
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 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. Simplicity is also part of the Bushehri tradition. Such is the popular dish Lakh Lakh, whose name comes from an Arabic word meaning fragrant. It is wonderfully aromatic rice steamed with dill, coriander, garlic and fish. It was for centuries essentially popular with the poor, but is also delicious and nutritious dish that is coming back in a grand style.
A very special Bushehri thing is Ranginak, dates stuffed with walnuts. We had an introduction to the Persian Gulf sweets at the dessert bar of the Meydaf restaurant, where dates predominate. Bushehr Province is very rich in palm trees. In Iran, palms and dates were cultivated from ancient times, even before the first great Achaemenid dynasty. Chinese sources on Iran have referred to it as a land of palm and dates. After Egypt, Iran is the world’s biggest produces of dates, with some one million tons of dates produces annually.
Per capita consumption in Iran is 7kg, but it is far more consumed in the southern provinces than in the rest of the country. The main consumption is during Ramadan when fast is traditionally broken with dates, yoghurt and milk. This fruit is mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible and 20 times in the Qur’an, so it has a very important place in Iranian culture. There are dozens of types of dates in Iran, and if they are not eaten out of hand, they are stuffed with fillings such as almonds, walnuts and other nuts. Iranians use dates to produce jams and puddings, many kinds of cakes and spreads, and not to forget also a delicious date vinegar.
Bushehr is also very known for its special and lively ethnic music. It is a mix of many influences, including those of Turks, Lors, Kurds, Arabs, all the way to Africa and India, and wrapped with classic Iranian singing styles. Well, of course, this is a port city and it lives as such, open and joyful. The notes and tones of Bushehri music could be heard when walking down the beach or in the narrow alleys of Bushehr Old Town. This part of the city has remained intact for centuries, as no new constructions are permitted to preserve the ancient appearance.
It is filled with charming cafés with a more than pleasant atmosphere and beautiful designs, favourite among locals and visitors, old and young. By chance, we came across a small gathering in an alley, where the words of Iranian poets were transformed in the singing and music playing in authentic Bushehri style. This wonderful experience confirmed once again the value and beauty of the port cities!