Abgusht: Persian Lamb Soup With Chickpeas And Red Kidney Beans

The Young Man of the house is in the habit of asking unanswerable questions like what fruit I like the best and what is my very favourite thing to eat. I guess he's trying to come to grips with living with a foodie mother. But how is one supposed to choose? Can anyone really commit to something like that?? Especially when there are exciting new things to try every day?

That said, like others I do have some perennial favourites, most of which probably make the category because I get to eat them so rarely. Things like Saffron-Mama's clootie dumpling (something like a fruitcake boiled in a cloth square), black pudding and haggis, the Hong Kong fried noodles I used to eat 3 or 4 times a week, really good cheesecake and Saffron-Papa's famous Boxing Day mango ice-cream (ahh, the joys of Christmas in sunny climes...).

But I do have some absolute favourites that I can whip up myself, any time I want to. And abgusht (literally "water-meat") is one of them.

I've made this so many times now (for the YM, mind (g)) that I can't remember when I first made it, or even whether it was before or after the big trip we took to Iran. I do have fond memories, though, of supping on this lovely soup-stew-cross in Esfahan, a city that is surely one of the most beautiful in the world.

The YM and I were with a lovely young Iranian expat whose name translates as "freedom" (make of that what you will, but she herself said it is a bit of a political statement). She was back visiting family with her sweet 11-month-old son, and we met on the flight down from Tehran. Peckish after wandering around the old-world bazaar that surrounds the incredible Imam Square, we stepped into one of those delightful local restaurants where all the world seems to fall away and all sense of time is forgotten. The whole scene is set for laid-back (literally (g)), convivial dining. After removing your shoes, you step up onto a raised, Persian carpet-covered wooden platform that is circled on three sides by low railings. There, you can laze back, stretch out and generally chill like you are in your own living room.

While you wait, the YM is marveling at the jewel-coloured patches of light that tiny stained glass windows are projecting onto the capet, and you are busy contemplating the culture that adores colour and light so much that coloured mirror mosaic encrusts even the ceilings of restaurants that ordinary people frequent. It truly is magical.

After a while, the waiter brings your order of abgusht in tall black earthenware pots called dizi (which is what the dish is called in restaurants). He pours the steaming, vaguely citrusy, saffron-scented broth into bowls and offers to mash the remaining meat, vegetables and beans for you with the special mashers he's brought for the purpose. It is all so rich and tasty, the surrounds so relaxed and idyllic, that you wonder if perhaps you've found a piece of heaven right here on earth.

Although I can't recreate the atmosphere of that lovely restaurant in a tiny Yokohama flat, the scent and taste of Najmieh khanom's abgusht recipe from The New Food of Life transports me right back to Esfahan every time.

There are several variations on this recipe using different legumes, but this is the one we had as dizi in restaurants in Iran.

This time, I used lamb and beef to clear out some freezer space in preparation for a big cook-up I am planning next month.

I use a pressure cooker for this and tend throw cooked beans in at the end rather than cooking them in the same pot as the abgusht. That way the beans, normally ready in less than 5 minutes under pressure if they've been soaked overnight, don't disintegrate long before the rest of the dish is ready. You should use less water in this case (I used 1 litre). The soup should be very watery, though. I also substituted a 400 g can of whole tomatoes (drained) for the fresh ones.

Abgusht: Persian lamb soup with chickpeas and red kidney beans

1 kg leg of lamb (with bones)
2 large onions, peeled and quartered
1.2 l water [use less if pressure cooking or using pre-cooked beans]
1/2 cup chickpeas
1/2 cup red kidney beans
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3 large potatoes, peeled and cut into halves
4 tomatoes, peeled and sliced [Saffron: or a 400 g tin of whole tomatoes, drained]
1 tbsp tomato paste
2 tsp ground cinnamon
4 whole dried Persian limes (limu-omani), pierced [S: if you have a choice, the pale dried limes are better than the almost black ones in this dish], or 1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 tsp ground saffron dissolved in 2 tbsp hot water
1 tsp Persian allspice (advieh) [S: I use my "Special Spices"]

1. Place the meat, onion, and water in a large pot. Bring to the boil, skimming the froth as it forms. Add the chickpeas and red kidney beans [if using dried], turmeric, salt and pepper. Cover and let simmer for 1 1/2 hours over low heat [or under low pressure for 40 minutes].

2. Add the potatoes, tomatoes, tomato paste, cinnamon, pierced Persian limes or lime juice, saffron water, advieh and more water [if needed]. Continue to simmer 45 minutes over low heat [or about 8 minutes under low pressure].

3. Test with a fork or a knife tip to see if the meat and potatoes are tender. Adjust seasoning.

At this point you have a choice: either serve the broth separate from the meat, vegetables and beans, mashing these into a paste, or serve as a soup in bowls. Either way, Najmieh khanom suggests that the dish be served with Persian pickles (torshi), a platter of spring onions, radishes, fresh tarragon, basil and mint (sabzi-khordan) and lavash or pita bread. (We have it with rice.)