In Tehran, the Best Part of Waking Up: A Sheep's Head on Your Plate
by Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 13, 2009
TEHRAN -- Khayyam Street, the entrance to Tehran's grand bazaar, was still covered in darkness. The fluorescent lamp outside the Ali 110 restaurant was a rare beacon of activity in a city fast asleep.
It was exactly 5 a.m. and inside, Hassan Najjar, a burly man with a thick gold necklace over his hairy chest, was stirring a giant pot filled with a soup of cooked sheep's heads, brains and hooves. Two waiters, known to everyone as Issa and Mohsen, were busy filling baskets with special bread baked in a stone oven. Pots of tea seemed to be perpetually boiling.
The restaurant, a tiny space with blue marble counters where customers stand and eat, specializes in kaleh pache, or "heads and hooves" soup, the most traditional of Iranian breakfast dishes. Its popularity is under threat, however, from the spread of fast food and from doctors warning about the dish's high cholesterol.
"Look at this," Najjar said as he took a cooked sheep's head and held it in the air. "This has exactly the same ingredients as a human head, only we eat it." He stripped the head bare of all edible parts until only the skull remained. "The brains, the tongue and the skin are all very tasty, as are the eyes," he explained. "Put some lemon and cinnamon over it and you will have a very tasty start to your morning."
After half an hour, customers started to come in. Outside, the first city buses and some taxis drove past. "One brain soup please," a man carrying a briefcase said. "Can I have hooves and tongue this morning, Hassan?" another asked. Najjar, a man of few words, motioned the men toward one of the counters, where Issa quickly provided them with a bread basket and soon after, their orders.
Having first sprinkled the remains of an eye with salt and drops of lemon juice, Ali Lamei, a lean, 27-year-old interior designer, stuck it between a piece of bread and offered the eye to a fellow customer, as Iranian etiquette prescribes.
The eye was already crushed, the lemon and salt adding strongly to the oily flavor. The tongue had a powdery texture. As for the brain, well, it was soft and squishy and tasted like the bouillon it was soaked in.
"This place is the best kaleh pache restaurant in the whole of Iran," Lamei said. "Some young people and women think it's disgusting, but it's full of calories," he explained. "This food gives you enough energy to work the whole day."
"Maybe cooked sheep's heads are upsetting for some," said his friend Mostafa Mogaddam, who works for Iran's judiciary. He compared Iranian food with Iranian music. "It's meaningful and refined. Kaleh pache, for instance, has been passed on for centuries, like the notes and words of our traditional songs have been handed down for generations."
Hassan Najjar runs the place with four brothers, who like him were all named after Shiite imams. Amir, a former major in the army, walked in around 7 a.m. after having prepared more than 100 sheep heads at their kitchen some doors down the street. Saeed, with long hair, Buddy Holly glasses and a tattoo of a cross on his upper arm, entered the restaurant from a hatch in the floor, which turned out to lead to a cellar. No one knew where Hussein was. And Ali, the brother who had bought the place from their father, doesn't show up this early in the morning.
"People think we are very rich," Amir said. "But Ali is the only one who owns a house. The rest of us rent," he said. "If my daughter ever wants to marry a kalehpachi I will forbid it. We are crazy to work here every day."
Doctors and rising inflation have given the Najjar brothers headaches over the last years. "These doctors say kaleh pache has 'health issues,' because it's fatty," said Hassan, who lit yet another cigarette while handing out plates of yellow brains. "But I'll take one spoon of kaleh pache over 40 plates of chello kabab," he said referring to another favorite Iranian dish, minced lamb on a skewer. "Kaleh pache is honest food, and at least I know who made it."
The price of a breakfast portion has sharply risen since their father died 15 years ago. "Four hooves and one head used to be 60 tomans, now it costs 15,000 tomans" or about $15, Hassan explained. "These days only rich people can afford to eat here. The kids, they eat pizza. What is the future for kaleh pache?"
After Issa dropped a chair, Hassan yelled loudly that his waiter was a "donkey." The clients gazed as Issa quietly asked his boss to be more friendly. A homeless man from the neighborhood walked in and received a plate of free food.
But Saeed told him to leave after he was impolite. "Don't do that," Hassan reprimanded his younger brother. "It's God who gives him this food."
Around 7:30 a.m., when the first rush of customers had left, Hassan stepped from behind the giant pot and lit a small bunch of herbs. He blew the sweet smelling smoke to disperse it throughout the restaurant. "Against the evil eye," he explained, referring to an Iranian custom to prevent misfortune. "We might be complaining, but many people are jealous of us," Hassan said. "I don't know why. Maybe they should try selling sheep's heads seven days a week."