“For my last meal I would like to eat a Shandiz kebab – it’s so full of memories and is my favourite dish. Shandiz is a region in Mashhad where this type of kebab is served and I first tasted it there 15 years ago. We go to Mashhad with friends and my wife has relatives there that we visit. When I first tried this food, it was served with fresh walnuts, homemade yogurt and cheese, in traditional terracotta pots. The kebabs came on huge skewers about a metre long and the meat, grilled tomatoes and side dishes were beautiful to look at. I like simple food with basic, natural ingredients.
Many restaurants in Iran now serve the Shandiz kebab – but they’re not like the ones served in Mashhad. Tehran, where I live, has become so huge and busy that you have to drive out of town to get some peace, but the space at the Padideh Shandiz restaurant has a calmness to it. The owner is from Mashhad and owns a similar place there too.
In general, I’m into barbecues. We have a place in the north of Iran, along the Caspian Sea, and we like to head there with friends. Food there is the responsibility of men, so our wives can take a break. But I’m not able to prepare the Shandiz kebab – it needs the skill of an expert.
I started getting into barbecues after I got married. One of the first purchases we made after our wedding was skewers and a barbecue grill. Iranians like to get on the road, pitch a tent, light a fire, cook and enjoy. Food is part of the joys of travelling and when I make kebabs, my wife is my biggest fan.
When I was a kid, my mother would make traditional dishes like abgousht [stew with mashed meat, white beans and potatoes] and small meatballs with herbs and chickpea flour called shefteh.
I was born in Arak and became interested in photography at the age of eight. My father had a friend who set up the first photo shop in my hometown and I later worked in one as a student after school had finished for the day. That’s when I took my first crime picture. There was a young boy in town who wanted to marry a girl, but her family turned him down. So he took his father’s hunting rifle and went on to the roof of his house, which was near the shop. When high school closed and the girl walked by, he shot her. The girl fell down right in front of where I worked and I instinctively photographed her. One of my friends was a journalist and he sent the picture to Tehran where it got published in a newspaper. I was 13 years old.
After my military service, I got a job in the news section of a newspaper in Tehran. I covered the major protests leading to the revolution in 1979. In its aftermath, I put my life on the line to get the pictures of the execution of Kurdish militants that I had taken to my newspaper. The editor-in-chief decided not to publish my name because it was unclear what repercussions it may have had. Afterwards, when I heard I won the Pulitzer, some close friends congratulated me and someone came for an interview, but I declined to speak. I kept to myself and for years there was no more talk of it.
Later on, I distanced myself from news. I left the newspaper, set up my own shop and started doing portraits. Then Joshua Prager from the Wall Street Journal started investigating the anonymous picture and found his way to me. He visited me in Iran; he was an honest man and we spoke for a full week. I would invite him to my last meal along with my family, relatives, friends and neighbours.
Iranians are social animals. Our fond memories are linked to times when we are around one another. Our eldest son, for example, is married and lives in Canada. Iranians put a lot of focus on the family and it’s difficult being separated. We are used to living in a community and we value this. I believe this is a richer way of life. By this token, my last meal would be more valuable shared than alone.
I’d like to be remembered as a photojournalist. I always preferred documenting major events and crimes. The universe pushed me towards photojournalism and it’s what got me the Pulitzer.
My work was recognised and nothing is more satisfying. Financially it doesn’t represent much, but from a spiritual point of view it is very valuable to me and my family. It is such an honour to get an international prize. Even more valuable is that I waited 26 years to finally get hold of something that was mine – things do come to those who deserve them.
Now I only hope that this won’t truly be my last meal, as usually a last meal is something given to those sentenced to capital punishment. Before the revolution they used to ask people on death row, ‘what would you like to eat?’ and then bring it to them. I would without doubt have chosen the Shandiz kebab.”
The original Padideh Shandiz is located in Iran’s north-western holy city of Mashhad, although a Tehran branch opened in April 2010. Padideh Shandiz is known for its vast main hall, recreating the experience of dining in a grand garden. Padideh Shandiz (Tehran), Farahzadi Boulevard (inside Arikeh Iranian complex),
+ 98 21 2237 0053
Jahangir Razmi, now 64, took one of the most famous pictures associated with the Iranian revolution in 1979 – but until 2006 nobody knew he was the photographer. The editor of Ettela’at newspaper, who published it, decided not to use his name, concerned about the repercussions. “Firing Squad in Iran” won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography – the only time the award has gone to an unidentified person. Razmi is still a photographer and lives in Tehran. For his last meal he opts for a Shandiz kebab in northern Tehran, the affluent part of the capital.
The Shandiz kebab is named after a region in Mashhad. It consists of a generous portion of succulent onion and saffron-marinated lamb chops, skewered and charbroiled. The kebab is served with vegetables, salad, yogurt and pickle side dishes. It can also be accompanied by rice.
Bread of heaven
One of the most renowned traditional breads in Iran – and arguably the most popular – is sangak, a lighter alternative to the buttery rice commonly served with the country’s kebabs. Made from mostly whole-wheat sourdough, savvy kebab joints serve grilled meat in between two slices of sangak flatbread – the top slice keeps the meat warm while the bottom slice collects the dripping meat juice.
Sangak is said to have been created during the Sassanid dynasty that ruled over the last pre-Islamic Persian Empire, prior to the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. On orders of the court doctor, sangak was baked on a bed of stone to nourish an ailing king and, to this day, it is prepared in special bakeries and baked in a large hole in the wall over hot pebbles.
Even if it often means queuing for half an hour in front of their local bakery, Iranians like to eat sangak freshly baked that day. For special occasions people order a family-sized portion that can be over half a metre long, topped with an extra amount of sesame seeds.