Yummā's Tamarind-Coated Ilish Fish
Updated: Mar 15, 2021
by: Tallieh Attarzadeh
Yummā, my grandmother was a well-known pious woman in Khorramshahr, Iran. Every year, she organized several Islamic female rituals at her home, among them rowzeh, sofreh, do’a, mowludi, and Quran-reading events.
Women in the neighborhood said that they saw numerous miracles in her house. They said, that Yummā was a woman whose faith was pure, who believed in God and the Muslim saints. She thought that one's deep faith would bring God's blessings.
About twenty years ago, an eight-year-old blind girl suddenly got her eyesight back after spending one night sleeping in the Hosseiniyeh of Yummā. A Hosseiniyeh is usually a living room in the houses of people who arrange religious rituals in their homes.
I cannot say to what extent these stories of hundreds of miracles were true or not. People said that the blind child dreamed of a little three-year-old girl who came to her. She was for sure Roghayyeh, the little daughter of Imam Hossein. Roghayyeh put her hands on the eyes of the blind child. When she woke up in the morning, the little girl could see for the first time in her life.
Sofreh Nazr: Halwa with the names of holy names in Shia Islam
Allah, Fatima, Ali, Mohammed-- written in cinnamon sugar
Another example is of barren woman, who participated in the Islamic ceremonies organized by Yummā. Soon after donating to Yummā's Hosseiniyeh, she became pregnant and now has healthy, smart, and virtuous children.
Women from the neighborhood say that such miracles don't happen frequently nowadays since people's beliefs are not as strong, and they do not believe as strongly in the saints.
Yummā was always proud of such incidents and told us about the magical powers of the Islamic saints. She always enjoyed preparing large quantities of festive dishes like Gheimeh, rice with lentils, raisin, lamb; barberries and Safran rice with chicken; Sholezard (saffron rice pudding dessert) and Halva. She donated them to the entire neighborhood, their families, and acquaintances.
Photograph: Sofreh Nazr
My grandmother's generosity was on full display during the holiday of Nowrooz (New Day), the Persian New Year that coincides with the first day of spring. When I lived in Khorramshahr, there were not many opportunities for a family reunion throughout the year. The Nowrooz holiday was one of the rare occasions when my family could gather at my grandmother’s house. The reunion was a reason for the family, who traveled from several Iranian cities, like Mahshahr, Sanandaj, Kashan, or Tehran to Khorramshahr. We all looked forward to the gathering and the delicious meals prepared by the family.
My grandmother's Sobour (Ilish fish) made with tamarind was always at the center of our celebratory meals, which made the effort to travel to Khorramshahr worthwhile.
The mild spring weather made it possible for us to eat lunch in the courtyard. My grandmother cleaned all corners of the house in her zealous spring cleaning. She swept and washed the backyard.
On such beautiful days, we enjoyed the sweet air filled with the scent of flowers, and the unique smell of the Persian Gulf brought in by the wind.
Yummā’s house was located near the Khorramshahr’s daily market, Bazar Safa, where she bought everything needed to cook the Sobour fish.
Sobour was one of the most popular fish in southern Iran. To prepare the food, one had to renounce sleep and start very early in the morning. The early bird in this case was grandma Yummā. She was an excellent cook. She was not taught to read or write, but from early on in her childhood, she was trained to be a good cook!
Everyone who had tasted one of her recipes spoke about the flavors that were uniquely hers. With great discipline and seriousness, she resembled a professional chef. She always commanded other women, who helped her with cooking.
After saying her morning prayers, Yummā started to prepare the food. She sat on a small footstool and carefully cleaned the grains of basmati rice. Then she washed the rice several times until the water became crystal clear. She added some salt to it and let it rest.
The young Yummā with my father and my grandfather
While Yummā took care of the rice, one of my aunts prepared breakfast. Three kinds of jam, cheese, butter, kaymak, honey, black tea, flatbread, walnuts, and crackers were the main components of the first meal of the day. She separated one piece of flatbread and left it on a plate near the stove in the kitchen. This valuable piece of bread would be saved for the lovely tah-dig (bottom of pot)! To cook the rice, Yummā had to fill a pot with water, boil it, and add the rice, oil, and some salt. After a few minutes, the rice grains had to be checked. If they were soft enough, they could go for abkesh round that meant draining the rice in a colander.
Yummā put a mixture of oil, water, some salt into the pot, and added a large piece of flatbread atop the oil mixture. Then, the half-cooked rice went on top of the bread. The rice steamed for about 30 minutes on low heat. The result would be a magical crispy, tasty, and thick piece of bread or the so-called tah-dig and fluffy rice.
Behind the symphony of cutlery and plates that my aunt prepared, one can hear sounds of keys and steps from the entrance door of Yumma's big house. It's 7:00 a.m. My cousin who is entering the house, announces the arrival of Ash-e Abadan, a delicious thick soup made with several herbs, beans, vegetables, and flat wheat noodles. She took care of buying this traditional and popular southern Iranian breakfast for all relatives. My cousin knows that we all love this soup. For this reason, she always tries to satisfy us by showing her generosity, leaving the house early after saying her prayers in the morning so that she doesn’t have to wait long in line to get the food and be right back at home.
Our breakfast session took some hours. It depended on when each person woke up! Those who said their morning prayers were always finished earlier with breakfast than the non-believers who preferred to sleep longer! Nevertheless, those who had already finished remained at the breakfast Sofreh and welcomed the newcomers. Filling up a large piece of flatbread with kaymak and sour cherry jam, my father spoke about living in the glamorous Tehran. Ignoring him, aunt Manijeh spoke about the progress of her Islamic theology studies in Qom, but no one was interested! Since the enforcement of religion by the government, none of us were interested in religion anymore. A deadly silence reigned over the room. Uncle Mehdi cut up the rest of breakfast bread for the pigeons that lived in Yummā’s yard.
the breakfast Sofreh
Thankfully, my little cousin started talking about her new fascination, the Abadan refinery! Everyone laughed; relieved! Some started to talk about when Iran was a world power in the time of the Shah. Uncle Mohammad, who worked for the Iranian ministry of intelligence for many years, thanked Yummā for the breakfast and left the room. He did not tolerate such conversations. My religious Yummā was worried about this uncomfortable situation, about this conflict between her family members. A few family members were supporters of the regime and extremely religious; the others were totally liberal. Referring to the Islamic government as Qom, and the Shah's as Kashan, she said disinterestedly: na Ghom khube, na Kashoon, la'nat be har do tashoon! It meant that neither Qom nor Kashan were good; may a curse be upon both!
After eating breakfast, around 9:00 am, it was time to go to the Bazar Safa, before the fresh produce disappeared. Women wrapped themselves in ‘abayas, chadors and manteaus. These three different styles of clothing represented the political and religious attitudes of women in our family. Together, they went to the Bazar, the devoted and the secular.
They bargained over the price with the bad-tempered fisherman. After much discussion and haggling, they agreed upon a fair price. Now it was time to go to another store to purchase tamarind. On the way, they met their women acquaintances. It was time for small talk. Each described proudly her new year's routine and talked about her guests and the busy days of being a host. Due to their Arab ethnicity, many Khorramshahri people did not celebrate the Persian new year as elaborately as elsewhere in Iran. However, they looked forward to this time of the year to invite their relatives and to demonstrate their hospitality.
fresh Ilish fish
Back at home, Yummā had already cooked the rice. Younger women were divided into two groups. One was responsible for cleaning the Sobour and Fish eggs, the other one for making hashoo. Hashoo was the filling for Sobour. For one large Sobour, we grated two big onions, four garlic cloves, and mix them both with Salt, turmeric, black pepper, cayenne pepper, one teaspoon stomata paste, and tamarind. This was the stuffing that went inside the Sobour.
fish with hashoo
On top, there are fish eggs that would to be grilled
In the end, Yummā grilled the on top of the fire until the skin looked crispy and the stuffing didn't fall off the fish.
Others watched enthusiastically and waited patiently. The unforgettable aroma of Sobour and its stuffing filled the air. As soon as Yumma confirmed that the fish was ready to eat, we put a long cloth (called sofreh) on the floor in the yard. The whole family sat around it. We ate the food with our right hand--no utensils necessary! Everyone looked happy. Nobody spoke about the pompous Tehran, the Islamic school in Qom, or the refinery in Abadan! Instead, we focused on eating the fish as if it was the central force of the universe! Yummā seemed to be at ease and very proud of her large family and her Sobour cooking-project.
Ingredients for a large Sobour (Ilish fish)
One Ilish fish (if not on the market, trout is also a good substitute)
1 cup of Basmati rice
One piece of flatbread
Two big onions (grated)
Four garlic cloves (grated)
Salt, turmeric, black pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste
One teaspoon tomato paste
100 gr tamarind
Talieh Attarzadeh is a musician and ethnomusicologist from Khuzestan, Iran. After studying classical guitar in Tehran, she studied musicology and music psychology in Austria.
She has investigated Islamic and Arabic women's rituals from southern Iran.
Besides teaching the guitar, Talieh researches Iranian Jewish and Iranian Armenian women's rituals and music.