Zahak

rostam-670Zahak’s life demands delving deeper into its details due to the significance of this story in conveying the food habits of the Iranians. Zahak, was the son of a pious king and presumably an Arab. One day the devil disguised as a wise man appears to him and says if Zahak makes a pact with him, he will help him kill his father and become the new king. He makes good on his promise and Zahak takes the throne. Once again the devil, this time disguised as a cook, goes to him and says he can make delicious dishes worthy of a mighty king. After tasting the devil’s wares, Zahak is pleased with him and his cooking to the extent that he offers to reward the devil for his food. The devil asks to be allowed to kiss Zahak’s shoulders. As he does, two serpents grow where he had kissed and grow back bigger every time they are cut off at the base. The devil shows up again this time disguised as a doctor and advises Zahak that in order to prevent the snakes from further growing he should feed them the brains of two young men every day. The escapades of Zahak last a thousand years and end with an insurrection that sees him bound and thrown into the deep caverns below the legendary Mount Damavand.

The story of Zahak is important vis-a-vis food and cooking from a number of viewpoints. Firstly Ferdowsi believes people were not familiar with making khoresh at the time. The author thinks that despite the eating traditions in Iran nowadays, where khoresh (a sauce made with vegetables with or without meat) is normally eaten with rice, it meant something different then. It should be noted that nowhere in Shahnameh, is there any mention of rice. Did they not know rice? For sure there were rice fields in the north of Iran, particularly in the province of Gilan, as well as in south, near the city of Shiraz. However, at the time of Ferdowsi, eating rice was not prevalent, especially not in the province of Khorasan, the birth place of the poet, where there are no rice fields. So, in the opinion of the author, the word khoresh here simply means food.

The second important question is whether the people (in the Arab land, or in Iran, or both) were vegetarians. There are many experts of Shahnameh and cooking who think they were indeed vegetarian. The author does not believe so. Ferdowsi does not explicitly say that, neither does he specify otherwise. He merely remarks that in the time of Zahak and Jamshid, khoresh was rarely made. The author believes what Ferdowsi is getting at is that people made simple dishes. Let us not forget that in the words of the poet, we are in the early days of civilization, the era of Zahak and Jamshid, and simple country dishes were prevalent. Returning to Shahnameh as a source, we know that Houshang domesticated farm animals and that Tahmoures showed people how to breed poultry thus it becomes difficult to believe that the flesh of these animals was not used in cooking.

The third significant point is the dishes which the devil cooked for Zahak. Ferdowsi recounts in his verse that Zahak was a stranger to these dishes and this sort of cooking. On the first day the devil made him a khoresh made with the yolk of eggs which according to Ferdowsi are good for the health. The second day he made a khoresh of partridges and pheasants. On third day, he cooked lamb and chicken, and on the fourth day, he gave him a dish of veal fillet marinated in saffron and rose water and eaten with old wine and sweets. What we understand from the above is that at least the kings, if not the rest of the population, started to eat meat; beef, lamb, veal, chicken, etc. from that point onwards.

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