The meaty bites, called kebabs, are no stranger to us. History has given us reminisces of several such treats from the past. While most kebabs were brought to us by Mughal rulers, some evolved through imagination and fascination for foreign cuisines. One such kebab that made its way onto the Indian platter was the Chelow Kebab. For the unversed, chelo is also referred to as polow in Farsi which means cooked rice. Since these kebabs are also made from rice, the name has stuck to it.

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The interesting bit lies in the fact that Chelow kebabs are not of Indian origin. The popularity of Kolkata’s Chelow Kebabs might speak a different story but the actual roots of these kebabs lie in Persia or present-day Iran. The idea of combining ground meat with vegetables into small bites like kebabs itself belongs to the Middle-Eastern cuisine. However, these Chelo Kebabs are believed to have been picked up from Iran. It is said that during the rule of Nasir-al-din Shah under the Qajar dynasty, the Chelow kebabs were born. These kebabs are said to have Caucasian roots which made them different from the other Iranian kebab varieties. 

In their most original form, the beef kebabs were made with rice and minced meat and served with grilled tomatoes, rice, butter and sumac, a special spice from the Middle-East. However, it is when the dish landed on the Indian plate that it was retouched and revamped to give it a desi touch. The story goes that the owner of Kolkata’s Peter Cat restaurant was in Tehran in the year 1971. During his visit to the Iranian city, he encountered these soft and melt-in-your-mouth kebabs for the first time. Pleased with the taste, he decided to bring them to Kolkata.  

In his restaurant menu, he introduced Chelo Kebabs but with a twist. The beef was substituted by chicken or mutton and raw eggs were not added to the dish. Served with buttered rice, the Chelow Kebabs adapted to the Indian culinary scape pretty soon, so much so that some people might mistake them to be of Indian origin itself. What remains intrinsic to the Chelow Kebab preparation is the use of rice. While Chelow is a Persian style of rice, where long-grained rice is soaked in cold water and then poured in boiling water to be steamed, the resulting kebabs are placed on a bed of saffron-flavoured rice along with butter and spices like sumac.

So much is the fanfare for Chelo Kebabs in the country that it is considered to be the national dish of Iran. While the dish is a wholesome preparation with rice and spices, the kebabs in it have evolved into several forms. From grilled Joojeh kebabs with tomatoes and other veggies to Kubideh, where the minced beef or lamb is coated on skewers, the Chelow Kebab plate may vary from region to region.