Winter, especially the kind of winter we’re experiencing recently in Southern California, is the ideal time to eat the Iranian sheep soup called kalleh pacheh, a name that doubles as its ingredient list. Translated from Farsi, kalleh pacheh means head, foot.
Sheep meat, by tradition, is a good “warm” meat that allegedly heats up the body when consumed. If eaten as kalleh pacheh, a sheep soup that’s been simmering with onions, garlic, cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric for upward of 24 hours, then it’s extra hearty and insulating.
Parts of the Middle East, from Iraq to the south and the Caucasus up north and westward where Turkey sits, is generally known as a kalleh pacheh region, although in Azerbaijan and Armenia, it’s called khash. Pacha is another name the soup goes by when the bonus ingredient stomach is added; this variation can be found as far west as Bosnia and Herzegovina. This type of soup can be had even in the outer reaches of Mongolia, where staying warm by any means necessary is a full-time job during the winter.
Here in Los Angeles, kalleh pacheh or khash, depending to whom you're speaking, is made with a less gamey lamb in place of the more assertively flavored sheep. Although not as common as abgoosht, a lamb and chickpea soup, kalleh pacheh can be spotted on the menu at Nersses Vanak in Glendale as well as Attari Sandwich Shop at Persian Square in Westwood. However, for lamb head and hoof soup connoisseurs, the bowl ladled up at Vanak Restaurant & Bakery in Tarzana is the best, and pretty close to what you’d experience dining at kalleh pacheh specialists in Tehran itself. Conveniently, kalleh pacheh is on Vanak's regular menu and served all day, not just weekends like other places.
Vanak Restaurant & Bakery is named after a tony neighborhood and street to the north of Tehran, where the chef-owner of Vanak is from. He apologizes for the lack of brain in one day’s soup; his distributor didn’t bring any gray matter due to low supply. The brain, when available, turns a golden hue from the turmeric powder, and the entire soup reflects a sheen of yellow. But today it’ll have to be tongue, head and trotter meat, an eyeball if you’re lucky.
“This is a traditional Persian soup that is 500 years old,” Vanak’s owner says. Actually, in 2013, archeologists unearthed from two graves bowls that contained sheep’s head and trotters at the Bronze Age site of Chalo in northeastern Iran. If, in fact, this was evidence of kalleh pacheh remains, they’d be clocked as 4,000-year-old leftovers. In addition, the soup has been cited by medieval Armenian writers going as far back as the 11th century. Kalleh pacheh is undoubtedly an ancient dish.
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At Vanak, the lamb head and trotter soup comes with a sizable paddle of barbari flatbread riddled with toasted sesame seeds. A quarter of a raw, white onion waits on the tray for flavoring the relatively mild soup. Salt and lemon juice are traditional seasonings and recommended to bring out the lamb’s optimal taste. The soup is gamey but only slightly so.
Before you begin eating, it’s customary to scoop out all the meat and parts onto a plate, leaving behind only broth in the bowl. Next, tear up pieces of the barbari and scatter those into the soup. You can also use some of the bread to pinch pieces of lamb and eat that way, too. Be sure to sprinkle some salt and lemon juice onto the meat first.
Vanak’s kalleh pacheh is a family recipe ferried from Iran and a bit reminiscent of menudo, the Mexican beef hoof and tripe soup, only more lamb-y. Like menudo, it contains the promise of a hangover cure. In fact, some kalleh pacheh shops abroad open when the nightclubs and bars close, thus creating a direct line from drunkenness to meat cure.
Vanak Restaurant & Bakery, 6030 Reseda Blvd., Tarzana. (818) 342-4956.