ĀB-GŪŠT, literally “water-meat” signifying “meat juice” (i.e., āb-e gūšt), a popular Persian meat-based soup or stew, consisting of lamb, some legume, and herb and seasoning. Currently the standard variety of āb-gūšt is made of lamb shank (māhīča), dried chick peas, white beans, and potato, with salt, turmeric, and dried Persian lime (līmū-ye ʿomānī) for seasoning.
The application of the name āb-gūšt to this dish must be of recent origin. The word occurs in the poetry of Bosḥāq Aṭʿama, the 14th century humorous poet of foods (Dīvān, Istanbul, 1303/1885-86, pp. 18, 64), but from one of the instances (p. 18), it appears that Bosḥāq means by it what is not understood today, but a meat broth recommended for the ailing. Āb-gūšt does not occur in the earlier Persian dictionaries, including Borhān-e qāṭeʿ (1062/1651-52), but the Ānandarāǰ dictionary (1306/1888-89) cites it with the simple definition of šūrbā (broth). This meaning is confirmed by J. L. Schlimmer, a physician of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah, who in his dictionary (1878) translates bouillon de viande (Eng. “Broth,” Germ. “Fleischbruehe”) as āb-e gūšt. Handjeri in his multi-language dictionary (1840) translates bouillon de viande as gūš(t)āba; and consommé, i.e., bouillon fort (Eng. “gravy soup,” Germ. “Kraftbruehe”) as āb-e gūšt-e pormāya (“āb- gūšt of substance”); and bouillon (viande) (Eng. “boiled meat,” Germ. “Gesottenes Fleisch”) as gūšt-e āb-paz and yaḵnī. Mīrzā ʿAlī-Akbar Khan Āšpaz-bāšī, a chief of Nāṣer-al-dīn Shah (1264-313/1848-96) who composed a compact but comprehensive treatise on Persian foods and delicacies, does not describe the dish under āb-gūšt, which he mentions only once in the sense of bouillon (Sofra-ye Aṭʿama, p. 14), but under yaḵnī (ibid., pp. 43f.). Thus it is clear that the term āb-gūšt was not applied to lamb stew until at least the last decades of the 19th century. Novvāb ʿAzīz Jang Bahādor, the author of Āṣaf al-loḡāt (Hyderabad, 1324/1906, s.v.) cites two meanings for āb-gūšt: meat broth (šūrbā-ye gūšt) and meat stew (yaḵnī). Nāẓem-al-aṭebbāʾ, however, who began his dictionary about the turn of the century and completed it in 1349/1923, defines āb-gūšt as “a dish made of meat and some legumes” and adds that “it is one of the tasty and nutritious dishes” (Farhang-e Nafīsī, Tehran, 1318-34 Š./1939-55, I, p. 8). Obviously by his time the current meaning of āb-gūšt had taken root.
The author of the Sofra-ye Aṭʿama describes fourteen varieties of yaḵnī, of which the first, made with peas, onion, and seasoning, largely corresponds to the more common variety of āb-gūšt. The other varieties are 2. with red beans; 3. with red beans, dried apricots, dried plums, walnut, quince, and apple; 4. with quince and red beans, also apple if desired; 5. with eggplants, split peas, and sour grape juice or sour grapes or ground sour grapes; 6. with ample onion and serkašīra (a soursweet syrup made of vinegar and grape syrup); 7. with cabbage and chickling vetch (māš); 8. with carrots, yellow split peas, and serkašīra; 9. with lentil and beetroot and pomegranate syrup; 10. with fresh, unripe plums (ālūča), split peas, fresh mint leaves, and parsley; 11. with apple and sour cherry (ālūbālū) and split peas; 12. beryānī, with lungs; 13. with split peas, and whole dried limes if desired; 14. bozbāš, with white beans, fresh mint, dill, leek (tara) and some other herbs, and optionally with āb-ḡūra or dried lime. Neither potatoes, nowadays commonly used in āb-gūšt, nor tomatoes, frequently used in it, had become popular at the time of the author.
Āb-gūšt is the daily staple food of poor masses in Iran. It is economical by virtue of the very small quantity of meat ordinarily used in its preparation, the amount varying according to the economic capability of the family preparing it, so that there might be two or three lamb shanks in a pot of āb-gūšt, or a small amount of lamb breast with bones, or even a small piece of lamb fat or soup bones (traditionally lamb shanks), a few potatoes, and seasonings. Before serving, the solid ingredients are removed from the soup, mashed to a pulp (gūšt[-e] kūbīda), and served separately with flatbread. The liquid is served as a soup, often with pieces of flatbread broken into it (tarīd, talīd). It is a highly elastic dish, as it can be expanded to accommodate a larger number of people by the simple addition of more water and dried legumes.
The most common dried legume used in preparing āb-gūšt is chick peas (noḵod). However, the legumes can be varied, so that this dish can be prepared with a combination of dried cranberry October beans, navy beans, kidney beans, and yellow split peas. Other ingredients can be added to give further variety to this dish, such as slices of sautéed eggplant and lentils (āb-gūšt-e bādemǰān o ʿadas); or slices or cubes of quince (āb-gūšt-e beh); or sliced cooking apples and sour cherries (āb-gušt-e sīb va āl[ū]bālū). Sometimes variations in ingredients or seasoning will lend a different character to this dish, e.g., the addition of some herbs and four or five dried Persian limes (āb-gūšt-e boz bāš); or sour grape juice (āb-gūšt-e āb-ḡūra); or wheat berries (āb-gūšt-e gandom). One variety of āb-gūšt considered to be most authentic and traditional is āb-gūšt-e dīzī, prepared in a clay pot (dīzī) from which it derives its name. These clay pots are traditionally used by villagers and tribespeople, and are suspended over a slow open fire (oǰāq). In towns sometimes dīzī is left with the baker to have it cooked by the fire of the bakery oven. Some bakers used to make a side business of cooking dīzīs and selling them at lunch time.
Besides being an economical dish, āb-gūšt is rather easily prepared. Although it requires long, slow cooking, rural and nomadic women can throw the ingredients into a pot, place it over a slow fire, and go off and work in the fields, secure in the knowledge that the dish will be ready in time for the midday meal. Once assembled it needs no attention and can be left to simmer while the cook does her other work, whether picking tea leaves in the fields or weaving a carpet. The same is true for the housewife living in a town or city. She can prepare the meal with few utensils and very simple kitchen facilities, leave it on a low heat, and attend to her shopping, visiting, or household chores. It is customary served as the midday meal.
In spite of its homely character, āb-gūšt can be extremely tasty, and because of its combination of vegetable proteins with a small quantity of meat it is also a highly nutritious dish, besides being economical and versatile. As it is always served with bread, this further rounds out the meal, making it nutritionally well-balanced.
In villages, in factories, and in many other places of work, āb-gūšt is served in one large communal bowl, with the gūšt-e kūbīda (forcemeat) in one large communal tray, with hot flatbread on the side.
Although considered to be a dish for the lower classes and the poor, middle-class Iranians also eat āb-gūšt as a family meal, when wishing to economize, but they do not consider it to be a company dish. In recent years āb-gūšt has achieved a new popularity in a romantic vein with the affluent, who serve it as soup before the main dish or as a side dish.
In addition to the references given in the text, see: F. Hekmat, The Art of Persian Cooking, New York, 1961, pp. 78-82.
R. Montaẓemī, Maǰmūʿa-ye ḡaḏāhā-ye īrānī va farangī, Tehran, 1347 Š./1968, pp. 418-21.
For descriptions of the current varieties of āb-gūšt, see N. Ramazani, Persian Cooking, New York, 1974.
(EIr and N. Ramazani)
Originally Published: December 15, 1982
Last Updated: December 15, 1982
This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 1 pp. 47-48
EIr and N. Ramazani, “ĀB-GŪŠT,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition, 1982, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ab-gust