A Journey through Iran and its Food
Ancient Persia and Modern IranBut food, and more particularly spices, were an essential reason for me being in Iran. I was retracing the Silk Road, the world's oldest trade route. Extending some 6,000+ kilometres from Roman Europe to China, the Silk Road was the overland connection between the world's great civilisations. In the centre of it all was Persia and it was the trade of things like silk, cinnamon, cardamon, ginger, and tumeric, that founded great cities across the region.
The Persian Empire once spanned three continents, and entering Iran I was desperate to get past the current image of the country and discover Persia. But Persia is something that exists only in history books. It's a concept, a conglomeration of ideas that no longer exists. I was searching for Persia but I found Iran, a country that is also a hotchpotch collection of beliefs. None of which matched the well rehearsed stereotype.
While there are no restaurants in Iran, inviting guests for a local feast is an integral part of their hospitality. As I followed the destinations of the Silk Road I found a symbolism in the different foods, and the culinary journey helped makes sense of the assorted ethnicities and landscapes of this misunderstood country.
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Tabriz -- Kashge BodemjunThe North West is home to the Azeri people, an ethnicity split across Iran and Azerbaijan. Verdant valleys and lush mountainsides surround Tabriz and the landscape has an unworried nature that reflects its people. Get caught drinking alcohol three times in Iran and you could face hanging, but each day in Tabriz I end up at a house with an elicit store of alcohol. They craved a knowledge of Europe that wasn't the propaganda printed in the state newspapers. Questions flew around, culminating in "in your country, how do you treat your political prisoners?"
The local dish is an assortment of flavours, refusing an easy definition. Aubergine (also known as eggplant) is liquidised with a hint of yoghurt and topped with fried onion, pine nuts, blended spinach, and creamy yoghurt. It's rich and vivid and had me frantically ripping of pieces of bread to mop the plate dry. Watered down whisky provides an accompaniment, served by a non headscarf wearing female.
Tehran -- Meat KebabIt's unlikely you will go more than 48 hours without a kebab in Iran. It's one of the most arduous countries for vegetarians because street food is invariably focused on meat. Tehran is an ugly city, a cumulous ball of smog amidst a desert plain. Intense sunlight, exhaust fumes, and obnoxious traffic mix with old women jogging around the park in hijabs. It's the one destination where I was invited for a home cooked dinner. Unsurprising, when I witnessed a man sprint across the road to haul down a motorbike laden with boxes of teapots. It's a destination with little connection to the Silk Road, but like many countries, a central capital city is difficult to avoid.
Without restaurants it's obligatory to survive off kebabs. But at least you get a choice over how the kebab is cooked. Either take the traditional char grilled variety or opt for the oven cooked meat patty that floats in its own juices. Both enhanced by grilled tomato and burnt green chillies.
Kashan -- Shefteh Sumak and Spinach and Plum CurryHeading south from Tehran this charming desert oasis mixes tradition with opulence. Crumbling mud brick houses are juxtaposed with grand aristocratic houses, and each imposing house has two door knockers; separate for men and women so the owners knew who should answer the door. One old house has been converted to a boutique hotel and safe space for liberal locals. Through art and sarcasm they find a way to openly live in Iran. "If we didn't have separate sections on the buses" explains Mona, "no one would be able to control themselves and everyone would have sex during the commute."
Their local food is rich and full of powerful flavours that could upset some palates. Beef meatballs are cooked in a thick paprika based gravy and this Shefteh Sumak was neatly balanced with the acidic sweetness of the accompanying Spinach and Plum curry. Fresh fruit provides a sticky sauce that balances the silky spinach in a dish that showcases a lucrative old town that used products coming from both east and west.
Esfahan -- Halim BodemjunEsfahan induces a transfixion. The ancient capital of Persia lulls you into its world with wonders and boundless beauty and then it keeps you guessing by constantly surprising: the exquisite patterns on a 17th century domed mosque roof, the dynamic atmosphere of the world's second largest public square, or the startling charm of an ancient bridge over a dried out river bed.
It's a unique city with an exclusive signature dish. Mince meat, rice and aubergine, cooked and blended into a smooth but stringy paste and served with crispy fried onions and fresh bread. It's heavy and rich but the taste doesn't resemble any of the ingredients.
Yazd -- Camel and Potato StewHeading west the average daily temperature soars into the 40s Celsius (over 104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the sand-surrounded city of Yazd. Between 12 and 5 the streets are eerily silent, and the captivating yellow brick buildings become uncomfortable to touch.
As one of the few resting points on the southern Silk Road route towards Afghanistan, Yazd was an integral stop for trading caravans. In one of the town's historic water towers locals perform the national sport of Zurkhaneh. To the relentless beat of live percussionists and the sorrowful mantras of a lone male voice, men in gaudy shorts perform press-ups, star jumps, and strange stretches.
Part religion, part circuit training, this bravado imbued ritual continues with bench pressing wooden doors and twirling immense wooden clubs, before culminating in a competition to see who can spin around in circles for the longest.
Zurkhaneh mixes toughness with a harmonious spirituality, so it seems fitting that the local food is the most ubiquitous animal. And in the desert that means camel. Slow cooked, the red meat is surprisingly tender and thick chunks fell apart in my mouth. As I drank the watery sauce my host says he would also participate in Zurkhaneh if they did it to the music of the Black Eyed Peas.
Mashhad -- Ash (pronounced Arsh)Mashhad is Iran's holiest city and home of the largest mosque in the world. The Iman Reza shrine complex has a capacity of 700,000 worshippers and 25 million Shia Muslims pilgrimage here each year.
The shrine feels ostentatious, ornate buildings and courtyards glimmering with gold and silver. All around me barefoot pilgrims were arriving, most following the tradition of walking here from villages up to a thousand miles away.
Each brings food from their own home, and Ash brings together these different flavours. It's a handmade noodle soup that also contains beans, parsley, sugarbeat leaves, and cow bone marrow. It's sumptuously thick and the scattered toppings of roasted mint, garlic, fried onion, lemon juice, and goat yoghurt, ensure each mouthful offers a delicately different taste. Random, bizarre, and unpredictable, it's a dish that somehow finds harmony in the disparate flavours.
Abadayeh -- DizeeI boasted about the different foods I'd sampled to Vali, a local home stay owner. "You are not a man" he replied. "You only eat the food for the rich and the women." Walking into the countryside he took me to the village of Abadeyed, a place where men work the fields and compete to smoke the most cigarettes in five minutes. Women can't make this meal, instead the honour goes to a local celebrity who cooks it for breakfast from a local cafe.
I was served a metal pot contains lamb, tomato, beans, tomato paste, potato and boiling water. Then the fun began. Using a metal masher I ground the meat fat and tomato into a paste before adding copious amounts of bread and the watery sauce. Each bite of thick sludge must be alternated with bites of raw onion, and previously unseen sweet fennel and dried lemon provide panache to a stodgy fatty meal.
Round two involved mashing the remaining meat and veg into a new paste and scooping it into my mouth with fingers.
And British FoodThroughout my journey in Iran I was asked about traditional British food. I often mentioned pies, and most locals pulled a face at my description, often asking "doesn't every bite taste the same?" British food doesn't have the delicacy or diversity of Iran. But as I describe a lamb and mint pie falling apart in your hands, the locals of Abadayeh nod their heads in approval. "This is a good food" one exclaims, "you eat for breakfast and you have too much energy to stop for lunch." One day I'll repay Iranian hospitality with a great feast of pastry...
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Stephen Bailey is a freelance writer and videographer from the North of England. After living in the sun of Ibiza, Cape Town, and the Middle East, he's somehow ended up in the rain ravaged Dutch town of Delft. He writes for a variety of publications, as well as tourism boards across the world, but his speciality is the stories that have no commercial value and nobody really believes; like surfing with Zulu witch doctors, entering Iran illegally, and hanging out with Afghani tribal chiefs. Find him at TheFatDogs.com or email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author