A foodie tour of Iran: it's poetry on a plate
Food is a wonderful vehicle for the discovery of Iran, with its fabulous regional products with stews, rice dishes, kebabs and desserts
|A Complete Guide to the Iranian Kebab|
Imagine a verdant, landscape filled with rice paddies, tea plantations and olive groves. A country where you can hike up in the afternoon. A country filled with golden apricots, that taste like honey, peaches so succulent you. I enjoy all of these delights and more when I travel through Iran in search of the secrets of the Persian kitchen.
On my journey, I cooked and feasted with Iranians of all walks of life who welcomed me into their homes to share their favorite recipes. In a country most commonly viewed through the narrow prism of its politics, food is a wonderful vehicle for discovery. A really good meal.
Those unfamiliar with Iranian food often assume that it is fiery or spicy, perhaps befitting the country's climate or politics. But it is, in fact, gentle and soothing, a poetic balance of subtle spices, as well as dried limes, saffron and rosewater. Slow cooked stews, known as khoresh, and elaborate rice dishes. Stock photography Slow cooked stews, known as khoresh, and elaborate rice dishes. Regional and seasonal delicacies are plentiful, making the most of Iran's bountiful produce.
My journey began in Tabriz in the north-west of Iran, a place of culinary union for centuries, a trade crossing between the Caucasus, the Middle East and Europe. Tabriz was one of the main cities of the ancient Persian Empire, famous for its bazaar, where spices from India and China were sold alongside delicate silks and elaborately patterned carpets.
Today, the bazaar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and nearby is one of the best places in the city to sample the city signature court, kofte tabrizi. Shariar Traditional Restaurant (corner Tarbiyat street, +98 41 554 0057) is remodeled by one of the old hammams of the city, and the lamb meatballs are the size of your fist, stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, walnuts and dried plums. They are served in a tomato and saffron sauce, which is filled with warm flatbread bread.
Tabriz also has some of the Iranian comforting street food. I was shown by the psychology student Yasamin Bahmani, who took me on a walk around the El Goli Park with his famous Persian garden, and every few hundred meters insisted that we were on one of the streets, we filmed on mashed potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, Smothered in thick slices of melting butter, sprinkled with dried mint and wrapped in a warm flatbread, and tender steamed purple and yellow beetroots, which we generously sprinkled with Sumach.
To the south, I met the coast of the Caspian Sea and the gentle green hills of the province of Gilan, famous for its river fish and caviar. The cuisine of Gilan is as green as its landscapes, making it the best place in Iran for vegetarians. Eggplant and garlic appeared at every meal, beside the hills of fresh coriander, parsley and dill, which are used to create fragrant bases for stews and emerald green kuku (a kind of frittata).
|A man roasting corn at a street stall in Darband|
I spent an afternoon with farmer Roya Baighi, who taught me how to cook Torshi-tareh, an elegant green stew dish of herbs we picked from her garden. It was full of taste and virtuosity. Gilan is also home to one of the most famous Iranian dishes: fesenjoon, chicken poached in an earthy sweet and sour sauce made of ground walnuts and pomegranates. I enjoyed it at the Mahtab Restaurant in Lahijan (Golestan Square, +98 141 422 2963), with white rice and crunchy, buttery Tahdig, the golden saffron-infused rice crust that the Iranians so much.
This spirited restaurant celebrates the Gilaki culture with a selection of local dishes and live folk music. It is adjacent to one of the most popular tourist attractions of Gilan, Lahijan Lake and Promenade, which is an ideal place to get away from any overindulgence.
No trip to the region would be complete without sampling koloocheh, small pastries filled with ground walnuts, cinnamon and cardamom, which are the specialty of the Fuman, a small town in the south-west of the province. Stands all over the city sell these baked treats and they were especially welcome, with elegant glasses of black tea washed after a rigorous hike in the surrounding hills.
Teheran is filled with upscale restaurants with food ranging from sushi and frozen yogurt to dizi, lamb, chick peas and potato stew from a centuries-old recipe, cooked in a clay pot for several hours until the meat is so tender that it can be crushed In a paste with a fork. The best local feast is, however, in Darband, a neighborhood in the north of the city at the foot of the Alborz mountain. It is a quarter of narrow winding mountain paths lined with trees lined with fairy lights. Koohpayeh Restaurant is about a 10 minute walk up the Darband Hill and provides a scenic backdrop for sampling some of the city's best juicy lamb pies. Finish the night by relaxing on faded Persian carpets in one of the many small wooden pavilions up and down the road and connect the locals to smoking some apple-flavored shishas.
In central Iran I visited saffron farms, rosewater festivals and pomegranate fruit gardens, and discovered the history and horticulture behind the most impressive ingredients of Iran. The pomegranate is indigenous in Iran, and in the ancient Persian mythology the hero fighter Isfandiar is supposed to have eaten his seeds and become invincible.
Today pomegranates retain their almost mythical status and are revered as the favorite fruit of the nation. In addition to their own pleasure - the scarlet seeds with a pinch of Golpar, an earthy citrus spice - they are also salted, dried and dipped in fruit leather or prepared in molasses to prepare them for tasty dishes.
|The Koohpayeh restaurant in Darband.|
The city of Shiraz is synonymous with poetry and with the roses that thrive in the famous garden of the city, Bagh-e Eram. Roses are indigenous to Iran and the petals were first distilled in rose water 2500 years ago. Today this is mainly used in desserts such as Faloodeh, an aromatic and refreshing rose water and lime sorbet with frozen thread noodles. The Hafez Garden is one of the best places to sample local specialty and I was taken there by Shahin Hojabrafkan, a pretty and charmingly used car dealer. We sat with a view of the Hafez shrine, squeezed the limestone ridges into our fragrant sorbets filled with rose water, and watched a steady stream of Iranians reverence for their most honored poet.
Central Iran is also home to the best pistachios in the country, both in sweet and savory dishes. My favorite method to enjoy their creamy texture is at one of the many ice cream condos in the old town of Isfahan at night, like Mahfal Ice Cream on Makineh Khajoo. One of the most beautiful is bastani akbar mashti, a saffron and rose water custard ice cream with roasted pistachios.
The last stop of my travels was the southern port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. Bandar, as it is known, is a city of senescent sunshine, warm blue waters and towering palms, and was once an important post on the spice route from India to Europe. In contrast to the rest of Iranian cuisine, the food of this region is an attack on the senses - an exciting blend of Persian, Indian and Arabic flavors. Tropical fruits such as mangoes, pineapples and guavas are picked green and used for cucumbers in the Indian style, and seafood from the warm Persian Gulf is stewed, grilled as kebabs, fermented, dried and ground into powder and pastes.
The best place to sample the day's catch is at the fish market, where burly men scream their shops of the day and women sit on the ground next to them, sending peeling prawns. In addition to the market, offers a range of fish restaurant specialties, including Ghaleyeh Maygoo - a shrimp, fresh coriander and tamarind pot - and small spicy fishcakes called kuku-ye mahi.
Travelers in Iran are always met with warmth and hospitality: it is not unusual to be invited to an Iranian house for dinner after just exchanging a few delights. For those who want to expand their culinary knowledge or just want to enjoy one of the most sophisticated kitchens in the world, Iran offers a wealth of culinary delicacies. The only challenge for most visitors will be squeezing into their jeans at the end of the trip.