Iran adventure: A taste of traditional Persia

Donning the hijab to explore an ancient and enduring food culture in Iran

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The week before Christmas, I find myself on the first floor of St Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre, sweating under the weight of my heavy winter coat and shopping bags. I’m huddled in a photo booth, trying - and failing - to take a vaguely normal-looking passport photograph. It’s a tortuous process at the best of times. But add in my inexperience with wearing a hijab, required attire for my Iranian visa photos , and it all starts to feel vaguely ridiculous.

This is just the first step in my journey to Iran. There will be pre-visas and visas and trips to the Iranian Embassy. There will be hours spent poring over blogs trying to work out what I should wear, and a last-minute shopping trip to Penneys, where I buy too many enormous shapeless garments. I’ve never given my clothing so much consideration, but when the rules are this strict - your head must be covered at all times, clothing must be “modest” and loose-fitting and must cover your body from neck to wrist to ankle - it is an important part of planning for a woman travelling to Iran.

A month later I fly to Tehran. The easiest, and cheapest, way to reach Iran from Ireland is via Frankfurt (with Lufthansa) or via Istanbul (with Turkish Airlines). I take the Istanbul route, which involves two four-hour flights. As I board the second flight I’m unsure when I’m supposed to start wearing the hijab, or scarf, that will cover my head for the next 10 days. Lots of other women board the plane bare-headed, so I follow their lead. Landing at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport four hours later, they silently put on scarves and I awkwardly fumble with mine.

It’s barely dawn but the airport is teeming with travellers. After all that wardrobe planning it’s amusing to pass an Iranian woman in tight leather pants and knee-high boots. It’s my first lesson that there are many rules to life in Iran, but they vary significantly, depending on who you are and how you choose to interpret them , a fact that appears to be accepted as part of life by Iranians.

Just over 10 per cent of Iran’s population of 81 million live in Tehran, a noisy, sprawling city in the north of the country.

The former Persian empire, dismantled by Alexander the Great, is home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations. Renamed Iran in 1935 (thanks in no small part to the Nazis), it now shares a border with seven other countries, but is incredibly insular. Following the 1979 revolution, in which the monarchy was overthrown and an Islamic state was established under the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, life in Iran became incredibly restrictive - especially for women - and the country cut itself off from the rest of the world.

So today, a rare western tourist draws stares and interest everywhere you go: “Where are you from? Why are you here? Do you like my country? You are so welcome.” While Farsi is the national language, many in the major cities have broken English, thanks to US TV shows accessed illegally on the internet. Curiosity is invariably followed by awkward shows of generosity: the bread seller with no shoes offering bread but refusing payment; the teenage student working in a corner shop who practices his English and insists on handing over a banknote (for a not insignificant sum of around €1) “for you to bring home to remember my country”.

The warmth of the people, a tired cliché of travel writing, was really overwhelming from the second I arrived.

You can visit Iran as an independent traveller, but you’ll often need a guide, and once you leave the major urban centres, you will also need a fixer and translator. As a woman travelling alone, I travelled with Intrepid Travel, an Australian operator that specialises in off-the-beaten-track travel, with an emphasis on local partnerships and sustainable tourism.

I join a “real food adventure” tour which takes in some of the major cities and cultural highlights, with an emphasis on Persian food history and the role of cuisine in Iranian life. And food really is an integral part of life here, with the ritual of preparing and eating the main meal of the day a cornerstone of family life.

Tehran, despite its size, has limited quality restaurants, due in part to the time-consuming, laborious nature of Persian cuisine. Meals take many hours to prepare (domestic cooks start the family meal at around 7am, serving it six or seven hours later), so traditional cooking isn’t a large feature of the city’s restaurant scene. Instead, there’s a proliferation of cheap fast food chains on every street, serving knock-offs of KFC and McDonald’s (and with wonderful bootleg names to boot: Mash Donalds or Pizza Hot anyone?). There is also myriad coffee shops serving excellent, strong coffee and western-style cafe fare (try Gramophone Café at 1436 Valiasr Street).

You can seek out some authentic food though, and on my first night I get a crash course in some of the speedier Persian classics in Sofreh Khane Ayyaran (in a basement on Enqelab Street, off Ferdosi Square).

We try kashke bademjan, a ubiquitous dish made of aubergine and yoghurt and served with fried garlic and onion; kobebeh made of lamb and beef mince with onion and seasoning, shaped onto skewers and barbecued, then served with bread or rice with salad and pickle; saffron chicken finely chopped with yoghurt and barbecued on skewers and served with sour orange.

We have the Persian speciality of dizi - a lamb, chickpea and potato stew that is served in an elaborate ritual at the table. Bite-size pieces of bread are broken into a bowl and the liquid from the broth is strained on top to plump the bread. The remaining stew is mashed in a cylindrical earthenware pot (called a dizi) to make a paste that is served alongside the soaked bread.

There are mounds of pickles and plates of fresh lemon basil, bowls of rice and enormous sheets of sangak, a flatbread cooked on small charcoal stones (the name translates as “in the stone”) that is served with every meal, and which we see being baked at roadside bakeries all over the country.

Bread is the staple of Persian meals. Rice has become more popular in recent decades, with cheap imports from India and Pakistan, but Persian rice, a larger fluffier grain from the shores of the Caspian Sea, is an expensive delicacy, and so is only used for special occasions. Other common crops include pistachios - 50 per cent of the world’s output is grown in south east Iran - plus saffron, dates and grapes, and all of these are used liberally in Persian cooking.

A tour of the century-old Tajrish Bazaar in the north of the city is a must. Matin Lashkri of Persian Food Tours (persianfoodtours.com) gives an excellent insight into Persian cuisine, stopping at stalls along the way to offer tastings and interesting information on life in Iran. We learn of the traditional Persian belief, still followed to this day, that food is either “hot” or “cold” in nature, based on its effect on the body, and each meal must offer a balance of both. (So hot foods include most herbs and spices, chicken and lamb, eggs, nuts and vinegar, while cold foods include most vegetables, fruit and dairy, fish, coffee, rice and sugar).

Matin buys ingredients as she conducts the tour and then gives excellent cooking classes back at her custom-built cookery school, where we learn how to make delicious lamb kofteh (meatballs) stuffed with fruit and nuts, a Shirazi salad similar to a Greek salad without cheese, and we learn how to make doug, a yoghurt drink made with sparkling water and dried mint.

South of Tehran, we travel through rolling scrublands, which are covered in snow. In the mountains there are wild deer and wild Persian cheetah - there are less than 50 of the species left, and punishment for hunting them is hanging.

The central city of Isfahan is home to the Unesco-listed Naqsh-e Jahan Square, the largest in Iran, which holds the stunning Sheik Lotfollah Mosque and Ali Qapu Palace. It is also home to the Abbasi Hotel, which was formerly a caravan saray (palace), where the former Shah hosted Queen Elizabeth in 1961. Here, we try a traditional ceremonial soup called ash-e reshteh. Eaten in winter, or when you’re sick, it is a thick, slightly gloopy blend of beans, lentils and chickpeas with rice or wheat noodles and herbs, served with yoghurt, spices and fried onion and dried mint.

The Isfahan Grand Bazaar is a good spot to pick up some gifts. Beware poor Chinese knock-offs, but some good quality Iranian copper and silverware, rugs and enamel work can be found.

In the ancient city of Yazd, the impressive 1,200-year-old Towers of Silence are a remnant of the city’s once vibrant community of Zoroastrians, a mystical religion that died out following the arrival of Islam. Sky burials took place here (where bodies are left out for vultures to pick clean) until the 1970s, but now any remaining Zoroastrians are buried in the ground for health and safety reasons.

Yazd is now famous for sweets, especially a tooth-janglingly sweet coconut and almond version of baklava, and ghotab, cinnamon and walnut cookies. Our guide tells us, unsurprisingly, that the local rate of diabetes is twice the national average.

Here, a cooking class with chef and cookbook author Parvin Ansari and her daughter Rosita Golvardzadeh included gheymeh-yazdi - a local delicacy of lamb and chickpea stew with limes - which is served with the national favourite of tahdig; baked rice cooked with yoghurt, saffron and barberries (a sharp, acidic berry).

A trip to Persepolis is essential when visiting Iran. In the southern Fars province, the sprawling ruins of this ancient city date from the Achaemenid Empire from 550BC to 350BC when it was destroyed by Alexander the Great. Today, a series of enormous terraces hold the remains of a vast complex of palaces, elaborate stairways, ceremonial buildings and burial sites. Intricate inscriptions and reliefs depict scenes of life from across the empire, while some of the remaining columns measure an enormous 20 metres in height.

Thirty miles away, our trip finishes in the southern city of Shiraz - famous for the grape harvest that once created the eponymous wine. Since the revolution, alcohol is illegal in Iran, so the grapes are now used to make Shirazi vinegar.

These days, the city is known for its medical tourism, with people from across the Arab world coming for plastic surgery (nose jobs are so common here that the tell-tale bandages are worn as a status symbol on the streets, and even the shop mannequins wear them).

On our last night in Shiraz, we go “out” for the night. Without pubs and nightclubs, board game cafes are a popular way for young Iranians to socialise, and the Can Do Board Game Café (Moali’Abad Blvd, Behesht Blvd, Shiraz) quickly fills with groups of locals whooping and laughing. At the weekends, people go to “summer gardens” which are walled private gardens on the outskirts of the city, where they can relax, women can take off their hijabs, and friends play table tennis, smoke shisha and share food, out from under the watchful eye of the religious police.

We’re kindly hosted by a group of friends, who treat us to an enormous homemade Shirazi feast, some fiercely competitive table tennis and tales of their lives in Iran and their hopes to move abroad. As they insist we eat yet more honey and pistachio sweets, it’s a fitting (and stomach-stretching) end to a trip to this land of warmth and hospitality.

Rachel Collins travelled with Intrepid Travel on an Iran Real Food Adventure which includes 9 nights’ accommodation, breakfast daily and some other meals, transport and most activities including three cooking classes. Excludes flights. From £2,290. See intrepidtravel.com

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