A Food Tour of Iran
It’s a shame that America’s relationship with Iran is still in the dumps after all these years. There is a food universe over there just waiting to be discovered. I recently returned from a culinary tour through Iran, visiting food workshops, bazaars, and having meals at the homes of Iranian families. I enjoyed a variety of foods foreign to my palate and discovered a new world of cooking possibilities.
My journey cut a path through the central part of Iran, heading generally south to north from Shiraz, Yazd, Kashan, Isfahan, and Tehran. Each city and region had its own food specialties, making the trip a continual learning experience that I’m still trying to digest.
The restaurants in Iran were superb, even the ones catering to truckers off the highway in the middle of the desert. I frequently enjoyed halim bademjan, a pureed roasted eggplant dip made with tomato paste and whey, and khoresh-e fesenjān, a stew consisting of a base vegetable or meat combined with pomegranate sauce and ground walnut seasoned with sumac and a little bit of saffron.
During my ten days, I would try khoresh with turkey, chicken, and even camel, which was indistinguishable from beef. Almost as prevalent was shooli, a traditional Iranian soup made from spinach, leeks, onions, mint leaves, beet root and celery.
I loved dizi, a lamb stew also known as abgoosht. Referring to the clay pot the stew is cooked in, dizi consists of lamb, chickpeas, beans, onion, potatoes, tomatoes. The ingredients are cooked together and strained into a dish to be enjoyed as a soup, while the solid mixture remaining is crushed with a mortar and pestle and served on a plate alongside a pile of bread. I also indulged in zeytoon parvadeh a dish of green olives, pomegranate paste, walnuts, garlic and herbs.
The covered bazaars in Iran were a feast for the senses. Long lines of stalls displayed colorful spices piled high in burlap sacks bursting with orange turmeric, light yellow ginger, and green dill. It was common for store owners to pile their spices in large bowls in creative and eye-catching ways:
You can find every ingredient imaginable strolling through an Iranian bazaar. Almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, and walnuts were elegantly displayed in burlap sacks and bins along the stall fronts, as were figs, apricots, prunes, barberries, dates. Just about every wavelength on the spectrum of visible light was represented, particularly the green, through leafy vegetables like mint, basil and arugula, which hung out their own burlap sacks.
I was particularly taken with the dried limes available at almost every spice shop. The limes are not pretty–they look like burnt ping pong balls–but they can be ground up or left whole to liven up soups and stews with a complex sour citrus taste. Making them is pretty straightforward: small limes are soaked in a brine and left out to dry in the Middle Eastern sun.
As part of the itinerary, my guide and I stopped in on a spice-pulverizing operation deep inside the bazaar in Kashan. The Iranians still grind their spices the old-fashioned way–with a grinding stone the size of a monster truck tire. The only difference in the way they make the spices compared to 500 years ago is that the stone is now powered by electricity rather than by a camel or donkey. They were grinding turmeric when we arrived. They simply put the turmeric roots at the base of the stone and pulverized them into smithereens. The owner said that the grind about two types of spices a day. Every spice you could think of was on sale here. I bought a 200g bag of dill from him for about $3 USD, about ten times cheaper than it is at a grocery store in the USA. I also used the opportunity to stock on ground ginger and cinnamon bark.
I saw another grinding stone in action on another leg of my trip, at a henna factory on a dusty industrial side street in the desert city of Yazd. The factory owner let us sneak a peek at their operation. We only stayed for about ten minutes since the factory was filled with floating henna dust suspended in the air making it difficult to breathe. We watched as the grinding stone pulverized the henna plant into a fine powder, which was then mixed ground sunflower seeds. This sunflower henna is then packed for export all over Europe and Asia. The owner said that Russians like to use it for hair dye and rice farmers in Asia use it to protect their feet in the rice patties. It’s also used to dye sheep’s wool.
Of all the shops on my itinerary, I was looking forward most to the bread bakeries. I love bread. Who doesn’t? Iranians eat so many varieties of the stuff that it was hard to keep all the names straight. My first taste of Iranian bread was barbari, a flatbread similar to naan. We went into the back of a store in Shiraz to watch how it’s made. The man running the operation was really happy to hear that I was an American. He said that the bakery used to get their wheat from the United States, but after the revolution they had to turn to Iranian-grown variety. He was up to date on the political situation between Iran and America and even asked me what was going on with Donald Trump.
I tasted some of the barbari right out of the oven and can still remember the loaf’s delicate combination of crispiness and fluffiness as the steam exited my mouth between chews. The tastiest version I tried though was a variety of barbari covered in sesame seeds and sugar. I would have the plainer version of the bread, slathered in carrot jam, every day throughout my 10 day trip.
Then there was sangak, a rectangular flatbread with a bumpy appearance, reflecting the way it used to be made in stone ovens with pebbled surfaces. Nowadays, the bread is made in a modern oven with a bumpy surface to give the appearance of having been baked in a stone oven. We watched a young baker making sangak in the back of a store on a busy street in Shiraz. Demonstrating a process he repeats 1,500 times a day, he picked up a baseball size ball of wet dough, spread it out flat on the surface of a peel, a tool resembling a pizza paddle. He then turned the peel upside down and laid the dough on a conveyor belt headed right into an oven, where it’s cooked for about 1 minute.
Each piece of sangak was going for 10,000 rials, or about 35 cents. At another storefront in Yazd we watched a third type of bread being made, this time from barley. Each piece, about the size of a small pizza, was sold for 5,000 rials, or about 14 cents.
I had to travel 6,000 miles to learn that I have been making rice incorrectly for all these years. At home, I usually just boil water and add rice until it softens. Iranians take rice cooking to a whole new level, but in ways simpler than you might think. To attain maximum rice fluffiness, they first soak the rice in cold water before steaming the result (chelow) in a pot whose edges are sealed with a towel to trap in the moisture. In the process, the rice becomes fluffy (polo, or pilaf) and a thick crispy layer called tahdig forms at the bottom of the pot. Iranians go nuts for this stuff, for good reason.
I also enjoyed on a few occasions tah chin, a rice cake made in a similar way to tahdig, but with some saffron and yogurt thrown in. Rice in the form of pilaf was present at almost every meal I had in Iran, served as a side or a bed on which to lay the main event such as a kebab.
On the road from Yazd to Kashan, in central Iran, a one-thumbed, mustachioed man owns and manages a successful sesame factory. For the past 10 years, he and his five employees have been processing raw sesame seeds into various delicious forms, from the plain-tasting to the sweet.
As the sesame seeds are soaked and get pressed into paste, the owner’s sees his dream of owning a business become a reality. He used to be a handyman, going from contract to contract doing bricklaying and carpentry. Encouraged by the success of others in the sesame business though, he followed his instincts and opened his own factory. He sold his house, moved his family into a small rental and bought a disused warehouse on the edge of town.
He was outside welding a chair in the factory’s parking lot when my tour guide and I arrived, sparks flying all over the ground and dangerously close to his unprotected face. He had a substantial operation going on inside. On an average day, his employees process almost 4 tons of sesame.
We stepped into the factory from the bright December sun to watch how they do it. The process begins with soaking the sesame seeds (some imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan) in water and then crushing them to separate the hulls from the seeds themselves. The crushed seeds are then soaked in brine, causing the hulls to sink and the seeds to float to allow for easy skimming off the top.
We watched four men, using a surprising amount of manpower and muscle, shoveling the soaked seeds into buckets, which they then dumped into huge stone ovens to be roasted for hours.
Grinding stones then pulverize the toasted seeds into an oily paste we know as tahini (ardeh in Farsi).
From here the factory produces a few different products. One is halva, a confection made of the sesame paste, egg whites, sugar, and rosewater, and cardamom. It also produces sesame oil by adding water to the ardeh, mixing for one hour, and pressing the result. This is let to set for one month, after which the sediments are removed to reveal a golden sesame oil. I was so impressed by the operation that I bought a few bottles of sesame oil and jars of halva to bring home.
Before embarking on the trip, I had never heard of faloode (or faluda), a dessert popular in Iran, Pakistan, and India. There are several varieties, but in its basic form the frozen treat consists of rose syrup, milk, and water, topped with starch noodles similar to vermicelli.
We visited a workshop that has been selling these noodles to Shirazi dessert shops for over six decades. The man working there had been making noodles for 37 years, methodically going through a process little changed over the decades. The workshop floor could have been mistaken for a meth lab. Jugs of water, hoses, and machinery covered the wet tile floor.
The basic ingredient of the noodles is arrowroot, a starch derived from various tropical plants. This starch is mixed mechanically for hours in a big vat, and begins to look like goop, which is scooped out and placed in tin buckets with tiny holes in their bases. These buckets are placed into a hydraulic machine that presses a piston down into the goop, forming noodles that drop down into a bucket of cold water. Who knew that noodle making was so fun to watch?
Though Iranians are generally a not known for having big waistlines, they certainly love their sweets. There were bakeries and sweet shops all over the place. Even if you were blind you’d be able to locate them, as the sweet smell of sugar and flour hits your nose here on there on almost every sidewalk.
Each region in Iran seemed to have its own dessert specialties. Qom is known for a brittle toffee called sohan; Shiraz for its faloode. Yazd is the sweets capital of Iran, known for its baklava (flour, almond, sugar, shortening, pistachio, rose water), loze nargil (a moist concoction of coconut powder, rose water, and sugar), and loze dorang (with pistachio).
A trip to Yazd is not complete without visiting the famous sweet shop called Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar, near the Amir Chakhmaq Complex. The shop has been in operation for nearly 100 years, and visiting it is the perfect way to get spun up the wonderful universe of Iranian sweets.
Take a look at the sweets on display there, all identified by English descriptions so you know what to call the good stuff you’re eating. Just grab an order sheet and select which sweets you want, hand it to the guy behind the counter, pay the man sitting near the door–yes, it’s a complex operation made even more difficult in Farsi–and go back to retrieve your sweets packaged in beautiful little red metal box. In addition to the mainstays baklava and loze, try the sohan ardi, a sort of cookie made with flour, sugar, shortening, cardamom, and pistachio.
We also visited a big bakery in Kashan–I believe it was called Moghadam. On display on the shop floor were dozens of varieties of colorful cookies, cakes, baklava, and other treats.
Most of these things I had never seen or tasted before, such as haji badam (little balls of chickpea flour, eggs, sugar and cardamom); noghul (little balls of sugar, pistachio powder and rose water); and qotab, a deep-fried pastry filled with almond paste, cardamom, flour, and covered with powdered sugar.
After sampling a few treats we went upstairs to observe the bakers at work. The highlight was watching how they made a sort of danish with cream and starch tucked inside, and a variety of qotab filled with crushed walnuts, coconut, cardamom, and sugar.
While the restaurants in Iran were superb, the meals we had at the homes of Iranian families in Shiraz, Yazd, Kashan, and Tehran were particularly enjoyable. Through these dinners, I interacted with Iranian people in a way that wouldn’t have been possible at restaurants. Offered with the utmost hospitality, these meals shed light on Iranian culture, customs, daily life, and the challenges Iranians face.
Two of the four meals were served on a carpeted floor sitting Indian style. While sitting on the floor was difficult, I managed to shift around enough that my legs didn’t go dead or experience any sharp pains. Despite this shifting, I enjoyed all sorts of dishes totally foreign to me. At the first house in Shiraz, a young couple prepared for me and my guide a wonderful array of dishes including kalam polo (a traditional Shirazi rice with crispy potato), khoresht bamieh (okra stew), halim bademjan (pureed eggplant with rice), mahi ba hashu (fried fish), and a beautifully presented dessert called ranginak, made with mashed dates, flour, oil, and nuts–all topped with coconut flakes, crushed walnuts, and cinnamon.
At the next home, in Yazd, I was introduced the world of pickling. I’ve pickled a few items here in the United States, including, well, pickles. But did you know that you can pickle just about anything? The family I ate with brought up from their basement some garlic that had been pickling for years. The garlic was pungent and vinegary as you’d expect but let off a salty burst of flavor that is truly hard to describe. The family served us shooli, khoresh-e fesenjān, and more delicious halim bademjan.
The family in Kashan also cooked up an amazing meal. Walking me through each step of the process, our host’s sister and mother prepared a variety of foods including ash-e jo (a barley soup with beans, onions, pumpkin, fried mint, and beet root) and shefte sumac, (fried meatballs of ground lamb, chickpeas, onion, and salt).
On my last night, I gorged myself at a family’s apartment in southern Tehran, sampling dishes such as khoresht with turkey, more ash-e jo, and doogh, (a yogurt drink with mint).
My Tehran meal was the perfect ending to an eye opening trip through one of the most misunderstood countries on Earth. I’ve only been back two weeks and have already visited the Middle Eastern aisle at an international grocery store I frequent in Washington, DC and bought some sumac and pomegranate molasses, which I used to make a very tasty salad dressing.
I hope Iran and the United States can one day mend their testy relationship, which has discouraged Americans from even considering Iran as a travel destination. As long as this psychological barrier remains, Americans will continue to miss out on the wonderful world of Persian food culture and other interesting facets of daily life in Iran. I’m so glad that I decided to go on the trip, even after a few days of second-guessing the wisdom of going in the first place. I got a small taste of Persian cooking, explored the colorful and fragrant bazaars, and enjoyed the company of ordinary Iranian families over delicious home cooked meals. If you’re considering traveling to Iran and are on the fence about going, just go. You’ll be confronted with smiles and and handshakes, not stares or suspicion. Knowing that you’re welcome there makes the food taste so much better.