Every lunch hour over the last five years, my Iranian colleagues have been tempting me with tantalizing home-style Persian dishes. The variety of spiced, meaty dishes—foreign, but not too foreign—holds an unmistakable appeal, especially after spending the last two weeks choking down drab Central Asian fare.
Kabab, kabab, kabab
Chicken, beef, or lamb (anything, really, except pork), ground or whole, spiced or marinated, served on the skewer or off – there are many variations of kabab available in Iran. Chunks of lemony chicken breast are my favourite, but the lamb and spiced ground meat are also delicious. And that’s a good thing, because for whatever reason, kabab is virtually the only thing offered on restaurant menus. So it’s kabab or nothing, every day.
If you order chelo kabab, it means that your stick of meat comes with an enormous pile of perfectly cooked long-grained white rice. The rice is always garnished with a cap of saffron rice, and is commonly sprinkled with sour red barberries. Every order also comes with a few slices of tomato, pickles, and a hunk of raw onion. Most locals sprinkle the meat with sour ground sumac, which is available in a shaker alongside the salt and pepper.
It is common to order a side of mast (yogurt), which comes in a little plastic tub and is eaten by the spoonful. The more uppity version, shallot yogurt, is always available too, but I find the emulsion of raw onion and yogurt rather less appetizing than its plain cousin.
Don’t spill on the Persian rug!
Most Iranians eat out at the multiplicity of teahouses that can be found everywhere. Here locals and foreigners alike hang out to drink tea, smoke qalyan (water pipe), and eat kabab. In even the more basic establishments, the main seating area is usually in a courtyard covered with a canvas roof, with the tables arranged around a central fountain. Most locals ensconce themselves cross-legged on a carpeted takht (day bed) for hours, transitioning from meal to tea to water pipe as the day wiles on.
Other forms of restaurant are quite rare in Iran. Hamburgers and “Kentucky fried” are available readily in fast food establishments. These places often co-opt Western mascots and trademarks to legitimize their products (once I saw the iconic KFC bucket and the bumbling chef from Disney’s Ratatouille on the same sign, for instance).
Alternatives to kabab
If you’re tired of kabab there are sometimes other dishes available, although trying to order one of them is usually a lengthy exercise where the waiter must scurry back and fourth to the kitchen several times to figure out which ones are not sold out. Asking for meat in non-kebab format is usually met with incomprehension.
I do manage to order a variety of dips and stews, all of which are delicious. Many restaurants offer a thick concoction of bademjan (eggplant) mixed with yogurt, milk, walnuts, oil, and spices. I find it too rich to eat in quantity, but it’s perfect as a shared dip. Dolme are vine leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, meat and spices. In Esfahan’s prestigious Abbasi Hotel, I am treated to a bowl of Āsh (stew), which is a brilliant soupy concoction of soft wheat noodles, chickpeas, blended parsley and other herbs, dairy, and who knows what else.
One afternoon my friend’s father, Dr. Abbasi (of no relation to the hotel), treats us to a meal at an upmarket restaurant in Esfahan. He orders the “chef’s selection”, which ends up being a giant platter of battered and fried meats, including beef, lamb, chicken, quail, fish, and shrimp. For dessert he orders a big bowl of Khoresht mast Esfahani, which is an unlikely sweet and stretchy purée of yogurt, saffron, sugar, pistachios and shredded sheep’s neck with the consistency of drywall mud. Unbelievable as it sounds, it’s so delicious that I order it at every opportunity thereafter.
The hotel breakfast
Every hotel stay includes free breakfast, and it’s exactly the same everywhere. To drink there is black tea, 3-in-1 instant coffee, hot milk, and synthetic orange drink. To eat there are boiled eggs, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and sometimes cubes of soft salty cheese. Most importantly, there is a bottomless stack of freshly baked bread, which is eaten with carrot jam, sour cherry jam, or honey.
Drinks in Iran
The tap water is safe to drink in Iran, so water is my go-to beverage. Despite the embargo, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are both widely available (they’re bottled by local companies), as are various local soft drinks, like Zam-Zam.
Tea is always available in Iran, at all times, everywhere. It is consumed black, although at breakfast I sometimes sneak in some hot milk. Sugar is available if desired, and sometimes hunks of rock sugar crystals are provided, which you place in your mouth and drink the tea through.
Dugh is a salty sour yogurt drink. It’s comes carbonated in bottles and can be bought everywhere. I find it supremely unpalatable.
Coffee is not popular, and it’s hard to find a place that will serve anything better than instant Nescafe. In a café in the Armenian quarter of Esfahan, however, I did order an “Armenian coffee”, which is exactly the same as a Turkish coffee, but don’t say that out loud – the Turks and Armenians despise one another.
In the cities, delicious and refreshing fruit shakes are sold in ice cream shops. I’m a fan of the carrot shake, which is a sugary concoction of carrot juice mixed with ice cream and sprinkled with crushed pistachios.
The Qu’ran forbids the consumption of alcohol, so it’s illegal in Iran. Ask an average Iranian if he drinks, and he’ll say no…and then wink slyly.
A surprise delivery arrived at our hotel room in Shiraz as a gift from a friend: a bottle of local Shiraz wine! It came in a reused vodka bottle, which was wrapped in paper, then in a plastic bag, and then in another plastic bag, so that nobody would know what was inside. A few days later, the same friend forwarded on more wine, this time transported in a 1 L plastic Dasani water bottle.
The first wine was deep red and smelled like laboratory. When I first opened the bottle, the fumes practically peeled the paint off the ceiling. So this is real Shiraz wine! Pungent flavour, with a liquid headache finish. The second bottle was entirely different. Young, slightly sweet, fruity, and a hint of cloudiness. Less alcoholic. Pretty darn good, all things considered.
I was touched by my friend’s gesture, particularly knowing the risk he took by transporting alcohol. While not the best wine out there, it’s good to know that the people of Shiraz continue their age-old tradition of cultivating grapes and making wine, and I’m glad I had the chance to try it.
Iranians love their sweets, and a dizzying array can be purchased from the candy shops that can be found everywhere. I bought an assorted tray in Yazd and carried them with me throughout Iran. Whenever we stopped the car to have an instant coffee and tea picnic on the side of the road, I would produce the tray and share them with the guide and driver.
I never figured out the names of most of the sweets on offer. Some are small squares cut from a big sheet, some are flat and dense like slices of fudge, and others are round and crunchy. A sort of sweet semi-crumbly coconut square is one of my favourites. I also like the crunchy kibble-shaped ginger cookies, which are excellent with tea. Many of the others are flavoured with rose water, honey, and pistachios, such as a thicker and chewier variation on Turkish baklava. Esfahan’s specialty is Gaz, which is nougat flavoured with rosewater and pistachios, and is considered a particular treat. The higher the percentage pistachio, the higher the quality.
Ice cream is also popular in Iran, which is no surprise given the heat. Shops selling second-rate gelato and cones of soft-serve are plentiful. These shops also sell faloodeh, which is an ultra-sweet concoction of frozen short starchy things that look like chopped up vermicelli noodles served in a bath of ice-cold syrup. You can add as much rose water and lemon juice as you want (important to cut the sweetness). Most Iranians consider it very refreshing, but to me it tastes like I’m chewing on strings of pure sugar.