Dear whoever is interested in my scribblings!
Today I want to tell you about the long overdue visit to my country of birth, Iran. After nearly 8 years (that’s almost a decade!!), I finally booked a ticket to go back to Tehran to revisit my home, friends and all the things and places, which were turning more and more into a shady memory of a city I spent half of my life in, than what they really are.
It amazed me, how much, even I, who grew up there, had let years of media propaganda and word of mouth from the Iranians who come over and only tell negative stories about the darker side of things in Iran, make me forget the more beautiful stuff. You know…that place in middle earth you always hear about in the news?! Near Afghanistan, Iraq and all those scary war countries, where terrorists, gunmen and camels lurk about? That is NOT the place I’m going to talk about today…Today I want to tell you about the beautiful gems, which I can only now recognise and appreciate when revisiting, because of the length of time I have been away. I really do hope I can get you to see and enjoy my journey and experience, through the half tourist/half native lens of this humble traveller!
I thought I’d start with the topic most dear to me, regardless of the country or place in question: ‘FOOD’
I could write a separate blog (Hell, even a book) about my love for Persian food. The phrase ‘live to eat not eat to live’ screams from every corner of this town. People in Tehran may be poor, stressed, angry or restless from the October heat and harsh economic conditions, but their love of eating brings them together, at breakfast, lunch, dinner and every hour in between!
The mixture of traditional/modern and western/Middle Eastern cuisines, is such a beautiful sight when you walk down the streets of Tehran. You can walk past a Pizza place, which is next door to a Kabab house, which is next door to a modern patisserie, which is next door to a ‘Sangaki’ (A type of Iranian bakery). You get what I mean!
(See how Sangak is made in this video I filmed with my dad at a Sangaki in Tehran)
Street food in Tehran can vary from area to area! For example, there are shops dedicated solely to selling barbecued liver and heart called Jegaraki. Don’t make that face, they are absolutely delicious! I am a big fan of liver in general, but I don’t know anywhere that has got it quite as right like these folks with their perfectly barbecued livers!
Another popular street food is ‘Haleem’, which is a delicious, hot porridge cooked with lamb, with a hint of wintry spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon! If I were to explain the pleasure of eating Haleem, I would say it’s the food equivalent of a nice fluffy blanket one wraps around oneself on a snowy winter afternoon! But you MUST eat it hot! Once cold, it loses its edge and the pungent flavours!
Snacks, drinks and nibbles! These are the three kings of street food as far as eating out is concerned! There are endless cafes, juice stations and street snacks in Tehran! What are street snacks you ask? Well…pretty much anything extremely sour, extremely sweet or extremely sticky! From fruit bars to sour tamarind to pickled plums! There is also an abundance of nuts! Fresh, dried, smoked, salted or raw!
Health and safety usually go out of the window in such places, but there is such a joy in browsing through different bowls of goodies, even though you can see how EXTREMELY homemade they are (and not in a good way!) … It’s gritty, raw and simply wonderful!! I think having spent the first half of my life in Iran, I have developed a stronger immune system to bacteria in food in general than your average European person who has grown up in the safe arms of ‘health and safety’ regulations their entire lives! I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but I am ok with it, seeing that I can’t remember the last time I was ill or suffered food poisoning!
Now, let’s talk business! As I’m sure even the most geographically, culturally challenged of people knows, Iranian cuisine is all about Kababs!! Shish, lamb fillet, chicken breast and wings! You name it! During this trip, I went to Tehran’s kabab Central, ‘Darakeh’, where you can find some of the best kabab houses! Situated in the hilly skirts of the mountains, every restaurant has a traditional setup, with wooden boards to sit on, without shoes, and wool cushions to lean on. There is a river that goes across most restaurants, which sounds beautiful and makes for an ideal spot to spend one’s summer evening. Shisha, tea and Ajil (mixed nuts) are also served (optional!) after every meal, or you can skip the kabab all together and just go for nibbles and a smoke! All in all, it is SUCH a calming, soothing experience, made even better with great company!
When you go to someone’s house in Iran, regardless of whether you have known them for 2 days or 20 years, three things are guaranteed: freshly brewed tea, a fruit bowl and nuts! Now you might think this is nothing out of the ordinary, and you know a hundred other people who do the same over here! What makes this reception so different is that each household treats this welcome as an art form! Each family tries to top the other in the way they present these things! This treatment of the guests and the creativity that comes second nature to every Iranian household is called ‘Pazeerayee’, which directly translates to ‘Hosting’. I also discovered that when you visit people for lunch or dinner, you have pudding twice! First, you are offered pre-dinner snacks to line your stomach, this could vary from home to home. Nuts, dried fruit, baklava, Koloocheh (Iranian sweet from the north-west region), fruit (goes without saying) and possibly some form of cake, biscuit or ice cream!
Pre Meal Samples:
Then you have your main course, which more often than not won’t be one type of food! It is a culturally accepted fact that a wider variety of food on the table shows the skill of the host. (Because making one type of food means you aren’t talented? I don’t know!!) but it is what it is, and I am not complaining!
Dinner is rarely served on individual plates in Iran. The host serves everything on big serving plates and places them in the center of the table and guests help themselves to what they want! There are usually smaller dishes, such as chutney, salad, soup and bread served at the same time. ‘Sabzi’ is another unusual accompaniment at the dinner table, which serves almost as salad, but consists of a mixture of fresh herbs, some of which are hard to find outside Iran. Some familiar herbs usually served in a plate of Sabzi are radishes, dill, basil and baby spring onions! I’m not even sure where or why this tradition exists, but just like a true native, I never questioned it! (Maybe time to google some more!)
Then it’s time for the second dessert, which is usually the cake or sweets the guests have brought the host! In a nutshell, you NEVER, for even a second, stop eating at an Iranian lunch or dinner party!
One of my absolute favourite places in Tehran! Not so far from my house, Tajrish has one of the biggest and most renowned markets in Tehran. It is spice, food, clothes and appliance galore! If you look long enough, you might even find somewhere that sells unicorns and magic carpets! I have tried to take a few pictures of some of the things that took my fancy, I hope it gives you a feel of the place! The smell of different spices in the air, the hustle and energy of the place is so contagious that it makes you want to enjoy and appreciate every minute of your life!
Borj-e Milad, or Milad Tower, is one of the more recent attractions in Tehran, which I always wanted to visit, and finally found the time to do so during this trip! It is the sixth largest tower in the world, and has a revolving restaurant at the top, which I went to for breakfast. (Very few things in this world motivate me to get up at 6am to get ready for breakfast, and I must say this was an absolutely worthwhile reason!) The views are incredible, the mosaic work inside the restaurant is a depiction of events from Ferdowsi‘s ‘Shahnameh’, and it is so tastefully done! The breakfast is so varied and complete! Any food mentioned so far in the blog was available, plus many, many more! Staff were friendly and the atmosphere overall was extremely pleasant! The waterworks inside the tower and outside at the entrance are breathtaking! If you ever decide to visit Iran, I definitely recommend paying this place a visit, if you are a fan of more modern Middle Eastern attractions!
Despite my extremely short stay, I managed to get out of Tehran for a night and visit the lovely village of Fasham. We spent the night at my friend’s beautiful and cosy country cottage, and made kababs! The evenings in the mountains are quiet, the air is fresh and doesn’t have the harshness of Tehran’s pollution or heat! In the morning, we drove a bit further into the mountains in order to get to the peak, for a few memorable photos, and of course to eat liver at a lovely Jegaraki in the nice mountain air! If you are a big skier, Shemshak ski resort, near Fasham, is one of the most popular choices in the winter in Tehran! (I personally hate skiing, so I’m only going by the words of others!)
Last but not least…
On my last day, I invited my close friends over for a lovely BBQ. With all my newly bought goodies from Tajrish, I marinated chicken breasts and legs in onion, pomegranate puree and ground walnuts, and left them to soak for a whole day. When we finally skewered them, they were divine! (If I may say so myself!) So, yes, I had to go there and squeeze in a little recipe too!
There is SO much I could tell you about Iran that a simple blog won’t do it justice. I could write chapters on the beautiful places, on the sometimes annoying and sometimes mind boggling customs, the absolutely insane driving, or the extremely talented underground art networks in all areas such as music, painting and acting! But it’s not nice to babble on (Hah). However, I am definitely not letting there be a gap of 8 years until my next visit. In fact, after having talked to a few friends back in Tehran, I might possibly be going back in the colder months to do a trip to the desert, which is supposed to be an unforgettable experience! So watch this space….
Meanwhile, here is a selfie with my nan, I love her to bits! ❤