Persian Food

Persia therefore came to Wang Wei. And in truth, for whoever has seen the menu of this restaurant in Barcelona, has seen that of all the restaurants of Persia.

Persian kitchen is one of the most majestic, most generous, most refined, most enchanting kitchens of the world. It is rustic like Turkish kitchen, sophisticated like French, spicy like Arabic, regionally diversified like Italian, satisfying like Spanish, and so light that there is nothing comparable to it in all Europe. As a matter of fact, it can only be compared in all respects to Chinese kitchen. This is well known to everybody who has not yet been to Persia and only knows its kitchen from literature, from the menu of the classy Persian restaurants in Western Europe and from cook books. Like us.

Before our travel we lived for months in the spell of Persian kitchen. We dreamed about Persian restaurants, we cooked from Eckel’s Persian cook book (fabulously), and I have memorized the twenty-three pages of Turner’s Persian thematic dictionary on food, dishes and spices.

It was unnecessary.

During the passage over lake Van we questioned with excitement our new friend Peyman about what kind of menu is in store for us at the other shore, in the dining car of the Persian train. He meditated for a while, perhaps in order not to omit anything, and then he told: “Kebab, kebab and kebab.”

For one day in the dining car, it’s all right. But for three weeks in all the available restaurants of a whole country it wore us out.

One of the oddest experiences in Iran is that there are hardly any restaurants. The few existing ones with their pseudo-oriental furnishings apparently address western tourists and local snobs. But even of this kind there are really few, the fewest possible you can imagine. In the most touristic city, Isfahan for example only one, the Bastani restaurant at the corner of the main square. And even these ones serve principally kebab. The desperate tone of the “Eating” sections in the Lonely Planet Iran guide reflects well the seriousness of the case.

Besides – or rather in spite of – the proper restaurants there are also restaurant-like public canteens where the workers and employees of the neighborhood take a quick kebab for lunch (for example the میخک Mikhak, that is Glove on the other corner of the main square of Isfahan, with high prices and tasteless dishes), and in the most popular places of excursion and parks there are some restaurants that are only open on the weekend, that is on Friday. Among these latter – especially in such fashionable places like Darband above Tehran – there are most probably some sophisticated ones as well that are visited by the élite of the city for tasting the authentic Persian kitchen. We have seen such places in the movies. In real life, however, we had no luck to discover them. The menu of the place where we ate on Friday evening clearly attested that the chef is out of practice in the other six days of the week. And of course there was only kebab. The vegetarian Ana from Madrid whom we met in the last day of their travel had lived for three weeks exclusively on cooked rice and mixed salad prepackaged in plastic boxes, and in spite of all my Persian eloquence and the waiter’s Persian benevolence they could not serve her anything else for this last supper either.

Although this situation was quite unexpected, nevertheless it was somehow familiar to us, for – like many other things in Iran – it excited the very vivid feeling as if we flew back to the socialist Hungary of the 70’s and 80’s. I still remember how rare the restaurants and the occasions of going to restaurant were in those years. People took their dinner at home – and moreover so gorgeous dishes that even today cannot be found on any menu, like potatoes seasoned with paprika, boiled shredded marrow or stuffed cabbage –, and in those seldom occasions (principally formal ones like a banquet, a wedding or a funeral) when they happened to find themselves in a restaurant, they too ate the equivalent of kebab as it was proper: Wiener schnitzel or cutlets. Such meat, besides having the high status of festive food, was also the easiest to prepare and the most difficult to spoil. I do not know whether it was the dictatorship and the concomitant withdrawal of people to their family circles, the poverty, or the disappearance of the middle classes that shaped this Budapest out of the city of cafés and restaurants like it was between the two wars; probably all these together, just like in the cities of Iran. I’m really curious to what extent people went to restaurant in Franco’s Spain, for example.

But Socialist experiences also had their benefits. I remember how much routine we picked up in the eighties in the localization of the so-called “little dirties” and “pits”, marketplace eateries and hash-houses. This routine was quite well applicable in Iran (just like some years earlier in pre-boom China), for both the structure and arrangement of these “little dirties” is very similar to those in the Hungary of the eighties. They can be found in the markets, in the small alleys around the large “canteen-restaurants” or in the vaults of the bazaars; they are mostly set up for regular local clients, are never larger than a few square meters, and they only cook one or two dishes, but those are majestic. And not kebab. Most tourists would avoid such suspicious places in fright, but whoever enters is greeted with joy, interrogated with the spontaneousness so characteristic of Persians, and entertained liberally. And just like we did in the eighties, present-day Persian intelligentsia also inquires for such places in a programmatic way. Quite similarly to how Endre Lábass and Ferenc Bodor wrote about the inns of Budapest in those times, the excellent tehranavenue.com regularly reports about recent findings in Tehran.

In Isfahan we have found such a noname small cook-shop with two tables just some steps from the above said Bastani restaurant. They only cooked one single dish, beryân, lamb cut in small pieces then cooked and fried, accompanied with the obligatory fragrant, mint-like green reyhân – it was fabulous. At departure the chef accepted with gratitude my eulogies on the dish, while the old woman waiting for our place enunciated with her pointing finger lifted, like the lesson of a long life: “Iranian food is very good.” Yes, if someone is lucky enough to finally find it.

In Tabriz near hotel Kousar there was a small place where they also sold one single dish: cooked potatoes with boiled eggs that everyone had to break, spice and roll in a thin flat bread himself. It is easy to prepare and it leaves enough room for you to reply the questions of the other guests.

In Tehran under the bazaar there is a secret eating-place for the merchants. It is true that on the south-western main street of the bazaar a small green board advertises the name of a “Restaurant Soleiman” (in Farsi only), but even he who takes notice of it cannot but helplessly stand, as behind the board there is a textile shop. You have to cross the shop, and then cross a second shop as well, opening at the right side of the first one, while at the end of the second one there is a staircase leading downstairs, apparently to some storehouse. But if you even have the courage to go down, then you will find a superb little eating-place downstairs with eight or ten chosen good dish and friendly sellers. We would have not found it if there were not Ahmad, the hawker – “call-in-man” – of the nomad carpet shop who willingly guided us to the green board, where we found him after the dinner patiently waiting for us to buy something of him as well. And in fact, we did.

However, the day is carried by the small hash-house on the vegetable market at the upper end of Hafez street in Tehran, not far from the Hafez bookshop also indicated in the Lonely Planet guide. Here it is apparent that we are already in the more elegant part of Tehran, because they sell a number of typical Persian food we have hitherto only encountered in the cook book. Nevertheless, prices are not remarkably higher than in other similar places: for two persons we have paid 3-4000 tomans, that is about 3 euros all in all for two dishes with meat per head, accompanied with reyhân, cooked tomatos and fermented yogurt drink, duq. If the foreigner does not protest in time, he will also receive a bottle of Coca-Cola which, in spite of the American embargo, is bottled in Kerman.

But it seems that the authentic Persian kitchen, similarly to the Hungarian one of the eighties, can only be tasted by those invited for a family dinner. We were not that lucky. Nevertheless, when in the last days we complained about Iranian restaurant food to the receptionist of our hotel, Mr. Mousavi, he could not permit the honor of Persian kitchen to be damaged, and offered to us that in the two evenings left it would be his wife to cook for us, and he would serve it for us in the hotel. And it happened so. In the first evening we had a magnificent vegetarian dinner (what a pity that Ana already could not taste it), while on the second evening, the last one before our departure, we were served the crown of Persian kitchen: fesenjân, chicken prepared in sauce of walnut and pomegranate.

If any Persian reads this post, hereby I announce well in advance that in April we are going to go to Persia again, this time together with Wang Wei. We both feel a great respect of good kitchen, and both are grateful guests.