This is not at all a comprehensive post on Iranian food… it’s more about our experiences eating, on a budget, in Iran and a few other food related notes.
Being a vegetarian meant that my consumption of Iranian food was often limited to eggplant dishes, fresh greens and salads, rice, yoghurt and bread. I was not complaining – the food overall was very good, fresh and divinely presented. Iranians make the best rice in the world too and there were many varieties of bread – all of which I enjoyed! But I’m guessing the food was even more delicious for those who could enjoy the many tasty meat dishes.
Before we left on our travels I had been happily eating a variety of raw, sprouted, fermented and cooked food with emphasis on green leafy veges. No dairy, no wheat, no refined sugar and of course no meat. For a year and a half I ate this way, felt great, had more energy & lost weight. It was easier than you’d think armed with amazingly delicious and easy recipes, a kitchen full of all the good things and a diary to plan it. But on the road without my kitchen it was not possible so I gave that up and began enjoying yoghurt, bread and icecream again! Needless to say the 10 kgs I lost returned after a couple of months… and energy levels are not quite what they were. Oh well. I will return to it next year when I’m home again! Limited or no alcohol was also part of this way of life, this way of eating and drinking… that was easy to keep up in Iran as of course alcohol is officially banned there. Anyway, I digress…
We arrived in Iran in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas. We couchsurfed with wonderful hosts here who both cooked for us, allowed us to cook, took us to specialty shops and supermarkets and out to see a local ‘cafe’ where they made very thin crepe type things called raggagi.
One shop our host Reza took us to specialised in date products. This shop had many types of fresh dates and lots of date products. We bought a kind of date honey and a date chocolate spread. Rather sweet & rather good. We ate fresh dates all over the country and Antony LOVED them! He was even discussing with a new Iranian friend about setting up a business importing them to NZ 🙂
Reza also taught us how to drink Pommegranate juice straight from the pommegranate, by making a slit in the skin and with your hand crushing the pommegranate. This crushing combined with you sucking at the gap makes the juice ooze out. Yum!
We took a ferry from Bandar Abbas to the island of Qeshm where we had a 2 week workaway stint at a restaurant on the beach. Most of my ‘work’ was to help with practical things like painting, de-rusting, measuring palm sticks and cutting them etc. but I also got to cook and prepare salads for lunch for the workaway team.
Funny for us was the times of eating. Lunch could be at 3 or 4pm and dinner at 9 or 10pm. We ate breakfast around 9 or 10 am, usually bread with spreads. We could order off the restaurant menu for lunch and dinner. Normally we took a break from the work and ate lunch together with the other workawayers and the restaurant owners Annelie & Ali, in the outdoor restaurant, looking out over the water. On clear days you could see across the Persian Gulf to Oman. Gorgeous spot. In the evenings we ordered when we felt like it and sometimes ate with the others then too.
The food for us was mostly pizza, fries, rice with fish or meat and the infamous garlic bread- which was like a pizza with masses of garlic and masses of cheese. Antony loved it! We weren’t so keen on the ‘doogh’ which was the standard drink, a kind of curdled milk and water drink with a little mint, so we drank fizzy (pepsi) or filtered water. Some of the guys had been workawaying for quite a long time here so were pretty tired of the restaurant food. They were really happy to eat the different salads and vegetable dishes that I made. :-). Annelie was great- finding whatever I needed to make different dishes. I was happy with my salads and Antony was happy with the fries and garlic bread!
Food is bought mostly at markets or small shops/ mini-marts. They probably have big supermarkets but we never went to one.
Wandering in markets was a great experience. You could see so many colourful, interesting things on display and as products were not all hidden behind plastic packaging, but rather open in sacks or bowls, it was really beautiful and easy to find what you needed! Some stall owners were very creative with how they arranged their spices or other goods. The tumeric ‘mountain’ with ‘snow’ on top was my favourite!
We stayed a night in the cave village of Meymand, where we got dinner from a local lady who owned the cave we hired for the night. Selma had made for the first meal a kind of Kashk soup (I think it was cold but can’t remember) with curdled milk powder and water with some herbs & bread in it. I really couldn’t stomach it… was such an unusual flavour that i just didn’t like. I’m all for trying local dishes but it made me feel weird so I couldn’t eat it unfortunately. The next meal she made was simple but delicious – rice with lentils and cumin seeds. I ate lots of this!
At our hotel in Yazd (Kohan hotel) we had a fantastic courtyard around which one could sit and eat or work (wifi was only available here). When we first arrived, we ate here from the hotel restaurant menu. I had a common eggplant dish (kashk-e-bademjun minus the kashk), rice and Shirazi salad. Antony tried the camel meat! Not bad was the verdict on that one.
The next evening we decided to try out a different restaurant. We came across one near our hotel which was rather empty (I think because Iranians eat so much later than us) and with no English speaking staff. They didn’t have a menu to look at in any language. We perhaps should have opted for somewhere easier (with a menu & prices!) but after a discussion with much pointing to key phrases in the recently purchased Farsi phrasebook, we sat down and wondered what we’d get. I repeatedly said and pointed to the words for ‘Vegetarian’, ‘no meat’, ‘allergic to fish’ but also made it clear that Antony liked meat. I may have overexaggerated my point but I was remembering clearly the time, more than a decade earlier, in Korea when I had pointed to the Korean words for allergic to fish, and even did the sign language for fish then acted out me vomiting. When my lunch arrived there were actual fish heads floating in my soup, not just invisible fish sauce as was often the case. I really wondered how my message did not get through and hoped tonight in Yazd would not be a repeat communication restaurant fail!
Well… first we got a cup of tea and a few sweet things… oh my word they were divine!! After some time came dish after dish of food. It was good we were ravenous because there were enormous amounts of food for 2 people! Not all food is pictured below- there was more! As you can see there was rice, bread and a bowl of fresh greens which I really appreciated. We came across this often- the green leaves are not cut or served with any dressing – Iranians just pick them up and eat a handful every now and again. There was meat and vegetables on a platter, different soupy stews, yoghurt, salads, omlette type things, green fritters and some other vege dish. It was all excellent, really good food! We had more tea and requested 2 more of the sweet pastries before we called it a night.
We were a little shocked at the bill – it was the most expensive meal we had in Iran – more than double what we’d paid for other meals thus far. But considering the amount of food & the quality, 800, 000 rial was reasonable. And actually, on converting it to our currency it was only $40 NZD for the lot. A bargain by NZ standards.
A day later we were off on our desert tour and the meals on offer were much simpler… potato fritter type things, meat patties, pickled cauliflowers and big raw onions. Lunch the next day was remarkably tasty- some fried eggplant, courgettes and potatoes, rice, yoghurt with shallots, bread and grilled tomatoes.
We didn’t actually eat out that much in Iran. We couchsurfed quite a lot and subsequently ate with our hosts most of the time. In most homes we sat on the carpet with the food spread out on a mat. It was always beautifully presented. Aside from coke and other fizzy drinks was something in bottles that looked like beer but of course was not alcoholic. It was called Delester and was nice and refreshing.
We had tahdig rice regularly and we both loved it. Tahdig refers to the crunchy bottom layer of basmati rice that forms when rice is cooked in a pot. It is an Iranian specialty and I am not sure I could figure out how to get it right! Iranians have a knack at being able to cook such delicious rice – they can get the temperature and the timing and the oil amount just right so the bottom layer gets crunchy and all the rice cooks perfectly. Sometimes thin layers of potatoes were placed at the bottom of the rice pot so they crisped up rather than the rice (you can see the crispy potato slices around the rice in the photo below) and we also tried it where it was thin bread that was the crispy part.
In Iran some of my favourite food was the rice they made! It was fragrant and delicious. I didn’t think too much of the saffron (or imitation saffron) yellowed rice they put on top for decoration but loved the little sour red berries and nuts they put on top when it accompanied a particular chicken dish. A couple of times I ordered this (without the chicken) and a salad for lunch. Along with the bread and yoghurt that is provided it was rather tasty.
Most of our couch surf hosts went above and beyond the usual call of couch surf hosting by generously sharing delicious food with us every meal. My favourite dish in Iran we had in Tabriz. Our host had made a soup with barley (I think) and parsley. It sounds simple but was SOO good. She even made it again the next day so I could see how it was done and enjoy it two days in a row 🙂 I wish I had written down the recipe.
We tried in each place to also contribute by buying and cooking food for our hosts – not always sucessful as some insisted ‘you are our guests’ – which for them meant we weren’t able to help.
Pictured below are three salads I made along with the Tardig rice, yoghurt, meat, fries and jelly our hosts in Rafsanjan provided. I made a lentil, apple, mint salad, an asian inspired slaw, and a beetroot, parsley & feta salad. All went down pretty well.
In our only village couchsurfing experience, I made a carrot and raisin salad and regular green salad to have with really yummy green herby fritters that our host’s mother made. The family had not tried salads like I made but really enjoyed them!
This family had a large garden with lots of greens growing and then rice paddy fields beyond the garden. They had their own cow and lots of chickens too.
When in Dezful it was great to visit a farm and learn a bit about growing food in this country.
A couple of times we ate out with hosts. In Rafsanjan our hosts took us to a place where we could try the Iranian speciality faloudeh. It’s a dessert made of thin cornstarch noodles in a frozen syrup sauce made of rose water and sugar. Kind of between sorbet and shaved ice. It was too sweet for me but rather interesting.
Our last meal with our lovely host in Esfahan was at a gorgeous restaurant in town. Yummy food and lovely surroundings:
When out and about, my go-to vegetarian fast food option was a felafel sandwich. These were of varying sizes and standards, all very cheap… Most were excellent, some were average and one landed me unfortunately in hospital after it was the cause of intense vomiting & diarrhea. (It was a horrid day and it took me a week to really get back on track eating normally again, but it was a very minor hiccup in the grand scheme of things. Coincidentally as I write this, many months later, it is World Toilet Day and I am astounded at the numbers of people in other parts of the world for whom this stuff is a regular occurence, and sometimes life-ending. 🙁 Sad indeed.)
Turning to the sweet…if you have a sweet tooth there were plenty of good things on offer in Iran. I particularly liked the Sesame sweet somethings… Looks average but was very good… not sure how to describe them but but here’s a picture of two sesame products, both delicious.
In Yazd they had quite a few stores with various good sweet treats. We went for a few different things from the cheap place across the road from the fancy one mentioned in the guidebooks.
In Fuman we watched guys make the famous Gilan province cookies and then bought them fresh and still hot.
Among the nuts and seeds at markets you can usually find plenty of varieties of sweets. Bakers sold muffins and a very sticky sweet mini sausage shaped something that you bought by the kg.
Although there were sweet things available almost always when we were at someone’s house we got offered tea, but not cake or biscuits as would be the norm at home. Instead we usually received a plate and knife and were presented with a bowl of cucumbers and fruit. This was the most common snack eaten with tea and/or before dinner. Very healthy.
After leaving Iran we missed this regular fruit. But not as much as we miss sitting around amazing food, sharing it with the wonderful people of Iran. Already looking forward to next time…