Rather than updating you with endless day-to-day accounts of our adventures in Iran (which would get quite boring) I will write a post about the different aspects of traveling in Iran on a bicycle.
As perpetually hungry cyclists, the most important aspect is, not surprisingly, food.
Persian Food Philosophy
The first time we were invited to an Iranian home for dinner the conversation was, naturally, about food. We learned that Iranians have a rather unique (to me, anyway) thinking about food that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. It seems to be quite complicated and obviously I am no expert, but from what we gathered food can either be categorized as ‘hot/warm’ or ‘cold/cool’, a distinction which has nothing at all to do with the temperature at which said food is to be consumed, but rather with the characteristics of the food.
Depending on your natural state of warm or coolness, it might be better for you to consume a lot of warm foods, or cold foods, or limit your intake in certain categories. It has not become clear to me how exactly you can determine if you are a ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ person.
The distinction is not always intuitive. Fish and cucumber, for example, are cold foods, which seems to make perfect sense to me. But so are lentils, and if made to guess I would have put these firmly in the ‘warm’ category. Examples of warm food are dates, chicken and dried fruits and nuts. Especially sesame is, according to our host, “very, VERY hot!”. A good meal strikes a balance between hot and cold. For example, Fesenjan, a delicious dish made with chicken (warm), pomegranate (cold) and walnuts (warm).
If you stick only to eating in restaurants, Iranian cuisine will be disappointing. Iran doesn’t have a very strong culture of eating out the house, and when done it is usually for fast food or kebab, so fast food joints can be found everywhere, including unexpectedly small villages, and offer a small selection of pizza, burgers or falafel sandwiches, none of which have been really amazing.
To sample the best and more traditional food you should get yourself invited to an Iranian dinner at someone’s house, which, given the amazing Persian hospitality, is not very difficult. It is actually more challenging to politely decline an invitation without causing offense.
Staple foods: Bread & Rice
Iranian bread is AMAZING. Especially when consumed straight out of the oven, still warm. It comes in many varieties, all of them flat and roundish. The bad news is that it keeps fresh for only about a minute and a half, which means it doesn’t travel very well, especially not squished under a pair of bungee cords on the back of a bicycle.
I guess that’s why there are always massive queues at the bakery whenever a fresh batch of bread is made. This queuing system is, by the way, nearly incomprehensible for a foreigner since there are apparently typically four lines: one for men that only buy one or two breads, one for men that buy several breads, one for women that only buy one or two breads and one for women that buy several breads. The good news is that, as a foreigner, whether male or female, the best strategy is just to side with someone of a similar gender, look a little bit helpless, and there’s a pretty good chance that someone will take pity on the confused foreigner and will take care of the ordering for you.
Pro tip: Always order twice as much bread as you think you will eat – it will never be enough.
The most commonly found bread is a very thin, flat bread named Lavash that looks like it is cooked on bubble wrap because of the bubbly structure. It is not only very cheap but also dries out really fast, so only buy this if you intend to eat it straight away. This is also commonly served with kebabs in restaurants. The best bread is the traditional Sangak bread. Sangak means ‘stony’ and this bread is traditionally based in an open, dome-shaped oven on hot pebbles. It is the thickest of the traditional breads and made with whole wheat flour. Make sure all the pebbles are removed from the bread before eating them! The other two common types of bread are Barbari, similar to Sangak but not made on pebbles and usually more compact in shape, and Taftoon, in thickness something between sangak and lavash.
Bread is served for breakfast (with feta cheese, cream, honey, walnuts, jam) and it will accompany lunch and dinner too.
The other staple food is rice. Seriously, I don’t know how someone can eat So. Much. Rice. And this is after several years of living in Southeast Asia, aka Rice Capital. Well done Iranians, I am impressed. Whatever dish you order, it will probably come with an enormous pile of white soft, fluffy long grain rice with some yellow rice for a bit of color. It might be served with a little cube of butter on top, which you are supposed to mix with your rice for extra deliciousness (is that even a word? It should be). The rice might also be cooked with vegetables or herbs as a main dish in itself.
Some of the classics
Persian cuisine is rich and has many dishes and every region has their own specialty. We would need a few extra months to discover everything, but here are some of our favorites. Not sure about spelling though!
This is a dish commonly served at people’s homes. It is a stew made of green herbs and vegetables (‘Saabzi’ means ‘grean’) with a little bit of meat. You can eat it with rice or bread (did you expect anything else?) and it tastes very hearty.
Finding Ash has been a bit of a quest for us. The first time we found it in Shiraz sold on a street corner. It was delicious. The second and last time we had it was in Isfahan and it was even better, but sadly we haven’t found it since. Perhaps because it is a typical breakfast food and since we are usually either camping (and cooking our own) or staying at someone’s house and having bread & cheese for breakfast.
Dizi is one if Iran’s famous dishes. It is another type of stew (stews are a thing here), traditionally cooked for a long time (up to 12-15 hours) in a clay pot. It is a mixture of chickpeas, meat, potato, fat, tomato, herbs and spices. To make you look like you know what you’re doing when eating Dizi, proceed as following:
- Drain the broth of the pot into your bowl
- Tear up the bread (of course it comes with bread) in little pieces and drop them in the broth, letting them soak for a while until it becomes a delicious soupy, spongy mess. Eat this with a spoon. Or with more bread.
- When the broth is finished, scoop the dry ingredients from the pot into your bowl. You would have been given a little stamper to mash all the dry ingredients together: the meat, the potato etc. How much you want to mash them depends on your personal taste, but I think it is common to mash it until there are no identifiable chunks of anything left, so you have a sort of paste.
- Eat it with bread (duh!). You can either spoon it on the bread and eat it or use the bread as a tool to pick it from the bowl.
Another typical breakfast food: head and feet of sheep! For this dish the entire head of a sheep is used, including the brain, tongue and eyes. It is apparently flavored with lemon juice and cinnamon. I don’t have a lot to say about this dish because I am a chicken and buried my nose in a book while Antonio was eating, trying really hard not to gag because of the overpowering smell of boiled sheep’s head. Ugh.
This is a classic from Isfahan. It is lamb meat minced with spices & oil and formed into a kind of patty, served with, guess what…bread. The liver is served on the side. Sounds simple but is very delicious (well, aside from the liver). We had this classic in a bazaar in Isfahan in a restaurant that had been serving it for over a hundred years. Unfortunately I can’t tell you where it is as even our Iranian host got lost several times trying to find it.
Now we’re talking! Iranian ice cream is some of the most delicious I have ever tried, and comes in a huge variety.
Rose flavored ice cream is as common as vanilla flavor in Europe, so you will find this everywhere, either from do-it-yourself machines (for about 10.000 rial for a cone – cheap!) or from fancier shops. Saffron flavor is quite popular too, as is pistachio. Traditional Iranian ice cream has almost a gooey texture – if you pull your spoon away you sometimes get threads like melted cheese.
A must-try in Shiraz is the weird Faloodeh, an ‘ice cream’ made from thin rice noodles served in a syrup of sugar and rose water, flavored with lemon juice to balance the sweetness. It is strange. But it is good.
Another strange but surprisingly good combination is ice cream with fresh carrot juice! If you find yourself on the Sio Se Pol bridge in Isfahan, walk south away from the bridge, cross the road that runs along the river and after about 50m you will find the best and cheapest ice cream store on your right hand side.
Despite several hours of cycling each day I don’t think I have lost any weight in Iran – mostly to blame on the abundance of delicious sweets and pastries everywhere and the fact that ’emergency candy’ is totally a thing for cyclists. Or is that just me? Nearly every biggish town has a pastry store with a wide selection of intricate confectionary. Some filled with cream, some filled with nuts and spices and some just plain sugary but all of them delicious.
Dried fruit and nuts are also commonly available, and very cheap! Fruit paste dried into thin sheets (fruit leather?) is especially tasty and gives a quick boost of energy. And of course I can not go without mentioning Gaz from Isfahan, delicious rose & pistachio flavored nougat. Mmmm.
Did I miss anything? What is your favorite Iranian specialty? Do you think you are more of a cold or warm person? Have I ever used the word ‘delicious’ more?