Iran, another place on our trip where it is not great to be a vegetarian, and many times Jude wished she could eat meat so she could enjoy the tempting Iranian cuisine. But luckily the food in Iran is not all about meat. They also have an incredible sweet tooth and everywhere you go another specialty dish or sweet (shirini) is available. We had to sample them all of course and gained several kilos in the process. We’re also afraid of our next dentist’s appointment as the amount of sugar we have consumed here in Iran is the same as we’ve eaten on the rest of the trip.
Imagine drinking many cups of tea each day and the custom for every cup of tea is to dip a sugar cube (ghand) in the tea, place it in between your teeth and then suck the tea through it. They even have different types of ghand (sugar cubes) for this. Soon we reverted back to tea without sugar, as we normally drink it, given we were offered at least 5-6 cups of tea each day and usually more…
As the rain was pouring down outside, we found shelter in a tiny traditional teahouse in Shiraz. We were keen for a cup of tea, but discovered a small food menu and decided we would stay for lunch too. Jon asked for dizi and Jude was lucky as they had a vegetable stew on the menu which turned out to be a pretty tasty eggplant dish (mirza ghasemi – mashed eggplant, squash, garlic, tomato and egg).
Jon in the mean time was about to arrive in food heaven. His dizi was set out in front of him and consisted of several dishes. Two bowls came out, one empty bar a spoon and masher and one with an assortment of mint leaves, onion and other raw ingredients. A basket of bread was added and the dizi itself. Dizi is actually the name of the pot in which is cooked the most delicious concoction of chickpeas, spices, meat and beans. As Jon looked rather puzzled, our kind waitress helped him out.
First bits of bread are torn off, placed in the empty bowl and some raw veggies are added. You then tip the liquid out of the dizi into this bowl and you have a delicious soup to eat. Now you can use the musher to attack the remaining solid ingredients. You mush them together into a delicious puree which you then scoop up with the remaining pieces of bread. Two courses in one!
As Jon ranked this as one of the 10 best meals of the trip, Jude was very keen to try it. With some napkins ready a tiny bit was tried. Jon wasn’t lying, it was sensational. This alone is a reason to come to Iran, together with the best specialty dish of Kashan: nargali.
If you like coconut macaroons as much as we do you must try nargali in Kashan. This is their specialty and boy do they know how to make some melt-in-your-mouth coconut macaroons. We had bought half a kilo, but before we even got back to the car we had to buy some more. They all disappeared very quickly, and this time it wasn’t just Jon who could be blamed.
We also tried gaz from Esfehan, which is nougat with pistachio nuts. The higher the percentage of nuts, the better the quality. We bought a box of course and before Jude had the chance to eat one piece it was already empty. One small bite is all she ever got to taste. But when we tried faludeh in Shiraz, we ordered a small bowl each. Faludeh is frozen sorbet, made with thin starch noodles. Probably not the best thing to eat when it is raining cats and dogs outside, but tasty nonetheless. Shakila had told us we should try lemon and cherry, her favourite flavours, and they were great. They also pour rose water over it, but we preferred it without.
In Esfehan we were invited for lunch by Marziye and Mehdi (her father), whilst stuck in a traffic jam. We followed them and had the best dugh and homemade cherry jam (from their own cherry orchard) in their home whilst Jon was enjoying the kebabs and they found egg and potato omelets for Jude. Dugh is a yoghurt drink, mixed with some water, but they had also added fresh peppermint and some more herbs. Delicious.
Esfehan was the first town where we saw the traditional chaykhanehs. In these teahouses men come to drink a cuppa and smoke a qalyan (water pipe). The qalyans had been forbidden for a few years, but were now everywhere again although we didn’t see any until we reached Esfehan. We certainly enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere in these places and tried all the different flavours on offer whilst sipping many cups of strong tea from tiny glass tea cups.
When we drove through Fuman we bought some Kluchech Fuman, literally cookies from Fuman. These have walnut paste inside and are pretty good. And in Orumiyeh we bought some noghl, nuts coated in icing sugar using copper cement mixers. The ones we tasted had a strong rosewater flavour which we didn’t like too much though.
In Tabriz we tasted many Iranian dishes. Sina and Mohammad took us to the best dizi restaurant in town and across the little lane was a place that served Ash, a vegetarian specialty just for Jude. Ash . Jude is fantastic thick noodle soup with vegetables, served with yet another type of bread. We also saw many people making and eating yeralma yumurta. Literally meaning potato and egg. They put the mixture inside flat lavash bread and add copious amounts of salt, pepper and chili. We tried some with pickles and others were served with fresh herbs. A great lunch and every time we had it, somebody paid for us before we could even get our money out – the amazing hospitality was everywhere.
Dates were also everywhere and Jon was buying them by the kilo, tasting one of each pile before deciding what to buy. The only thing he didn’t try was a dish called ‘yoghurt stew’. After first ordering a dish they didn’t have in a beautifully restored hammam in Esfehan, he had picked this yoghurt stew, assuming it was meat, vegetables in a stew that contained yoghurt… It looked more like cold custard, so it was politely sent back and kebabs were ordered instead.
One evening in Tabriz we met Parastoo and Tahir when we were having a drink in a fresh ab (juice) bar. Jude was enjoying kiwi and orange, whilst Jon loved the date mix. We had just bought dinner at a little moving street stall: labu, beetroot and sugar beet boiled in grape juice, a real winter food, when we spotted the juice bar and went inside. We had a great chat and they introduced us to bagla, broad beans served with salt and vinegar, a delicious snack. Jon spotted more shirini (sweets) and asked for a plate. It was another specialty dish from Tabriz, cacao baklava. Simply delicious.
Jon also tried fesenjun and halva and loved it. Fesenjun is a sauce made of pomegranate juice, walnuts, eggplant and cardamom. They usually serve it over chicken, but Jon had meatballs covered in the delicious sauce. Halva is a paste made of sesame seeds and can be eaten with bread, usually for breakfast.
We were also lucky enough to be invited for dinner into a Kurdish family home one evening. We met them at Takth-e Soleyman. The whole family had driven 50 km to play music and dance in the car park, but when they saw us they became very excited and enthusiastically invited us back to their place for dinner. As we had just met Irmi and Wolfgang, 2 Germans at the start of their 3.5 year overland trip, we all decided to accept their kind offer.
Around 40 people sat down for many cups of tea, followed by a delicious dinner. The main course was a delicious dish of lamb, tomatoes, chickpeas and dates, but Jude had plenty to eat too as the side dishes were all vegetarian. Of course yoghurt and bread were also served with the main meal and fruit and more tea afterwards.
And then the drum came out and 2 of the brothers took it in turn to sing whilst half of the family started to dance the traditional Kurdish way. All arm in arm shuffling to the right with the leading person (male or female) waving a scarf whilst slowly moving around in a circle. Their voices were fantastic and the drumming simple, but very melodious. Of course we had to join the dancing and then Jude was dragged off by the ladies to get changed into one of their colourful dresses, complete with under garments, waistband and scarf. Some make up was added as they loved ‘dressing up’ and then she was paraded into the living room where the dancing continued. Yet more amazing food and an amazing night in this amazing country with its amazing people.
That was the first question everybody asks when you tell them you are going to Iran. There are two very simple answers: yes and no. It depends on what you mean by ‘safe’ and what you want to hear.
We’ll give you both (even though we had to think hard to find a ‘no’ answer), so you can choose yourself.
The ‘no’ answer is short. Iranian roads definitely aren’t the safest in the world, but they are probably also not the unsafest. We’ve definitely seen our fair share of terrible drivers on this trip, a lot of them in China, but Iranians are up there amongst the worst (Italians are still probably the worst in the world though).
Iranian drivers have a complete disregard for any speed limits, traffic signs and, common to all of Asia, use the white lines on the road as a rough indication of where they could potentially drive.
Jumping queues at lights (often using the lane for oncoming traffic), reversing down one-way streets or on the wrong side of the road, ignoring traffic lights and stop signs, pushing (instead of towing) a broken down car on the highway, overtaking with no visibility or with oncoming traffic barreling down towards them (who have to hit the brakes hard to avoid full on frontal collisions), cutting off people when getting back in their lane after overtaking and then slowing down so you have to overtake them in return (or maybe they just did that to us to get a better look and another chance to wave enthusiastically, heads out of window and all?) are all good examples of the Iranian driving style.
Add to that the usual hazards of sheep, dromedaries and other life stock or wild animals crossing the roads and you have a full-scale diabolical road situation.
But we loved it nonetheless. It’s lack of respect for rules almost refreshing. And although dangerous, when you drive defensively and go slowly in towns it’s perfectly possible to cross Iran unscathed. We did miss Tehran however…
And that’s where the ‘no’ answer stops. There isn’t much else to say. There are no people trying to gun you down, no revolution is going on, no burning of American or Commonwealth nations’ flags in the street, no violence against foreigners (including Americans), and no police intimidation.
The ‘yes’ part is also quite short. Four words are all it requires to answer the question: yes, it is safe. But we’ll give you some examples so you can decide if your next holiday will be exploring the history, culture and nature of this amazing country.
Yes it is safe to walk around towns, even at night. Yes it is safe to browse in the bazaars, even with a camera and money in your pocket. Yes it is safe for women to explore the sights of Iran, even if you’re not wearing a chador. Yes it is safe to talk to people, even though you can’t speak a word in their language. Yes it is safe to ask directions from a police officer, even if he can’t speak English. Yes it is safe to enter somebody’s house for a cuppa. And we could go on and on and on like this, but it’s probably pretty clear. It’s safe.
In Iran we felt welcome, very welcome. People are genuinely friendly, interested and helpful, including officials and policemen. Unlike our western society where everybody is always (superficially) friendly, but always in a hurry and never actually helpful to a complete stranger, here they go out of their way to help you.
We have many, many examples of this. People hopping in their car and telling us to follow them so they can drive us to a sight, people walking with us to help us find a specific shop or item, people calling for us to find out if a shop is open or a hotel has space, people translating for us when buying something, people who drive or ride us somewhere. And not just once, many times this happened and in all parts of the country.
And then there are the countless people giving us things like bread, pomegranates and the numerous cups of tea, simply because they want to, because we are their guests.
People invite you in for a cuppa. Everywhere. From petrol stations, to shopkeepers to random people on the street, everyone. Sometimes, around feeding hours, you even get invited for food. We accepted occasionally and felt sad we had to decline often. Otherwise we would still be in Shiraz at Christmas!
People say hello all the time. That sounds like something they do everywhere, but you should see the shyness of some of the women when they say it and the big grins and giggles you get in return when you respond. It is simply heart-warming and always brings a big smile to our faces too. On the road, Iranians gave us friendly hoots, countless enthusiastic waves and even invites for food.
Would we recommend visiting Iran? Yes, most definitely. Throw away the images ingrained in our memories by the sensation-seeking media.
Just remember our ‘free’ press is keen to show any bad, sad or stupid story about any country. Unfortunately, they are news stories from sensation-seeking reporters who are only interested in sales numbers and viewer ratings.
Those in Europe will know that the only mainstream news coming out of Australia is about massive floods, devastating fires, lethal crocodile or shark attacks and our newly selected idiot of a prime minister. Iran is no different (although in Iran they have recently selected a new leader of whom many have high hopes he will bring positive changes to the country and for its people).
Iran is a great country with wonderful people, so allow yourself to be immersed in its delicious foods, bustling bazaars and amazing history and culture (more on that later). Hopefully you will enjoy it as much as we have.