Luscious landscapes, hipster hangouts and a flourishing foodie scene – these are not the first things that spring to mind when you think of Iran. British-Persian writer and cook Yasmin Khan explains why that’s about to change
In my mind, Iran has always been the most magical place. As a child growing up in urban Birmingham, it represented a completely different reality – a beautiful, green idyll where we’d go hiking up mountains and swimming in waterfalls on family holidays. It was the place I’d go to connect with my relatives on a small family farm, which provided an enchanted playground for my cousins and me. We’d spend our days running around the rice fields and picking pomegranates to eat down by the stream, popping the ruby seeds between our fingers and relishing its sweet, sticky juice. In among the fruit trees, laden with figs, apples and walnuts, a few chickens ran around. There were also several cows that we milked so as a young child my grandmother taught me how to churn butter.
In fact, the majority of my memories of Iran revolve around food. To this day, I can’t smell the scent of saffron without imagining I’m there. Whenever I’m in need of comfort food, I’ll ask my mother to make Loobia Polo – a rice dish made with lamb, green beans, saffron and cinnamon that quietly steams away on the stove for ages and smells like home. Cooking has always been an important part of spending time with my family, so much so that whenever I picture my grandmother in my head, I always envisage her chopping vegetables. We would sit outside on the open veranda, preparing the main meal at lunchtime for 10-20 people. All the generations would get involved – my gran, my aunts, my cousins – and together we’d prepare the most sumptuous feasts. Everything about life at the farm felt safe, lush and serene.
In the UK, however, the image most people have of Iran is very different. Growing up in the Eighties, Iran was seen as a country of conflict and horror. I became acutely aware of the difference between the country I knew and the country my friends saw portrayed in the media. I remember, at 16, hearing Labour MP Tony Benn speak positively about Iran during a school trip to London. It was the first time I’d heard another British person talk about it in a way that reflected how I felt, who recognised that the unrest reflected the regime [in power since the 1979 revolution which established an Islamic Republic] and not the people. It was an amazing moment to find out someone else understood.
Today, Iran is frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons. Ask the average person what springs to mind when they think of Iran and they’ll likely mention chador-clad women, angry mobs or nuclear weapons. Reports depict a narrow political prism of the Iranian government and religious clerics, oppression and struggles [the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel to where the country borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, far away from tourist regions, due to ‘political unrest’]. But there is so much more to the country than this: reports don’t represent ordinary Iranian life or the overwhelmingly progressive values of Iranian people.
The misconceptions about Iran can be frustrating at times, but rather than upsetting me, they inspire me to show people what the real Iran is like. For me, the best way to dispel these myths was to travel there to produce a cookbook – The Saffron Tales (£26, Bloomsbury) – sharing my knowledge of something that inspires my fondest memories of Iran: food. And it’s not just because I’m a food writer – much of the area’s cultural wealth comes from its cuisine, yet most people know little about it. I find it funny when I read reports in the UK about ‘the trend for Persian food’, which this year is seeing an explosion in popularity. As someone who grew up with it, Persian food has always seemed vibrant and exciting to me.
In the Sixties and Seventies, Iran was a really cool destination on the hippy travelling trail, and now, thanks to the explosion of a new, exciting arts, culture and burgeoning foodie scene in Tehran, it feels that Iran is finally resuming that identity. This is the side of Iran that I want to show people, the side, which will help them see what the country is really like. So I set up a Kickstarter campaign and subsequently travelled to Iran for several months at a time in 2013 and 2014. I spent time collating recipes for my book to illustrate a country I know and love, the one that’s fresh and modern but full of a rich history and culture. If my travels taught me anything, it’s that Iran will never fail to surprise or excite you. Here are a few more things I learned along the way…
1. Iran is a vibrant, cool country
For me, food is the perfect metaphor for the modern Iran – rich in history and tradition but with a fresh, youthful energy. Most people don’t realise how young and spirited Iran is. Half the population is under the age of 35. If you walk through the streets of the capital Tehran, you’ll see row after row of the city’s most fashionable girls smoking shisha and gossiping about the latest episode of Game Of Thrones, because everyone is watching exactly the same programmes as we are over here. Tehran’s culinary offerings reflect this increasingly cosmopolitan generation, so today you can find everything from Thai green curry to frozen yoghurt there. One of the biggest food trends to hit Tehran in recent years is the emergence of Californian influences – the increasing popularity of salads and sushi – thanks to the number of Iranians who emigrated to America’s West Coast. And in recent years, there’s been an explosion of hipster cafes serving fresh juices just as you’d find in any major Western city. Alongside traditional herbal teas made from hibiscus and fennel, drinks menus in these hip fusion cafes also include mocktails (such as virgin mojitos) – as alcohol was banned after the revolution. Many of these cafes also double as art galleries, displaying innovative works from Tehran’s flourishing art scene despite the country’s repressive censorship laws. In fact, every time I visit, there seems to be a stylish new gallery or exhibition opening.
This fusion reflects the increasing westernisation of life here in Iran as, far from being cut off from the rest of the world, the country is embracing outside influences. For example, one 64-year-old grandmother who taught me how to make meatballs made me wait before I tried them so that she could take a photo for her Instagram account. Another lady I met, who was the first artisan chocolatier in Tehran and who made incredible handmade chocolates, lamented the preconceptions about Iranian women she faced when she studied in Italy and Belgium. For her, as for many Iranians, they can be fatiguing because in many respects, life in Iran isn’t that different to life anywhere else.
2. Iranian women aren't victims
Contrary to popular belief, the burka doesn’t exist in Iran – no-one wears it. But, since the Islamic revolution of 1979, wearing hijab outside of the home is mandatory by law. Since then, many laws have been introduced that are discriminatory towards women, but they have not filtered down into modern Iranian culture. Iranian women are strong, well-educated and active in the workplace and have been resisting and fighting against these laws since their introduction. Women have a strong role in society – they got the vote before women in Switzerland. At the moment there are more women than men in higher education, and women play a major role in contributing to the country’s economy. Many women in rural communities are actively engaged in some sort of revenue-generating activity. My gran was a perfect example of this, making her own yoghurt to sell at the local market for most of her life.
3. It has a culture of generosity
From the portrayal of Iran’s dogmatic regime by the majority of Western media, it seems there’s little to celebrate in the country’s day-to-day routine. But despite all the challenges Iranians face, they still enjoy life. Food isn’t just nourishment for them, it’s an event to be savoured. The main meal of the day is lunch and taking time out to eat a proper meal of stewed or grilled meats, rice, salad, bread, pickles and yoghurt is an important part of Iranian culture – you’d never see an office worker sitting eating at their desk. Food is communal there – a way of bringing people together. Sharing food is an intrinsic part of Iranian culture – no-one would ever dream of eating an orange on public transport without offering a segment to fellow travellers.
That generosity also applies to guests – Iranians are unbelievably hospitable. There’s a saying in Farsi: ‘A guest is a gift from God’ so guests are always treated impeccably and showered with tea, fruit, nuts and sweets as soon as they walk through the door. One of the things that never failed to astound me on my travels was how complete strangers heard through word of mouth that I was writing a book on Persian food and would invite me into their homes to share meals or introduce me to the best produce. What became obvious was that when it comes to the fundamentals of food, of sitting down with loved ones and sharing a meal together, there’s no real difference between Iran and Britain. Food is a common, unifying thread.
4. Pomegranate is king
Arguably the ingredient that links all Iranians is the pomegranate. The Iranian people are obsessed with this most vibrant and exciting fruit – they eat them all the time. It’s a bit like how popular chocolate is in the UK. All over Iran you’ll see them in many guises – as fresh pomegranate juice, pomegranate ice-cream, pomegranate granitas, pomegranate leathers [edible strips of dried pomegranate] – it really is ubiquitous. My personal obsession with pomegranates started early. I used to sneak into my grandmother’s kitchen at night and eat pomegranate molasses out of the jar, even though it was tart enough to make my lips pucker. We use it like a dressing, adding it to salads to give a tangy kick. For many Iranians, it’s a store-cupboard essential.
But as well as dominating Iranian cuisine, pomegranates are also symbolic to Iranian culture. Derived from Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions that was founded in ancient Iran, to this day all the major Iranian festivals, such as Nowruz (Iranian New Year), are Zoroastrian ones. Within the religion’s mythology, the legendary hero Isfandiyar ate pomegranate seeds and became invincible. Symbolically, pomegranates are associated with fertility and life – they appear in the middle of winter when everything else is baron to produce an incredible ruby-jewelled fruit. To me, they fuse the old and the new to give an edible insight into Iran today.
But pomegranates are only one of the many ways Iranians enliven their daily menus. Saffron is another. As the world’s biggest producer of the spice, Iranians use saffron in absolutely everything. A few drops will transform a dish and give it not only a gorgeous colour but an incredible, rich, aromatic flavour. But its value isn’t limited to the kitchen. On my travels I learned that no matter where you’re from, a cup of warm milk spiced with saffron, cinnamon and honey is the best cure for a broken heart.
5. The landscape is surprisingly varied
On my travels, I also learned how spices came to Iran though the old spice route from India to Venice. I learned about Persian heritage and how spinach and Seville oranges are actually indigenous to Iran. I also discovered a lot about Iran’s geography. Looking at the images of Iran in the media, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a dusty, desert country filled with rows and rows of bombed out streets. But Iran’s landscape is actually incredibly varied and lush, from the mountains of Tabriz to the tropical waters of Bandar Abbas. This landscape was the backdrop for some of my fondest food memories from my childhood. In Iran, hiking and picnicking is very popular, so we’d often go on family hikes up to the local waterfalls near our farm to swim and eat together afterwards. Picnicking was a special treat so we’d eat a feast of mixed herb frittatas, marinated olives with walnuts and pomegranates, bread, cucumber pickles and salads.
Of course, there are still many issues in Iran. Tehran is a city of contrasts, with the most obvious contradictions appearing over wealth – you only need to compare the population living below the poverty line with the ‘Rich Kids of Tehran’ Instagram account to see what I mean. But the truth is that this is a city of change, where the modern and the traditional live side by side in a demonstration of increasingly progressive values that will hopefully feed through into every aspect of life. It’s just so different to how you think it might be. So embrace the Persian food trend, visit a Persian restaurant or recreate a Persian recipe at home but remember the stories that sit behind them too – it’s the first step towards understanding the Iran I know and love.
The Saffron Tales: Recipes From The Persian Kitchen by Yasmin Khan (£26, Bloomsbury), out now
In the magazine edition and earlier online edition the headline for point 2, "Iranian women are not victims", was misquoted and has now been corrected. We apologise for any confusion caused