Getting under the crispy skin of Tehran to discover coffee shop tales and counter-culture
The bustling metropolis of Tehran is home to over eight million people who wrestle the heavy smog and endless traffic jams to eke out a living in the largest city in the Middle East. It is a place where almost half the population live below the international poverty line whilst, on the other side of town, the city’s mega-rich throw extravagant champagne-fuelled pool parties; a place where hard-line clerics gather for Friday morning prayers to denounce the West, just as Tehrani youth wake up with hangovers and head to a yoga class. In all these ways and more, Tehran embodies the complex, contradictory and sometimes suffocating side of modern Iran.
Tehran food is equally complex, fusing East and West, traditionalism and modernity. Upscale restaurants, serving everything from sushi to chicken waffles, rub shoulders with traditional tea houses serving dizi, a centuries-old lamb, chickpea and potato stew, cooked in a clay pot over a fire for several hours until the meat is so tender you can mash it into a paste with your fork.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the banning of alcohol, all of Tehran’s bars and nightclubs were shut down. Alcohol can still be bought on the black market, but it comes with exorbitantly high prices and considerable risk, so today most young Tehranis turn instead to coffee shops and fast-food joints to meet, eat and flirt with each other.
Many of the city’s hippest cafés also double as small, independent galleries, showcasing some of the best work from Tehran’s burgeoning arts scene. These include Café 78, a bright and airy space above an art gallery of the same name, which alongside the usual cappuccinos and lattes, sells a huge range of damnoosh (traditional herbal teas made from plants such as hibiscus and fennel) as well as refreshing liquids known as aragh, made from distilled herbs like fennel and willow.
“Serving damnoosh and aragh are important to us as it is a way of going back to our roots and being proud of what we have as a culture,” explains Café 78’s owner Mervha Arvin. “All countries have their problems, but when I came back to Iran to open this café after living in the United States for ten years, I wanted to celebrate the good things. I wanted to show young Iranians that it is just as cool to drink traditional Persian drinks like aragh-e nana (a sweet, distilled mint extract) as it is to drink Coca-Cola.”
All over Tehran, social media is leading the way for foodies to exchange recipes, share pictures of their lunches and post reviews of the hottest new restaurants.
To learn how this new generation of Iranians cook, I spent an afternoon at the home of Faezeh Khorosani, an exuberant young woman who works as a project manager in the city. “The first thing I cooked was rice,” Faezeh recalls. “I was nine years old and I had no idea how much to put in the pan. I ended up cooking pretty much all the rice we had in the house and I overcooked it so badly it ended up as lots of little sticky balls!”
These days, Faezeh is a wonderful cook, with a wealth of helpful tips—such as recommending that I mix ground spices into a small cup of hot water before adding them to a stew, so that the flavours are distributed evenly throughout the pan. She also shared with me a delicious recipe for Zereshk polo baa morgh, a succulent caramelised chicken dish, cooked with sweet and sour barberries and saffron rice.
As Faezeh regaled me with stories of partying with friends and planning her next camping trip, I suggested that her busy life and feisty spirit are not how those outside the country think of Iranian women.
“Iranian women have a strong role in society,” she replied. “They are very independent, compared to other women in the Middle East. Every year in recent memory has seen more women going to university than men, and women are getting into higher positions in companies with better salaries. We are not just housewives.”
I spent a couple more happy days in Tehran, sharing baked cheesecakes and black Americanos with graphic design students, sipping fresh borage tea with a chart-topping musician and sampling smoked rice for the first time at the home of a young sculptor. And then there was my visit to Café Ilio—Iran’s first artisan chocolatier, where husband and wife team Mehrdad Aghameeri and Sahar Hossein-Najari sell a magnificent selection of truffles, gelato, macaroons, cakes and jams, handcrafted with a lot of chocolate and even more love.
“We try and keep our products as natural as possible and don’t use any artificial flavours,” Mehrdad pointed out, insisting that I confirm these claims by sampling the produce myself as he fed me pistachio truffles, sour cherry and chocolate cake, cardamom macaroons, and mulberry and chocolate jam, each morsel tasting more delicious than the last—quite an achievement for a country where people don’t traditionally eat any chocolate at all.
Tehran’s streets buzz with rebellious energy and underground creativity, which is why I jumped at the chance to visit the home of independent film-maker Behzad Nalbandi. Iran’s film industry is known for its unique cinematography and subtle use of metaphor, and Behzad is a man who embodies this style of creative activity—in his films, and at home in his kitchen.
“Some people say that cooking is an art,” he explains, “but for me, it is a way through which I better understand film-making. You start with a set of raw ingredients and you have to work out how to put them together. You decide on the theme of your dish, its genre—is it a soup, a stew, a grill? Then you have to work out how to make your ingredients fit your genre and how to make the dish tasty. Sometimes you watch a film and the basic ingredients are all good—the acting, the location, the script, the camerawork—but somehow the film doesn’t work, it doesn’t move you, it’s lacking something. I’d say the film is bee namak (without salt). It needs more seasoning.”
As Behzad and I cooked together and then ate a dish of Addas polo, a soothing, layered rice dish made with lentils and dried fruit, I reflected that there is certainly nothing bee namak about life in Tehran, Iran’s most secular and liberal city, which continuously surprises with its juxtaposition of old and new.
(This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Persian food. Excerpted with permission from The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan, Bloomsbury Publishing, ₹ 799)