Visitors to Iran look on Teheran as the most convenient entry point to the exquisite and spectacular cities of Isfahan, Shiraz, Yazd or Tabriz. But there is much to find in this capital too—even though the windows in most of the buildings remain permanently shut due to the smog from the choking traffic, making it look like as though everyone has migrated. For one, Teheran is almost spotlessly clean. No Indian city can come even remotely close in comparison.
As an unorthodox city stalker, I find Teheran attractive for a couple of things one can’t get that easily, that cheaply, elsewhere: dry fruit (endless quantities) and sweets (including baklava and sohan). In fact, where other airlines only offer cheap candies during takeoff, Iran Air offers gaz, a wondrous, mildly sweet concoction packed with a heart of pistachios. The only other city that can rival the dry fruit stores of Teheran are the open-air dry fruit markets of Quetta, where dry fruit is displayed not in boxes but in open sacks—like our grocers display their rice and wheat! Iranian dry fruit shops traditionally allow unlimited sampling of any dry fruit before purchase. Alas, the prices of these are no longer what they used to be: pistachios—which Iranians still pop as generously as the rest of the world does peanuts—were reigning between $15 to $22 per kg last fortnight. The culprit? The US-instigated sanctions which have led to a steady demeaning of the Iranian toman.
In the sweet shops, you can also freely sample gaz, sohan or baklavas. Gaz is probably unique to Iran, manufactured from the sticky, white milk associated with the tamarisk plant; sohan is a cousin of Indian sohan halwa, but encrusted with almonds or pistachios. Baklava is an exquisitely sweet delight Teheran shares with Turkey and Greece. These goodies are more than adequate to give Indian sweetmakers a run for their money. Gaz, in fact, has very little sugar, but is still a great sweet.
Vision of Heaven
The Teheran markets are filled with every possible thing on earth. This is not a poor country by any means. There are two splendid bazaars: the Grand Bazaar and the Tajrish. It will take a century for the Walmarts of the world to match the scale of the Grand Bazaar: 20 sq km, 2,00,000 vendors, 2 million customers. That’s why they look down on the Americans.
In the Tajrish bazaar, also huge but more reasonable for walking, I discover a divine preserve: green olives pickled in pomegranate paste. One sampling and it has conquered my heart forever. I bring home a jarful.
And then there is saffron, sold in small plastic cases, as if it were gold. Saffron is the delicate stamen of a flower which is also sporadically found even in home gardens. While we mostly use the substitute haldi to get that golden yellow colour in our pulaos, Iranians get to use the real thing. In the restaurants, even rice is served with a dash of saffron. Iranians eat rice dry, which I find miserable. Curries? The Iranians have never heard of them. (What were they doing all thistime?) Eating out generally means popping kababs—a variety of them—with rice (some imported from India) and steamed tomato, washed down with copious quantities of doogh (buttermilk).
Teheran also serves delicious bread, similar to naans but two to three times larger in size and length. One variety is baked in stone- or pebble-encrusted ovens. It is eaten with white cheese and can constitute a complete meal. This is the only way the revolution has protected itself: bread is available in every nook and corner of the city, at extremely low prices, so there is no need for a revolution any more. The bread is even more delicious with date syrup and cream.
The traditional restaurants still serve food on low tables with sofa-type sitting arrangements. At home, the food might be laid down on a cloth on the floor, not to spoil the carpets. Iranians sit easily on floors, as competently as we do. Again, carpets, like pistachios, are commonplace in almost every home. In some houses, they cover the entire floor, including the kitchen—not necessarily a single piece, but several, even if differently patterned. So they walk barefoot at home. So much like us.
Even at the Tajrish bazaar, the nuclear dimension is ever present. Two nuclear scientists have been killed in separate bombing accidents credited to the Israelis. Their tombs—as shahids, martyrs—have been given pride of place within the walls of the Imamzadeh Mausoleum in the midst of the city. This kind of honour is unusual and rare. Martyrs are ordinarily sacred beyond imagination in Iran. But nuclear age martyrs now appear destined for a place one notch above.
Iranians drink tea all the time...
...but never with milk. They also sweeten with coarse sugar lumps tucked in the mouth!
Goa-based environmentalist Claude Alvares is the editor of The Other India Press; E-mail your diarist: goafoundation [AT] gmail [DOT] com
I refer to Claude Alvares’s Teheran Diary (Jun 2). It was refreshing to read about Teheran and its diversities, including its food and astounding cleanliness. Now we don’t know much about Iran, but India has had millennia-old connections with Persia. Actually, the court language in most of India was Farsi!
H.N. Ramakrishna, Bangalore
Otherwise so similar culturally, it is hard to understand how Indians can be so dirty compared to the Iranian repute for being clean and tidy.
Kishore Kant, Delhi
The one thing one can’t get in Teheran is booze. The custom authorities also confiscate and impose stiff penalties on anyone trying to smuggle in alcohol. Apparently, Indian expatriates there have started brewing liquor out of rice. It packs a strong punch and does the needful.
G. Natrajan, Isere, France
It is hard to understand how Indians can be such foul creatures when Iranians are so clean. After all Indians belong to the same species of mammal!
So India under Modi and the BJP is highly intolerant of criticism. Let's see- an Indian Christian writer goes to an Islamic country and writes favourably about its largest city, contrasting its cleanliness with the lack of same in Indian cities!
Whoa, the fascist thought police must have a contract out on Claude Alvares.
The equivalent would be a Buddhist living in the Taliban controlled zones of Afghanistan, or a Christian in Saudi Arabia, travelling to India, and praising many aspects of the culture and society in India, contrasting it positively with the Taliban and Saudi Arabia respectively, and most of all, publishing such an article in the main media organs of these countries.
Do you see how idiotic it is to compare the "Hindu Right" with the Taliban and Saudi?
The lack of booze in Iran reminds me of a few lines from Khayyam's Rubaiyat. How times change...
"do yaar-e naazok o az baade-ye kohæn do mæni
faraaghati o ketaabi o gushe-ye chamæni
mæn in maqam be donyaa o aakheraat nadehæm
agarche dær peyaam oftænd hær dæm anjomæni"
Two dainty lovers and two barrels of ("wind of the mountains") wine;
(and) leisure, books and a spot of green.
I won't give up these things for the world or hereafter,
even if the crowds are (nipping) at my heels.
Jalebi and Halwa are not Indian creations at all. They both originted in the Middle East. I have tasted the North African Jalebi which is available in Moroccan sweetshops in France and it is not as good as the Indian one.
Greek Halwa on the other hand, is absolutely divine. Leaves its Indian counterpart far behind.
The one thing you cannot get in Tehran's markets is booze. The customs authorities also confiscate and impose stiff penlties on anyone trying to smuggle in alcohol. Apparently the Indian expatriates there have come up with a way to make alcohol out of rice. It packs a strong punch.
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