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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