This is the concluding part of our two-part series on Persian Cuisine. Read Part 1 here.
The cities of Isfahan and Shiraz are the artistic and cultural hubs of Iran, famous throughout the Middle East for their unique Persian-Islamic architecture, intricate patterned tilework, ornate handicrafts, lavishly designed gardens and masterful poets, such as Hafez and Sa’adi. The region is also home to some of Persian cuisine’s most evocative ingredients. Saffron, pomegranates and roses (for rose water) are all cultivated here. Not only are these store-cupboard essentials for Iranians, but they are also used medicinally, honoured in thousand-year-old mythological stories and celebrated in ancient Persian poetry.
The food of central Iran has been shaped by its arid desert climate. In the days before refrigeration, fresh produce quickly perished, and so dried fruits and nuts were often used to enhance main courses. Today, the region’s most popular dishes include albaloo polo, rice layered with sour cherries and lamb, and shirin polo, rice studded with candied carrots, almonds, pistachios and slivers of orange zest. Sweetness is the dominant taste of the food, so it is no surprise that the country’s most sought after desserts originate in these provinces—from soft, chewy pistachio and rose water nougat, known as gaz, to Bastani sonnati, a thick, saffron custard ice cream, flecked with pistachios.
My journey through central Iran began in the countryside, visiting the saffron fields and pomegranate orchards of the Esfidani family who had invited me to stay with them. Iran is the largest saffron producer in the world and I arrived just in time for the first days of the harvest in mid-October. Mehri Esfidani, the family matriarch, took me on a tour of her saffron fields early in the morning to show me the crocuses that were just beginning to open, each proudly displaying their three precious, scarlet stigma. “Saffron flowers for just ten or twelve days each year,” Mehri explains. “You have to pick the saffron on the day the flowers open, as by the next day it will be ruined.”
Iranians have been using saffron for thousands of years; it is recommended for depression, asthma, reproductive health, blood purification and even as an aphrodisiac. During our time together, Mehri used it in everything we ate and drank: from infusing a few strands in a pot of tea to pouring a generous amount of saffron liquid into Gheimeh, a lamb, split pea and dried lime stew, and using it as a marinade for Jujeh kabob, tender young poussin barbecued over hot coals.
With a small cache of saffron wrapped up in my bag as a parting gift, I headed into the city of Isfahan to find out more about this artistic jewel of the Islamic world, and to visit the home of Faranak Evaghi, a design teacher at the local art college. Faranak and I cooked Ghormeh sabzi, a rich herb-based lamb stew with red kidney beans and dried limes. And as we dry fried herbs for the sauce, we talked about the historyof the motifs used on the tiles, carpets, ceramics, brassware and murals that adorn Isfahan—especially the motif of the pomegranate. As an artist, Faranak draws on similar motifs in her own work: “Like many Iranians, pomegranates are my favourite fruit,” she explains. “I love the pomegranate tree and the way the blossom goes through so many different shades of pink and red on the way to becoming a pomegranate—the changing colours flicker like flames.”
Pomegranates have always been revered in Persian mythology. The hero warrior Isfandiar is said to have eaten the seeds of the pomegranate and become invincible, while ancient Persian Zoroastrian temples would line their gardens with pomegranates trees to symbolise eternal life. “We learn about the beauty of pomegranates from an early age in Iran,” Faranak says. “Sometimes people even call their children anargol, a term of endearment that means you are as beautiful as the flowers of the pomegranate.”
After lunch we walked through the winding, cobbled backstreets of Isfahan’s Jolfa district, home to the city’s old Armenian and Jewish communities, and filled with boutiques, coffee shops, patisseries and over a dozen churches. We stopped to sample the pale pink, sweet juice of the first pomegranates of the season and admire the gilded carvings and blue and gold tilework inside the 500-year-old Vank Cathedral. Central Isfahan is an architectural treasure-house, and as we wove our way back to the World Heritage-listed Naghsh-e Jahan square, passing beautiful boulevards, picturesque bridges, grand palaces and elegant mosques, it was easy to feel transported back to the glories of Isfahan’s 17th-century heyday, when it was the capital of the Safavid-led Persian empire.
My next stop, Shiraz, an ancient and majestic city that dates back at least four thousand years, built a reputation on its literature, poetry, culture and, at one time, its wine. Shirazi wine used to be the most famous in all of the Middle East and is frequently depicted in Iranian artwork and poetry. Recent archaeological discoveries have found evidence of wine-making in the region dating back to 4000 BC, making Shiraz one of the earliest wine producers in the world.
However, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the production of alcohol has been banned in Iran, so I knew I wouldn’t be visiting any vineyards on this trip. Instead, I happily set off to meet Shaheen Hojabrafkan, a family friend who works as a car salesman. Shaheen was taking me to his favourite hangout, a renowned kebab restaurant called Anaristan, perched high in the hills outside the city.
Anaristan means ‘pomegranate country’ in Farsi, and as we sat on the restaurant’s expansive open-air terrace, surrounded by pomegranate orchards, Shaheen talked of the times he’d eaten here with friends: “It was really fun to be here during the last World Cup,” he recalled. “We’d watch all the Iran games on big screens whilst eating our kebabs.” This time, we ordered the kashk-e badinjoon, a smokey aubergine dip topped with fried onions and kashk (fermented whey); as well as the restaurant’s speciality, Mast-e anar, a side dish of yoghurt with pomegranate and mint that was a delight alongside our lamb fillet kebabs.
A more traditional place to soak up the Shirazi spirit is the garden of Hafez, in the centre of the city, where the 12th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic is buried. It can be hard to explain the significance of Hafez to non-Iranians. He isn’t seen so much as a poet as a divine messenger. No household in Iran is without a copy of his Divan (collected works), which many people turn to whenever they have a problem or feel in need of guidance.
The Hafez garden is reportedly one of the best places in town to sample faloodeh, the iced rose water sorbet with vermicelli that the town is famous for, so we sat on the steps overlooking Hafez’s tomb, eating little bowls of the icy dessert and watching a steady stream of Iranians of all ages and backgrounds walk up to the tomb to pay their respects and offer prayers to this ancient Sufi poet.
With the taste of rose water lingering in my mouth long after we had finished the faloodeh, I pondered how deeply embedded the rose is in Persian culture. Roses are indigenous to the country, and the process of distilling the essential oils from the flowers (attar) to make perfume and rose water was first developed in Shiraz. In Persian literature, the rose is the symbol of the beloved and is often paired with the nightingale, a bird whose yearning for the rose in Sufi mysticism serves as a metaphor for the soul’s yearning for union with God.
Sitting in the sunny Hafez garden, I was overwhelmed by the romanticism of a culture that holds a simple sweet-smelling flower in such high esteem, derives such pleasure from producing intricate artwork and takes such solace in enchanting poetry.