I was nervous as I paced the international airport in Mashhad. It was hot in the arrivals lounge and my woollen hijab and mantu were making me sweat. I was about to meet my partner’s parents for the first time.
When they finally emerged, two tiny stooped frames lugging one giant black suitcase from snow-bound Kabul, my nerves were immediately assuaged by Mustafa’s mum Zahra’s contagious smile.
Back at the hotel, when Zahra unpacked their suitcase in the lounge room I got a surprise. Instead of clothes, she pulled out piles of cucumbers, bananas, tomatoes, fresh pomegranates from Kandahar – the best in the world – and phials of saffron from Herat.
Next to emerge were plastic bags of green and black tea, pistachios (soaked in lemon juice), fresh walnuts, peanuts and one colossal bag brimming with toot (dried mulberries). The clothes took up a little pile in the corner of the bag, dwarfed by the fresh produce.
“I told them we could buy all this here,” Mustafa said to me in English, a little frustrated. It was my introduction to Afghani/Irani food culture. Fresh, simple, natural foods rule the day.
In fact when I lost my head in a Mashhad patisserie days later and brought home a giant box filled with exquisitely crafted pastries, Mustafa’s parents refused to touch them. “Too sweet,” they said, bypassing the decadent shirini for oranges and walnuts.
Mustafa’s parents taught me an important rule: in this part of the world, tea is king. At the hotel every morning we sat on the floor and Zahra rolled out a sofreh. We filled two large thermoses one with black tea and one with green, to be consumed with freshly baked crunchy sangak or barbari (Irani flat breads) and cheese. Each morning I would re-fill both thermoses at least twice; chai zeeard anyone?
We flavoured the tea with pale pink gole mohammadi (Mohammadi rose buds), cardamom pods and saffron. Luxurious saffron is a vital commodity in Iran and Afghanistan and is considered to have many health benefits. The Mashhad region is prime saffron country but a struggling economy has seen many farmers swap saffron (which is labour intensive) for pistachio nuts.
Nonetheless, when we visited Reza Bazaar in Mashhad, near the famous Imam Reza Shrine, we still found shops selling purely saffron. Soft pyramids of the red stigmas sat serenely on white place cloths. Farmers from the ancient town of Neyshabur wandered in to sell their harvest as we purchased a modest supply.
After a week with Mustafa’s charming parents, drinking tea, cracking nuts and wolfing down chelow kabab, we caught the train to Tehran, a 10 hour trip across almost empty desert, bordered by snow-capped mountains.
My partner grew up in Iran and his friends welcomed us to the capital in style. On our first night in the city they took us to Bam-e-Tehran (The Roof of Tehran) on the slopes of Mount Tochal.
It was cold on the mountain and we downed steaming hot bowls of ash while sipping tea and gazing at the glittering lights below. Ash is a popular Persian noodle soup served with a big dollop of yoghurt. The soup is heavily flavoured with herbs like coriander and parsley and has much in common with ghormeh sabzi, one of Iran’s best loved dishes (apart from chelow kabab).
We got the opportunity to sample home-cooked ghormeh sabzi when Mustafa’s friend Jahwad invited us to his house for a dinner party. I sat there, a pampered guest, downing a small mountain of sweet pastries and European chocolates while Shamzee prepared a delicious sabzi.
She combined lamb with turmeric and fresh herbs – coriander, fenugreek, parsley and chives in a giant pot and then added tomato paste and dried lemons. She let the stew brew for a long time. And I mean a long time.
Iranis don’t eat until late. When we sat down for dinner at 11 pm I was semi-catatonic but Shamzee and Jahwad’s beautiful young daughter Nazaneem was still leaping about the furniture like a cat.
Shamzee served dinner on a 4 m long sofreh to accommodate the 15 guests. To accompany the sabzi, Shamzee and the other women had prepared huge platters of rice, flavoured with saffron, fresh flat breads and, individual bowls of Shirazi salad (a simple salad of finely diced cucumber, tomato, onions and lemon juice).
The meal was delicious, filled with fragrant delicate flavours. Obviously I asked if I could move in.
The next day when Jahwad’s charming employee, Mona took us to Imamzadeh Dawood (a village built around a shrine in the Tehrani mountains) I was keen to sample more local treats. We crunched through the snow to reach market stalls selling large flat squares of dried fruit, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, olives and pickled vegetables.
To escape the cold we slipped into a restaurant above the markets where we scoffed chelow kabab – lamb kebab served with grilled tomato, fresh onion and Afghani flatbread.
And of course tea. It wouldn’t be Iran without a pot of fragrant tea to share among friends.
This article was first published Oct 2019