And there it is: on the table, at the summer's equator, a tomato – an earthen sphere, a fertile and repeated star – reveals its folds and channels, its renowned fullness, its abundance free of pits and peels, thorns and scales. It's the tomato's gift to us, this fiery color and undiminished freshness.
“Ode to the Tomato” Pablo Neruda
There are at moments of respite in Iran,when the three jobs most ordinary Iranians have to take to put bread on the table are momentarily forgotten at the end of the work-day (or night), and pleasures of the sense take over. And there are so many simple things upon which the senses can feast. Our voluptuous music seduces and our language dances on the tongue. The cool oceanic tiled surfaces of our public buildings invite the eyes to linger. We love to touch: from the tactile feast that is the bas-relief of Persepolis on silky black stone to the indulgence of vintage “termeh” fabrics handed down from family to family.
But the senses we most celebrate are our sense of smell and our sense of taste. Musk and ambergris (moshk va anbar), sandalwood and myrrh (sandal va morr) are the more exotic fragrances so frequently mentioned in our poetry and our folktales. But there are simpler joys too; there are orange and almond blossoms, the essence of sweetbrier (nastaran) and Egyptian willow (beedmeshk), tea-rose and aghaghia, the generous scent of fresh mint and basil and fenugreek and dill. Even the native names tickle the senses, or perhaps it is memory that lends such splendor to these simple everyday perfumes.
We also love to eat, and the greatest pleasures of gluttony are so abundant in Iran that not even Rosa Montazami's venerable cookbook could scratch the surface -notwithstanding all the Western recipes in her cookbooks, and the post-revolutionary disappearance of sherry, wine, and ham from her recipes. In fact, no cookbook can capture the pleasures of taste we so easily take for granted in Iran. Grilled corn (balal) at dusk, with burnt surfaces and kernels bursting with their creamy gifts, and heaven is when the young boy (the corn-sellers are usually young boys) dips the sizzling corn-on-the cob in the dirty saltwater with bits of burnt husk and kernel floating on the surface. And when you bite into the hot corn, it burns the roof of your mouth.
And in the winter, we celebrate the boiled sugar beets sold out of carts on the corner of the street, and you peel back the darkened harsh skin with your thumb, and underneath, the luscious scarlet flesh of the beet invites you to bite, steam in the frozen air, and there is rarely a taste as sweet. I think even Samad Behrangi has written -in one of his short stories- a quiet ode to sugar beets in the winter.
What cookbook would -or could- write of the crunchy bitter kiss of unripe almonds (isn't that what choghaleh badam is?), or the sour embrace of greengage (gojeh-sabz) with salt? My favorite are fresh walnuts in salt water, the brown skin peeling back, and naked, the walnut flirts with you, offering the fragrant white flesh, the sinuous folds like the pleats of a virginal gown. Most of these fruits don't really have names in English, only approximation, which makes them the mysterious markers of our memories.
Does anyone know what a zalzalak is called in English? My dictionary said plums, but the sweet velvety flesh of those tiny little gifts of mysterious trees does not taste like any plum I have ever had. And -so far away from home- albaloo becomes sour cherries and naranj, sour orange; though I have to confess that the California imitation of these two native fruits has been surprisingly and nostalgically authentic.
I miss desperately the cucumbers with their hard flesh and intense flavor. The watery giant cucumbers here just have no taste (like almost all other engineered and denatured and castrated fruits in this country), and the small, pencil-thin Lebanese version is hard to come by, even here in New York. When last year, I returned to Iran for the first time in 12 years, my relatives were astonished by the greed with which I devoured kilo after kilo of albaloo and cucumber with mounds of salt. I got so many stomach-aches due to “sardi kardan” (the amazing logic of sardi and garmi – or cold-natured and warm-natured foods- shall one day be elucidated by science, I am sure), that my concerned aunts always had some warm-natured food around as cure. Nabat-dagh (hot water with dissolved crystals of candied sugar) is just so superior to sugar-water, even if it is only memory that lends it that unique taste. With this rambling love song to street foods as a preamble, here I shall serenade my four most favorite Iranian edibles.
The taste of bread throughout Iran varies just so slightly that I wish I could live long enough to travel from city to city and village to village tasting the native breads. And it saddens me to reduce them all to “flat bread” when I try to describe them outside the borders of Iran. Watching the baking of bread in those old shops where the baker extends his unprotected hand into the hot oven and sticks the dough to the wall of the oven amazed me as a child. And during the years of shortages and food- coupons, standing in line for bread -at sunrise or sunset- always seemed the most enjoyable of chores, as we got to watch the deft movements of these silent men and their magical hands.
Of all the varieties of breads, the divine sangak is the best early in the morning -specially in the winter-, when the air is not yet polluted and in the bitter cold, you can grip tight the small pebbles picked from the back of the bread, hot from the oven, to lessen the blaze of the frost on your fingertips. I remember with envious longing devouring those rich breakfasts of fresh cream (sarsheer) and halva perfumed with pistachios and sesame in small bites of hot sangak so frequently in a week. Womanly age and womanly hips now prevent me from such excesses of decadence simply to allay my hunger at breakfast and where can one find sarsheer here anyway?
Then there are other feasts. The fleshy sour-dough barbari bread -whether crisp or chewy- is amazing with butter and honey, its thickness lending itself to loving squeezes and to being torn apart between happy fingers; whereas the paper-thin lavash is handled gently, lest it tear, and it is heaven with the very Shirazi cumin spiced cheese crumbs. We Iranians so respect the sanctity of bread that I don't ever recall having thrown any bread away while living in Iran. Dried bread is broken into pieces into abgusht (a traditional soup) in the winter, or the poor man's feast, ab-doogh-khiar (cucumber and mint in buttermilk), in the summer. And the very driest stale bread is given to those old men on their clunky bicycles who still ride in the streets of the smaller towns and South Tehran and call out -in sad sing-song voices- for old bread.
Haleh-hooleh (junk food)
When on sunny Fridays we drove to our pear and cherry orchard in Shandeez, a small village outside Mashhad, I would cling expectantly and longingly to the window and star at all the small shops and stalls displaying those appetizing sheets of plum and albaloo roll-ups all Iranian children covet, lavashak. My parents seldom stopped to buy us any, and the clamor of flies around those exposed sweet sheets should have been warning to us; but they weren't. By some strange logic, the best lavashak, the sourest, the most face-scrunch- inducing, was always the most polluted and dirty. In fact, even last year, in a guilty and secret fulfillment of a long-denied pleasure, at a small stall outside the Tehran bazaar, I bought the least hygienic bundle of sour- plum lavashak and devoured it with such relish that I noticed a few passerbys snickering at me.
Iranian junk food ranges from the respectable -watermelon and pumpkin seeds, tamarind, dried albaloo and dried mulberry- to the downright frightening. The unique qare-qoroot, which can look like a pale piece of halva or a chunk of tar, is a dairy product, though its parentage is somewhat dubious. But it tastes so delicious, so sour, that when you take a bite, you can feel the pangs of sourness right behind your ears and at the joint of your jaws.
Ice-cream and faloodeh
As a Shirazi, I think I have inherited a genetic penchant for sour and tart and salty food, but I will bow with humility to the blissful Iranian ice-cream and even more so to faloodeh. No Iranian who has spent a hot summer day wandering in the bookshops near the University of Tehran will deny him or herself the pleasure of the faloodeh or ice-cream at a small shop right off Enqelab Square where the ice-cream is rich and sweet and the faloodeh has the perfect consistency. My favorite ice-cream and faloodeh shop, though, is in Shiraz, as it rightfully should be. It is at the junction of Bazaar-e-Vakil and Sara-ye- Moshir, and it also sells the spring-water of paradise, the various araqs, or essences of spearmint, and orange-blossom and Egyptian willow, in tall clear bottles, and it also severs the crunchiest, sweetest, least starchy faloodeh on earth with fresh lime juice which smells of Jahrom nights and star-drenched skies.
Fruits of paradise
But my most favorite of Iranian edibles are the three fruits of paradise; quince, persimmon, and pomegranate. When my mother would make quince marmalade at home, I would sneak chunks of raw quince when she wasn't paying attention. The texture of quince on the tongue is something like a hearty exotic apple and it reminds you of autumn and of childhood. I fondly recall the sure-fire cure for sore-throats when I was a kid: hot water softening the gelatinous seeds of quince that soothes and coats the throat in a way that would make Robitussin green with envy.
Persimmon can always be a surprise. It glazes the tongue and paralyzes the taste-buds when not mature; but ripe persimmon is luscious, gliding in a velvety dance along the tongue and down the throat, leaving its distinct fragrance behind long after it is swallowed. Pomegranate is something else altogether. Some say that this fruit, the symbol of fertility and love, originated in Iran and was taken to the West during the wars between the Persians and the Greeks. The Greeks coveted the fruit to such extent that it came to be Aphrodite's fruit, thrown recklessly to the recipients of her love and grace.
I believe -deep in my heart- that Eve could not have seduced Adam with the plain and boring apple. She probably handed him the pomegranate, and once the blushing armor of the fruit was peeled back, Adam found himself powerless facing the treasure of those numerous oval rubies tumbling and cascading in scarlet glory. Avicenna's Canon lists all the ailments for which the pomegranate is the cure, and among them are scorpion-bites, anxiety and fever. In our national dish, fesenjan, pomegranate juice adds magic and refinement to walnut and chicken. And I have to yet acquire the secret recipe for pomegranate soup that makes an unfertile womb fruitful and an impotent man lustful.
Raw untreated pomegranate is the best, and until recently, I used to devour it with copious quantities of salt. Seeding pomegranates is something of an endeavor, and I always end up getting pomegranate juice splashed all over my tiny kitchen, but the ecstatic bursting of the seeds between the tongue and the roof of the mouth is so well worth the effort. Recently, I discovered yet another variation on the symphony of taste that is pomegranate: a friend suggested pomegranates with golpar -and although I had been used to golpar in torshi and on top of hot fava beans, I had to try this one. The taste was a lovely gift… Try it. It tastes of cold winters under the korsi, of longing, of vastness of forgotten memories, of flavors of nostalgia.