Persian culture

A delicate balance of sweet and sour in Tehran

The circumstance of finding yourself in a foreign kitchen and having an unrecognisable dish thrust in front of you is one that many travellers can relate to – even if it is at your grandparent’s home. 

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I’ve just landed at Tehran airport at 8pm on a warm September night. I’m hot and sticky and nervous about meeting relatives for the first time. The sweat dripping from my hairline alerts passers-by that I’m a foreigner who’s tied her hijab too tight — I should’ve listened to Mum when she was teaching me how to wear a head scarf. I look across at my brother with his free-flowing hair and I curse at him under my breath, merely for being a boy.

I’m hungry and sleepy and I start day dreaming about Mum’s Persian cooking. I wonder if Nan’s Persian food tastes the same. Later, when we arrive at my grandparents’ home I’m amazed to see metres of sofreh, Persian table cloth, running along the hallway. The sofreh is  lined with plates, spoons (the proper utensil for eating Persian rice) and hundreds of soft drinks in mini glass bottles. Along the middle there are pots of Persian khoroshtsstews, bowls of aromatic rice and platters of mouth-watering salads.

Suddenly, I feel overwhelmed.

The rest of the night becomes a blur of emphatic hugs and kisses from oversized women and hairy-armed men. I try reaching for familiar foods but before I can say, “which relative are you, again?” one of the women pours fesenjoon stew onto my plate. I can’t tell what’s in it but fearing that any hesitation will be interpreted as just plain rude I quickly take my first bite. I taste a delicate balance of sweet and sour flavours, and experience a surprising texture across my tongue. The woman tells me the dish, made up of creamy chicken, which has been slow-cooked in a broth of pomegranate molasses and perfectly balanced by the crunch of hidden walnut pieces, is reserved only for the most special occasions.

Suddenly my senses awaken — the intense flavours don’t just merely satisfy, but sate my foodie appetite. I realise I’ve had this dish before: perhaps Mum had prepared it for me when I was younger; or I’d tasted it at one of the many dinner parties we had in Sydney with Persian family friends. I’m not sure. All I know is that, in that very moment, I’m content and happy.  I may not be home but I know I’m somewhere truly special.

This short story is an edited version of my winning entry in the international World Nomads Passport and Plate Competition.

Image credit: Lonely Planet Iran

 


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