Unexpected Silver -- Mark Lutz on cooking in Iran
By Mark Lutz
The soldiers were the first thing I noticed as we approached the stout, ocre walls of the border station. Not the soldiers themselves - all were dressed in identical desert camo uniforms, polished AK-47’s slung across their backs - but the sheer number of them. What a terrible first impression, I thought, worried that all the rumors, media-hype, and state department fear-mongering had actually been true for once. Under the raging desert sun, and between two razor-wire topped fences, our bizarre caravan of cyclists and Sprinter vans idled awkwardly, the soldiers eyeing us curiously. Uncomfortable would be an apt word to describe the atmosphere. But then something miraculously unexpected happened: more soldiers appeared, wielding not automatic rifles, but silver platters of individually wrapped cakes and cold fruit drinks. They smiled and distributed their wares and shook our hands and invited us in to the checkpoint building. After several hours of paperwork and tea, we were free to continue on our way, and I began my month as an American chef working in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
I had no idea what to expect in Iran. I travel often for work, cooking for groups of long distance cyclists on cross-continental tours, and had been to some pretty far out and ‘generally regarded as unsafe’ places. For some reason, however, the thought of traveling through Iran on our Beijing to Istanbul route gave me pause, more than Sudan or Colombia ever had. Maybe it was the constant bombardment of news clips of burning American flags and giant ‘DOWN WITH USA’ murals I grew up watching on the evening news. Quite frankly, I was apprehensive.
We met our translator and fixer for the next month at the border. Hamed (name changed) was an Iranian-Kurd. He had spent his childhood in refugee camps, his family displaced during the Iraq-Iran conflict of the 1980’s. He had learned English from a Madonna cassette given to him by an aid working in the camp, and over the years had achieved fluency. Hamed’s story may have been unique, but his ability to speak English was not. Many Iranians speak English; the road signs are in both Farsi, the national language, and English, as were most shop signs and products sold in stores. My attempts to learn Farsi were generally unnecessary, as most responses to my desecration of the Iranian language were in English.
Hamed was wonderful - kind, generous, intelligent, curious, and proud- traits I ultimately found in almost every Iranian I encountered. I spent a lot of time with him. He guided me through market stalls full of an incredible assemblage of agricultural products, bakeries churning out bread in variations alien to me, and tiny restaurants with Persian dishes crafted over millennia. I was lucky enough to be cooking in Iran through September, and many of the best crops were coming into season - melons, pomegranates, apricots, apples, all bursting with a flavor and sweetness you can taste only at peak season. Hamed and I perused the wholesale markets of Gonbad, where the traders refused to let me pay and insisted on a group photo. We visited the bustling bakeries of Bojnurd, where bakers enveloped in white clouds of flour poured loose blobs of very wet dough onto hot gravel to make Sanjak, a focaccia-textured Iranian bread. We camped in an apple orchard one night, where the resident beekeeper shared his pink-speckled green apples, and cut thick slabs of honeycomb for us to eat with sticky fingers. “This honey isn’t a gift from me” he waxed, “it is a gift from God; I am merely the conduit.”
One night, over dinner at a restaurant in Tehran called Khoone (Farsi for “like home”), we were joined by several of Hamed’s friends. We simultaneously dug into bowls of tachin, an aromatic and texturally-thrilling baked rice dish, and the Iranian political and social situation. “Ninety five percent of the Iranian population does not love our government. We don’t love the American government either, but there is no animosity toward the American people.” Hamed explained how the vast majority of Iranian people want to be part of a global community, to freely enjoy the foreign goods and culture they had been forcibly segregated from for decades. The strict religious and moral codes were generally unpopular. My girlfriend, who was traveling with me at the time, recounted a tale about meeting a mother and daughter, and them asking her opinion of the headscarf she was obligated to wear: “It’s not so bad,” she told them. “Talk to us after wearing it for twenty years,” was the response.
People had been encouraged by the newly ratified “Iran-deal” (now since scrapped), and saw a path toward a gradual, but peaceful change in government. Our dinner hosts told us that there had been undercurrents of revolutionary talk during the Arab Spring of 2011, but it was ultimately felt that the stakes were too high and the outcome too unpredictable. “We looked to our neighbors in the west (Iraq and Syria), and what had become of their states, and thought ‘We don’t want that’”
The next evening, myself, my girlfriend, and a coworker took a very long taxi ride across the city. Tehran is massive and quite cosmopolitan in parts, with a population of 15 million people and an area to match. Hamed had invited us to a party at his girlfriends house. We arrived first, and were treated to a smoked eggplant dip - Kashke Bademjan - and cocktails made with either Chinese knockoff Johnny Walker or aragh, a raisin based moonshine, legally produced but illegally distributed by the Iranian-Armenian Christian population of Iran. Hamed’s friends streamed in over the course of the night, and by about 11 pm approximately 20 people had congregated in the 5th story walk up apartment. I found myself in conversation with a young professor who was at the party, as he articulated his views on US-Iranian relations: “The United States and Iran are like families in two neighboring houses. The parents of the families are fighting; therefore, the kids cannot play together in the street.” The same professor messaged me on Whatsapp about two months later, the day after the 2016 presidential election; “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for both your country and mine.”
The next two weeks were as idyllic and eye-opening as one could hope for travelling anywhere. The hot dry days and cool autumn nights made for wonderful camping, the food only got better and better, and the kindness never evaporated. That being said, Iran is a country plagued with serious issues. Human rights travesties are the norm, with an oppressive and corrupt government. We were detained by the secret police on one instance, when a member of our convoy attached a GoPro to one of our vehicles for a time lapse, and we were released only when an English-speaking Tehranian intervened for us. Restrictions on Americans travelling in Iran have also increased since the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal - recent visitors have reported extremely stringent rules on movement and access.
Despite this, Iran remains one of my favorite travel destinations. I often wondered to myself what reaction an Iranian cycling or driving through the United States would illicit - would the meals be free, as they were for me? Would people stop them in traffic to offer gifts of fruit and pastries? We all know the answer. However, maybe someday, we can at least play in the street together.