“Iranian hospitality has stolen our hearts”
By Muslim and Nevin Harji
Editor’s Note: Muslim and Nevin Harji of Montreal, PQ, Canada, have returned from an extensive trip through Iran where they felt the warmth of the Iranian people and experienced their rich culture. They recently shared their magnificent collection of photos with their relatives and friends around the world, including Simerg. With the Harjis’ permission, we are now sharing their story and photos with our world-wide readers in two parts. In this first instalment, we present a portrait of the deeply affectionate Iranian people and their simple, yet delightful, foods. In the second instalment, we will be showing some of the architectural splendours of Iran along with a unique selection of photos of the legendary and historical fortress of Alamut, where Ismaili rule lasted for over one hundred and fifty years after the fall of the Fatimid Empire. An account of their adventure follows.
During October 2012 we made an extensive and exhaustive four week trip through Turkey and Iran, with a brief stopover in Dubai. We used only local means of transportation – local trains, Savaris (equivalent to Kenya’s matatu), local buses, long distance buses (Volvos or Mercedes VIP buses), metros, ferry boats and anything that had wheels or could float. We spent the first few days in Istanbul where we visited the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
THE SCENIC TRAIN RIDE
From Istanbul, we took the “midnight express” to Tehran. The five-day journey took us across the whole of Turkey’s Anatolia plains, across Lake Van (the site of the recent earthquake) on a rickety ferry, into Northern Iran and finally to Tehran. We have travelled by train in China, Africa, India, South East Asia, Europe, Canada, the United States and many other places in the world, but this train ride from Istanbul to Tehran was astounding and topped them all (with the exception of the Via Rail ride through the Canadian Rockies).
OUR MONTH LONG JOURNEY
When we arrived in Tehran we found it to be a bustling, fast moving city with a population of 16 million people, and with the craziest drivers in the world. After a few days in Tehran, we ventured up North into the Alborz Mountain range to the quaint village of Ghazor Khan, the base of the historic Alamut Castle. The next morning we trekked up to Alamut Castle – quite an uphill hike! From Alamut, we bussed back to Esfahan via Tehran. Naqshe-e-Jahan, the heart of Esfahan, is surrounded by the Char Baghs and is one of the most wonderful sights we have ever seen. No words can describe this heaven on earth. From there, we crossed through Southern Iran to Shiraz via Yazd, Chak Chak, and Persopolis, and after just about a month on the road, took a flight home via Dubai in early November.
PORTRAITS FROM IRAN
Iran is full of rich culture and history with contributions in all facets of human progress and endeavour – in science, math, logic, poetry, engineering; the people of Iran have a love for nature; parks and gardens abound, and families picnic in the parks; the Iranian people have a love of humanity – they are outgoing, friendly, generous to each other as well as to visitors; they are also deeply passionate with deep running emotions, they are fun loving and full of spirit; everyone recites and writes poetry.
There are no words to describe the hospitality, kindness, love and gentleness of the Iranian people. So far we have ventured into over forty countries, but never have we experienced such generosity. Our bodies may be back in Montreal, but Iranian hospitality has stolen our hearts which are probably somewhere either in Esfahan or Shiraz.
THE FOODS OF IRAN
As a general description, food in Iran tends to be colorful, healthy and simple. Taste is added via herbs, light spices and fruit and the resulting dishes are mild as opposed to spicy. To taste true Iranian food, it is necessary to eat at an Iranian’s home. Most restaurants in Iran limit the food they sell to different types of kebabs and there is, therefore, very little variety.
Nan Sangak (stone bread), is the most famous and most delicious Iranian bread. Nan Sangak is baked over hot small pieces of rocks/stones. Nan or Noun in Persian language means bread, and Sang means rock or stone. Iranians eat most of their traditional foods with Nan Sangak. Iranians love Nan Sangak for breakfast, lunch and dinner! There are Nan Sangak bakeries in every corner of every street, thus Iranians rarely make nans at home.
One of the distinctions of the Iranian cuisine is the subtlety of the seasonings, which limits the use of garlic so as not to offend others. Onions and garlic are used only with discretion, but cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, saffron, paprika, nutmeg, turmeric and dill are used with artistry: never overpowering, always gently enhancing the main ingredients.
To balance the natural sweetness of fresh and dried fruits used so often in cooking, the Iranian cook adds judicious amounts of tartness by using one of the following: VERJUICE, the sour juice of unripe grapes, lemon or lime juice, strips of dried limes, dried tangerine peel or tamarind. Powdered SUMAC, with its chili-powder appearance and sour taste, is a seasoning often used for broiled meats. Pomegranate juice and seeds are often used both for color and tartness.
The climate of the Middle East is conducive to growing fruits, and the orchards and vineyards of Iran produce fruits of legendary flavor and size. These are not only enjoyed fresh and ripe as desserts, but are also imaginatively combined with meats and form unusual accompaniments to main dishes.
While the eggplant is the “potato of Iran,” Iranians are fond of fresh green salads dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and a little garlic. Vegetables such as pumpkins, spinach, string beans, varieties of squashes and carrots are commonly used in rice and meat dishes.
Dizi, or Ab-Goosht, is one of the most traditional Iranian food, that is eaten with Nan Sangak. Goosht in Persian language means meat, and Ab means water, so Ab-Goosht means water and meat. It is cooked mainly by boiling beans and legumes, meat, potato, tomato, onion, and a lot of water. Eating Dizi has its own tradition and techniques! You must soak your nan in the sauce of dizi and enjoy it with soft-boiled meat and vegetables on the side.
IRAN’S NATIONAL BEVERAGE
The national beverage of Iran is sweet, clear tea, often sipped through a sugar cube. Sweet tea starts the day, breaks the work hours, may accompany social or business engagements and sometimes meals.
Date posted: Monday, February 20, 2012
Last updated: Thursday, February 24, 2012.
Next (Week of February 27, 2012): The Ismaili Fortress of Alamut.
© Copyright: Muslim/Nevin Harji. February 2012.
About the writers: Nevin and Muslim Harji live happily in Montreal, where, over the last 35 years, they have raised two children and run a successful business. Upon retirement in 2004, Muslim and Nevin truly started to explore the world. All told, together and individually, they have visited more than 40 countries around the globe, experiencing the beauty of the Middle East, the exoticism of Asia and the wonders of South America. Kayaking the Magellan Straights, exploring Palmyra by camel, hiking up to Alamut Fort in Iran or travelling by overnight train in India, Nevin and Muslim have always favoured unique ways of experiencing the countries they visit and plan to continue fostering their love for travelling the world.
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