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Iran - Eating and sleeping
Iranian cuisine is one of the world’s finest, an intriguing mixture of sweet and sour that owes nothing to the Chinese version. Iranian khoresht – stewed dishes of meat and fruit – may sound uninspiring but wait until you’ve tried duck or chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce (fesenjan), lamb with morello cherries or apricots, beef or lamb with spinach and prunes (aloo) and chicken and zereshk (barberries), etc. Delicious. Also try abgoosht (literally water-meat), or dizzi stew served in a jug-like container with a pestle and commonly available even at bus station restaurants. This is a concoction of slowly simmered pulses, meat and vegetables. When in Esfahan, try beryani, boiled lamb meat minced and fried with onion and spices. Saffron (in particular from Mashhad) itself is a very common ingredient that you will even taste in chicken kebab and rice.
White rice and bread are the staple foods. A delicious change is rice with butter slowly steamed until a crunchy, caramelised layer is formed. Traditional Iranian salads or servings of fresh mint leaves are called sofreh and traditional restaurants are then often called sofrehknaneh, meaning a ‘house of sofreh’.
Abdoughkhiar is a cold dough-based soup with cucumber: absolutely delicious and a must-try on a hot summer day. It is a vegetarian dish and so is keshk-e bademjan, a grilled aubergine dish eaten as a thick dip with fresh bread and is an all-time classic. Keshk is one of the Iranian specialities. A similar dish, halim-e bademjan, aubergine mashed with lentils and meat, is common for lunch. Saffron (in particular from Mashhad) itself is a very common ingredient that you will even taste in chicken kebab and rice. There is also a great variety of regional dishes.
And of course there’s the originally Shirazian sweet delight of falludeh ice, a sorbet with wispy ‘noodle’-like strands, served with lime juice and ice cream. One of the joys of visiting Iran is sitting eating falludeh, sipping tea or smoking a pipe in the attractive surroundings of a historic tea house. Gooshfil deep fried and poolaki caramelised sugar sweets are also widely popular.
During Ramadan, most restaurants serve special dinners for ending the day’s fast, known as iftar. These are usually buffet-style or consist of a set of small dishes and start with sweet starters, such as figs, baklava and watermelon.
All alcohol is banned in Iran although the Christian communities, in Esfahan for example, are allowed wine strictly for communion use. However, Iran’s famous vineyards are now being recultivated after most were uprooted in revolutionary zeal; the grapes are for eating, and for the production of grape juice, syrups and vinegar. Iranian (non-alcoholic) beer is drinkable at best, though Delster is just about palatable if well chilled. A very passable non-alcoholic ‘lager’ is Bavaria, now imported from Dubai.
Local carbonated soft drinks, such as cola and Fanta, tend to sweetness, and the fruit juices, either freshly pressed or in cartons, are more thirst quenching, such as pomegranate juice (ab anar), cantaloupe melon (talebi) juice, and carrot juice with a scoop of ice cream (ab havich bastani) from fruit-juice shops. The refreshing, pressed-lime sodas of pre-revolutionary Iran are are slowly making a comeback and are sold in the streets (where you get it cheaper if drinking on the spot and returning the bottle) or local eateries. Another refreshing drink, dough (yoghurt and water), is available.
The bumgardis (or ‘ecolodges’) offer traditional, authentic and a very affordable way to experience the country. Quality and comfort differ substantially and accommodation ranges from very basic to traditionally and finely decorated with taste and attention to local traditions and culture. A bumgardi usually implies a traditional house of five to ten rooms grouped around an inner courtyard with a small pool (khowz) and often a few fruit trees. Roll-up mattresses (lahaf toshak) are usually used for sleeping, and toilet and shower facilities are typically separate.
The mosafirkhanehs (literally ‘traveller’s place’) catering for Iranian nationals also accept foreign tourists, but remember little English is spoken, and facilities are usually very basic. Single female travellers should also bear in mind that most mosafirkhaneh guests are male. Check the room and think whether saving a few dollars is really worth it (though you could always have a scrub-down next day in the local hamam or bathhouse; a real cultural experience). Tourist Inns (hotel jahangardi) offer more than adequate accommodation, usually with private facilities and there tends to be an inn in most Iranian cities.
Then there are standard and traditional hotels. Most ‘two-star’ (very basic) hotels will have rooms with private (mainly squat style) facilities. Prices are fixed according to demand rather than a regulated system linked with an internationally recognised hotel ‘star’ rating.
No youth hostels affiliated to Hostelling International are available in Iran, but a few hostels welcoming foreign travellers and married and female locals have now taken over the backpacker travel niche. While camping or staying in a stationary vehicle overnight will arouse great suspicion, camping in the vicinity of Iranian campers is acceptable. For staying in the desert, there are various camps in the dunes with basic facilities in situ.