What happens when a teenaged American girl is uprooted from her Brooklyn home and moved to Iran right after the fall of the Shah?
I shish you not, when I first stepped foot in Iran my jaw dropped to the sandy floor because of the Third World foods being prepared for sale in restaurants and kiosks. In my mind, the odors of intestines, brains and tongues of sheep could possibly cause nerve damage. I could hear people smelling this repugnant odor and saying “Piffff peefff!” (which is also similar to the name of a pest control killer in Iran). The odors are a perfect match! I would put it down in the “disgusting national dish” category. After tasting pig feet in the US I was ready to surrender to any particular and subjective parts of an animal—until it came to eating the head or the tangible IQ of a mammal.
The first day I landed in Tehran my parents didn’t spare me from eating a healthy and nutritious breakfast. I wasn’t expecting an ordinary diner with scrambled eggs and toast but I also wasn’t expecting a sheep’s head on a platter with the sheep’s dangling eyes looking straight at me either.
My face was in puke mode but I tried to act like this is not the actual head of an animal in front of me. It wasn’t easy! My mother decided to tell the waiter to bring it out disassembled (not in face format) with lots of garnish. It still didn’t seem like I was eating a juicy sausage and egg breakfast sandwich, but it didn’t seem so gross either. The key to success was to forget the name of the object in front of you! The “face” meat is like white meat and tastes tender, the tongue was similar to roast beef, the brain tasted bland similar to feta cheese, and everyone at the table was raving about the eyeballs I had yet to try. Gathering my courage, my eyelids slowly closed into the darkness while I pushed a sheep’s eye down my human throat. I had to push it with full muscular strength because it definitely wasn’t “the best part of waking up!”
Piffff peefff can be compared to a late night splurge at an American Taco Bell after a long night of drinking. If you know what’s good for you—have some Kaleh Pache in the early dawn while still boozed out after club hours!
As for the remainder of the Persian dishes I have only two words: turmeric and saffron. Unless you grew up in Los Angeles (aka Tehran-geles), one probably has no idea what Persian food is. It is far different from Arabic dishes and it’s the only Middle Eastern cuisine with proper use of pomegranate juice, cardamom, rosewater and pistachios. It’s a particular comfort food, yet very classic at the same time; with high price tags on some!
Battling between my Eastern and Western-trained taste buds, the East was proving victorious over my former appetite of pizza bagels and mac and cheese. The dishes had become a travelogue of different places I hadn’t explored once present in this graceful country.
The beloved dish of many Iranians was Ghorme Sabzi which you could literally eat as the world rushes by. Served over fragrant basmati rice, the stew is a concert of flavors from fresh herbs, dried lime, saffron, tender lamb and kidney beans. Perfecting this culinary challenge is not only worth the effort, but it will quickly qualify you as a contestant on the “The Iranian Bachelor.” It will also score points in the domestic bliss category. The stew is“slurry” but not a “soupy” mixture and looks like a mixture of grass and beans. The stew is served over basmati rice and will have you consuming two or more portions if you are not careful.
These were some traditional and custom-protected Iranian dishes not found in neighboring countries like Lebanon or Turkey. We all know about the famous kebabs which are formulated with different meat mixtures and presented differently by the different people of those regions, so the kebab is no surprise.
The food journey in Iran could entice every cell in your body and take you into deep foodie pits leading to high frequency cultural discoveries—one existing in every crack of this country! And remember there is no wine menu; if you forget, just refer to the restaurant’s bold headline statement: “The ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN!”
SHAGHAYEGH FARSIJANI is a former reporter and anchor, turned author and poet. She was taken back to Iran at age 15 when her father made the unilateral decision to uproot the family from Brooklyn, New York. Upon her return, she traveled the world extensively and decided to share her story as a young woman during some of the most heated years in Iran’s modern history. She reveals how female teenagers adapt and conform to life in an oppressive society while going through its many obstacles.