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Carpets and kebabs in Isfahan: Marryam H Reshii

March 17, 2013

Guest post by MARRYAM H RESHII

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I could write a book about my week in Iran, but will restrict myself to captioning these photographs I took.

The only two cities I visited were Mashad and Isfahan. Mashad is famous for two things. The shrine of the Eighth Imam of the Shia sect of Islam, Imam Reza, the only one out of all twelve Imams to actually be buried in Iran (all the others are buried in Saudi Arabia and Iraq) and saffron that grows far, far more plentifully than it does in Kashmir.

Mashad sells carpets woven/produced elsewhere. While the large carpets are traditionally Iranian, the small ones in frames are too suspiciously perfect to be made with human hand. Most of them have a plethora of shades of white in them, making the weaver something of a genius!

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After I returned from my trip, I cursed myself roundly for not having paid attention to the reverse side of these picture carpets. Perhaps, as whispers claim, they are made in China. Or maybe they are actually worth their weight in gold by being woven on a carpet look by a host of little old ladies who are half blind by now.

The single most difficult part of my trip was never taking my abbaya off. Ever. In Iran, the norm is the chador. A single, unstitched piece of cloth that has been cut on the cross (like an umbrella skirt), it is a nightmare to keep on all the time. Iranian women of a certain age have been wearing it for decades and the younger (35 years and under) just wear a short (sometimes rather tight) coat with a head scarf that reveals as much as it conceals of the hairstyle underneath. I only ever threw off my abbaya in the privacy of my hotel room.

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Ok. Kashmiris have zaarpaar. Iranians have tarof. Both mean the same: politeness demands that you pester your guest to eat more. Kashmiris win hands down: Iranians just ask you two or three times. Both are charming or irritating, depending on your perspective! We had been invited to the home of the gent on the left, a saffron grower in Torbat-e-Heyderieh, 2 hours away from Mashad. My companions had gone to check out the quality of his saffron and I had tagged along.

Rice (plain steamed) with a whole plate of tahdig (the fried crust at the bottom of the pan) was waiting for us, along with broiled lamb and raw greens, in this case onion and garlic leaves, but usually mint leaves and occasionally, fenugreek leaves too! More food was forced on all of us than we could possibly do justice too. The hostess (it would have been highly improper to take a photograph of her because of her venerable age) kept on her ‘house chador’, a black and white one, so I had to keep on my abbaya too, though we had lunch on the floor. Well, delicious as the food was, eating with a black cloak on was a first for me.

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Early November, Torbat-e-Heydarieh. But if you had showed me this picture and asked me to guess whether it was Pampore in Kashmir or Mashad in Iran, I would have probably guessed wrong! Both saffron fields are very similar, down to the mountains in the distance. The flowers bloom for just a few weeks and they have to be picked at the optimum stage in the ripening process. Iran grows approximately ten times the saffron that Kashmir does, and my companions for the day inspected what is poetically called a flower market (NO pictures PLEASE, glared the guard!) which consisted of a mandi or marketplace with about 200 growers with piles and piles of saffron blossoms, stigmas in place.

My friends just pulled one flower in each pile apart to know if it was the quality they were looking for. “Too short for us,” they’d mutter to each other. While I took this picture, our host at lunch knelt down on the mud and prayed the evening prayer. He reminded me so much of my own father-in-law, if only Dad would wear western trousers and a shirt instead of his habitual shalwar suit. Both had the same zany sense of humour (my companions were meticulous about translating every sentence anyone spoke in Farsi).

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High ceilinged, high domed, a wealth of handicrafts (tile work, gold leaf, mirror work, stone inlay) put together seamlessly so that far from looking like a quaint shop, it gives glory to God. Such is religious architecture. Imagine the scale of the Vatican, the soaring height of Meenakshi Temple, Madurai and the gompas of Ladakh, and you’ve just begun to get the picture of Imam Reza’s tomb in Mashad. It’s poetically beautiful, but its raison d’etre is to bring you a step closer to your Maker. All women have to wear chadors. Mere burqas and abbayas will not do. Which is why all the Kuwaiti and Iraqi pilgrims that swarmed my rather flashy hotel Ghasr Talaee two kilometres down the road from the shrine, arrived at breakfast with abbayas. Perhaps they visited the shrine regularly (being Shia, they probably would) and knew they had to bring chadors. There was a huge rush and a rather tight squeeze in our ladies’ section of the shrine, but never once was I pushed or felt that a stampede was about to take place. After my friend Toktam took me around the shrine (being young and fashionable, she had an even worse time with her chador than I had with mine), we sat on one of the fine carpets in the picture and remembered God. Toktam says that periodically, the carpets are auctioned to the public and rich Mashadis snaffle them up as a status symbol in their living rooms. “The carpet on which you’ve just dropped tea was once in Imam Reza’s shrine.”

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Outside Imam Reza’s shrine is a covered market selling exactly the sort of trinkets and baubles that Colaba Causeway/Lal Chowk/Palika Bazar specialise in. Even outside the market, dealers with a canny eye have spread their goods. I caught sight of this calligraphy shop, but the owner, a prayerful gent, simply shook his head when he figured out that we did not speak a common language. By then, I was alone; for the rest of my trip, I usually did have someone or the other with me. One practical reason why Iran is not a tourist country is that English is not spoken at all by shopkeepers. The other is that the currency is a nightmare. One lakh tomans is a tiny amount; my companions who were in Mashad on a saffron-procuring spree first had to wait for the market to open, the money market that is, find out that day’s dollar exchange rate and then commence trade.

Oh, and by the way, Twitter and Facebook are turned off in the WHOLE country! Being the Twitter addict I am, I had to have a proxy server installed in my laptop. I felt like a bit of a criminal!

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Another similarity between Iranians and Kashmiris. Give them any food in a restaurant as long as its local. Every last restaurant in Kashmir just has to sell wazwan dishes if it wants to be popular. In Iran, kebab is the raison d’etre for any restaurant, of any size or grandeur. In Mashad there are a couple of exceptions to this rule, but the glass mirrors of this restaurant I think are meant to replicate the craft of Imam Rezas’s shrine. Bakhtiari kebab (alternating pieces of lamb and chicken), logmeh kebab (minced lamb kebab with slashes made at intervals because logmeh means bite sized) and joojeh kebab (like the Indian chooza or chicken) – the fare in most restaurants runs to about eight items. That’s it. Soup, salad and dessert are usually on a tired buffet table, but the locals make a beeline for the kebabs the way Kashmiris head for the ristas and roghan josh!

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Isfahan is a centre of carpet weaving, so somehow I never saw any suspiciously intricate western design carpets hanging on the walls in frames. What this shop has, are piles upon piles of real Iranian rugs, some extremely fine, others more rough and tribal. Better than looking around (I am not a carpet freak) was talking to the sales people. Once I told my companion that every last carpet woven in Mashad has a tiny bit of turquoise blue in it, to replicate the Eighth Imam’s sister’s shrine’s dome, the sales people just petered out into silence, realising that I did know enough about the subject to not appreciate an incessant sales pitch.

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Mashadis know how to grow saffron, but Isfahanis know how to use it in their cooking. Another world away from the rather down to earth, stolid Mashadis, Isfahan restaurants (this one that Leila Vaezzadeh and I stumbled upon on our evening walk was the least grand of all the others we visited on our stay in that city) had a main course menu that consisted of aab gusht, that may sound the same as the Kashmiri dish, but was light years away. All the restaurants we visited in Isfahan had raised bed-like platforms to sit on. Your shoes remain on the ground. Cushions support your back. A cheap plastic one-time-use dastarkhan is spread by a waiter (some of the restaurants had waitresses too) and you eat off that, on plates, with cutlery. Any Kashmiri would have a tough time trying not to eat with his hands: squatting on the floor and eating with cutlery? I don’t know any Kashmiri who would be able to do it naturally!

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Aab gosht translates, less than fecilitously, to water meat. It is more descriptive of Iran’s meat, beans and potato dish than Kashmir’s far more refined lamb cooked in reduced milk, and no! It’s not just my prejudice. Iran’s homely dish is always cooked in a stone pot with a lid. The ones I saw in shops in Shandiz, a hill-station near Mashad that is reminiscent of Pahalgam, were made of a grey stone. All attempts at finding out what stone was used, met with failure. “Marmar,” was the invariable reply, which translates as “Stone”. Lamb, a cannellini-like bean, a few dried peas, a couple of whole potatoes peeled and a dried lime for sourness. I know it looks red, but there’s no trace of chilli in this, or any other Iranian dish I had during my all too brief one week. You eat the gravy mopped up with bits of lavash (identical to Kashmiri lavas) and then scoop up all the solid bits at the bottom of the aab gosht into the pewter bowl in the foreground, and pound it gently with a mallet-like object that restaurants and homes have on hand. You eat the mashed solids with sighs of delight. Unless you have tasted the superior version in Kashmir. In which case, you eat the mashed solids with a poker face.

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I’m pretty sure that I saw no fewer than three such domes, all virtually indistinguishable to my (untrained) eye. All three were in Isfahan. The reason why I was so taken with this image was because of a fascinating parallel with Kashmir. First of all, the Dargah at Hazratbal, Srinagar, also has a ‘crown of thorns’ around it, which a Kashmiri poet has immortalized in verse. Indeed, if you are a poet, scaffolding around a dome does look as if it is in pain of some kind. The second parallel is the proximity of the chinar tree. Not to denigrate Iran’s treeline at all, especially because Kashmir’s chinars were reportedly procured from Iran, but the sheer splendour of Kashmir’s chinars, the majesty of their countours, the way they dominate the landscape in most places in Kashmir simply leaves Iran’s chinars in the shade.

In case anyone’s counting, that’s two points to Kashmir (for aab gosht and chinar trees). One example will suffice. Every time I saw a dried brown chinar leaf on the pavement, I would involuntarily squeal with delight. Whoever it was who was accompanying me would question the fact that I knew about chinar trees and what’s more, gave a damn about them! In Mashad and Isfahan, chinar trees don’t grow as tall as their Kashmiri counterparts and do not have the autumn colours. Even the trunks are just regular brown, not the mottled brush-stroke multi-hues of a Kashmiri chinar. Can you even imagine a Kashmiri not knowing or caring about a chinar tree or not being able to recognize it when he saw a leaf on the pavement. The mind boggles!

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So this picture rights the balance in a couple of areas. Isfahan’s handicrafts beat the hell out of the ones in Kashmir. There’s no polite way of saying this. These are metal plates, with Islamic and Zoroashtrian motifs. Both lie completely unselfconsciously alongside each other, and chador-clad women and their bearded husbands have a 50-50 chance of buying one or the other. All the copper pots that you see behind the glass cupboard have been tinned from the inside. Yours very truly was happy to buy one. It is good for warming stews in it and cooking rice, but it is not one of those heavy bottomed vessels that you can pass on to your great-grand-daughter. I loved that devout Muslims had internalized their Zoroashtrian motifs to the extent that they may choose one over another that says, “Ya Allah”. That’s a culture that has my respect.

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The lovely – and classy – Leila Vaezzadeh would never dream of actually buying any of these trinkets. She and I trawled through the historic grand bazar of Isfahan, which is at least three centuries old and that forms a living heritage that has no parallel anywhere in the world. You see local families shopping for mops, kettles and chopped dried greens. You see trendy young things evaluating the relative merits of turquoise look-alike pendants versus ear-rings and you see Iranians buying Isfahani handicrafts and the irresistible chewy nougat called Gazz with gusto.

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What else does a poor restaurant critic do when she travels? She checks out the restaurant scene. This heritage restaurant could give our Rajasthani havelis a run for their money, and the unselfconscious way in which tradition and modernity march hand in hand left me wishing that we in India could match them. But of course we won’t. You have to be proud of your heritage for that. This restaurant, in a forgotten terrace in one corner of the unparalleled Grand Bazar, is exactly eleven years old. Like its other counterparts in Isfahan (at least those that we visited) this one too has beds on which to squat. Western style cutlery is the norm here too. The food was less than outstanding, let it be said: minced chicken and pounded cooked rice and another dish of smoked aubergine in a tomato sauce.

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The one seeming anomaly about Iranian ladies that I discerned is that while they are cloaked from head to toe in Islamic-compliant dress, they have a childlike delight in being photographed. These two young, lovely, and fashionably dressed ladies were posing besides a wall of an ancient Armenian Church to be photographed by a member of their group. When they saw me, camera at the ready, they happily presented their best profile to me, without a trace of self-consciousness. In India, and of course elsewhere, puritanical, rigid, retrogressive and burqa are quite often spoken of in the same sentence. That is why my week in Iran delighted me so: some of my carefully constructed prejudices melted away.

Women I met during my one week told me of the parties they routinely attend. They drive to the venue in full manteau and head scarf, to do a strip-tease at the host’s house. There is usually a room with a very large mirror where a gaggle of young ladies adjust their make-up, do up their hair and wear slightly more skimpy dresses than you’d see in other metropolitan cities. But then, life does have to offer some compensation, doesn’t it?

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The Isfahanis at their finest restaurant. Gracious, old and serving a far more refined menu than anything you’d get in poor, bucolic Mashad. There was a yellow paste, flavoured heavily with saffron and mixed with – heaven help us – sugar. Khoresht-e-Mast was the most unique thing I tasted in Iran. Its texture was silky, quite unlike anything I had ever tasted before or since. It was lamb pounded and pounded – rather like Kashmiri ristas and gushtabas – and mixed with yoghurt.

Fesenjoon was a chicken ‘curry’ (and I use the term in the loosest sense of the word, there being no trace of spice in the thick, clinging sauce) made with pomegranates and pounded walnuts. As Leila and I made our way back to the airport to catch our flight back to Mashad, we said goodbye to the elegant young lady who was our friend in Isfahan, and who had taken us to the best spots in her gracious city.

It must be a record of some sorts, but in the four times that I have flown into/out of Mashad, the plane never did quite manage to fly on the particular runway that gives an unimpeded view of the shrine of the Eighth Imam. I believe it is quite a sight to behold, and passengers in the know ask for seats on the appropriate side of the plane in anticipation.

Ah well. That – and a few other things – are some reasons I will have to go back to Iran for!

(Marryam H Reshii is a well-known food critic in Delhi. She is @reshii on Twitter.)

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Ishtiyaq permalink
    March 17, 2013 8:32 PM

    Awesome depiction of splendid culture. Thanks for sharing your experience Marryam….Found a strong connection with this transcript, me belonging to kashmir, finding the reference in every word of your note…

  2. Puja A.Jacob permalink
    March 18, 2013 9:54 AM

    Mashhad and Isfahan are really two wonderful cities of Iran. I have been to both and the hospitality of the people makes you feel like your at home. Fesnjoon is actually made from mutton mince which has a sweet and hot flavour to it. Your article encourages me to see Kahmir too. Hopefully I am able to make a trip 2 Kashmir one day.

  3. shuja permalink
    March 18, 2013 3:13 PM

    interesting read….very vivid description…

  4. Sheeba Aslam Fehmi permalink
    March 19, 2013 12:37 AM

    Thanks Ms. Marryam for the comparative notes. I am a regular to Iran since couple of years and Isfahan is my favorite city obviously, but after reading your piece I am encouraged to visit Kashmir too, to check out myself, if we have such a similar culture in India too. :)
    BTW did you try Ash in Tehran? And next time you visit Isfahan plz do visit Abbasi Hotel- World’s first and still the most beautiful !
    Sheeba

    • March 21, 2013 2:21 AM

      Yes Sheeba. I did visit Abbasi Hotel. They have an attractive offer: for a modest sum, you can visit their Persian garden and have a choice of Ash or a starter. So I visited the hotel and tasted Ash in one go!

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