Iran

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Salam! This weekend finds us globetrotting in Iran. As Americans, the chances of us actually going to Iran someday are slim. Currently, U.S. citizens cannot travel in Iran independently, and are only permitted to travel on tours, following guided itineraries. (This is also true in at least one other country we’ve globetrotted to so far, Bhutan, with exceptions for specially invited guests of the Bhutanese government or citizens with standing.) Iran and the U.S. haven’t had formal diplomatic relations since 1980, before Derek and I were even alive. Even with a bunch of advanced degrees, we have to admit we know little about the history of Iran-U.S. relations, much less the history of Iran, except some inklings about the ancient Persian Empire.

Globetrotting, of course, is a learning opportunity, so here’s to educating ourselves this weekend.

While this picture is one I took years ago in Boston, not anywhere near Iran, I hope it’s an appropriate intro photo because Iranians love roses. The flower is indigenous to the area, and the technique of making rosewater from rose oil was probably first developed in Iran (you may also recall from our Bulgarian globetrot that Bulgarians also cultivate roses for oil). Rosewater and dried rose petals are used in Persian cooking.

Unfortunately roses didn’t factor into our cooking this weekend. I’d hoped to find dried rose petals suitable for eating, but was unsuccessful. I’m getting a little ahead of myself, though.

On Friday night, I made nan-e barbari, an Iranian flatbread that literally means “bread made by the Barbarians,” for our weekend breakfasts. It would have been better to make it Saturday morning so we could eat freshly baked bread, but I didn’t think I could muster waking up early enough to make the bread (as the dough needs to rise twice). So I baked the barbari Friday night, and reheated some Saturday morning. We ate it the way Persians might in the summer, with sliced watermelon and feta, along with hot tea (black tea leaves with cardamom).

After breakfast, we went to fetch the rest of our groceries for globetrotting and the week ahead. When we returned, I got to work preparing some ingredients for our lunch dishes, like roasting two eggplants, since I’d chosen a few time-intensive recipes. At a good stopping point, we watched the Iran episode of Geography Now and snacked on some more barbari, this time with some cherry preserves.

Then it was back to work in the kitchen for me (with Derek gamely providing cleanup assistance at multiple stages). First, I made vegetarian kotlets (cutlets), a meatless version of Persian ground beef cutlets. Once I’d fried the cutlets, I put them in the toaster oven to keep them warm, as I finished a second dish, mirza ghassemi, a stew made with roasted eggplant, tomato, and scrambled egg. We also had sliced cucumber and yogurt to accompany the stew.

Maybe it was because we didn’t eat them fresh from the frying pan, or because the spice blend I mixed up wasn’t exactly what the recipe called for, but I didn’t care for the kotlets. I was disappointed, since of the two dishes I made, the kotlets took longer to prepare. But, they did hold together well enough, which is not always the case with vegetarian patties/cutlets.

After lunch, we received a crash course on Iran’s 1979 revolution, in which the U.S-supported Persian monarchy was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic Republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The biggest takeaway for me was that the revolution didn’t start off as a fundamentalist movement, but was, as CrashCourse host John Green puts it, first triggered by Iranians who were dissatisfied with economic inequality, political repression and a corrupt regime. In that sense, the Iranian revolution isn’t that different from other revolutions many of us Americans are more familiar with, like the American and French revolutions. Money makes the world go around, but its unequal distribution is a likely recipe for trouble.

Derek prepared dolmeh ye felafel germer, red bell peppers stuffed with herbed rice, a recipe from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian. As the peppers baked, we watched several more videos about Iran. The first was Part One of Inside Iran, which gave us more background on the history between the U.S. and Iran. The documentary was filmed in 2017, shortly after Iran made a deal with the U.S. and several other world powers to reduce its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions, so the piece was optimistic that the U.S.-Iran relationship would improve. Unfortunately, since then, the U.S. has withdrawn from that agreement, thanks to our current dodo of a president, so those hopes are squashed.

Next, we watched Iran: Lifting the Veil on Tehran’s Cultural Life which gave us a look at cosmopolitan Tehran, Iran’s capital, and its contemporary arts scene. Then, with the smell of roasted red peppers permeating the air, we watched the first part of the Munchies Guide to Tehran, and got to see some of the many culinary delights offered at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, a major shopping and food destination in the city. We were more than ready to dig into our stuffed peppers after watching this.

For dessert, Derek prepared a cucumber-mint “drink” from our Madhur Jaffrey cookbook. The recipe instructed us to finely chop mint and peeled cucumber, and then mix the two in a bowl with simple syrup and ice cubes. The dessert is eaten with spoons. This sounded rather odd, but Derek followed the directions:

We weren’t really enjoying chewing all the mint leaves, so he then blended the concoction into a true drink. This was much easier to consume in liquid format, and tasted quite nice, but then Derek and I both felt a burning sensation in our throats. Neither of us is allergic or sensitive to cucumbers or mint, so we were puzzled. Luckily, the feeling went away soon enough.

To finish off the evening, we watched Rick Steves’ travel special on Iran, which gave a closer look at the sights in Tehran and several other cities, as well as the Iranian countryside. Like some of the earlier videos we watched, Rick was surprised to find that the Iranian people he met were warm and friendly, even though he identifies himself as American. It seems that Iranians know that there’s a difference between the U.S.  government and the American people–which is a relief, given the current state of our government. Hopefully other people in the world recognize that, too.

We took a walk before breakfast the next day, to get some fresh air before the National Weather Service’s excessive heat warning went into effect, and found it still pleasant outside. When we returned, we enjoyed some more barbari, feta, watermelon, and tea. Both Derek and I did some cooking for our work week lunches, and then regrouped to watch a series of videos about being Iranian-American: the first focuses on the Iranian community in Los Angeles, known as Tehrangeles, and the first generation of Iranian-Americans who came in the late 70s and 80s, the second on young (millennial-aged) second-generation Iranian-Americans living in Los Angeles, the third on the series host’s personal experience growing up Iranian-American, and the fourth on myths about Iranian-Americans.

For lunch, Derek made kookoo seeb zameeni, a Persian egg and potato cake, using a recipe also by Madhur Jaffrey. While the kookoo was still cooking, we snacked on some more barbari with cherry preserves.

And here’s the kookoo, which really wouldn’t have been out of place at an American Sunday brunch. It reminded me of a frittata.

Since it was so hot outside, we stayed in and watched the 2011 Iranian film A Separation, the first Iranian film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (as well as a number of other film awards). The movie revolves around an Iranian couple who have separated. The wife wants to leave the country to provide their daughter a better life, while the husband refuses to leave because doing so would mean leaving behind his father, who has Alzheimer’s. The couple’s separation leads the husband to hire a woman to take care of his father while he’s at work, and conflicts arise between the couple and the hired woman and her husband. I think many people, regardless of their nationality, could empathize with the struggles of taking care of aging parents, and also trying to do what’s best (or what they think is best) for one’s children.

After the movie, Derek made us cucumber-mint smoothies again, this time adding a ripe banana we had on hand. Luckily, this time the burning sensation in our throats was much milder.

For dinner, we reheated some kotlets and eggplant stew, adding sliced cucumbers and dollops of plain yogurt.

And that concludes our Iranian weekend, though I suspect we’ll still be seeing references to Iran in news headlines. As I mulled over how to wrap up this post after dinner, Derek was skimming the news, and found a New Yorker article reporting that our president wants to help bring down Iran’s current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and his regime. Somehow, I’m not feeling optimistic about this, but I hope that in the end, the Iranian and American people will make it out okay.

We won’t be going far for our next globetrot, since we’ll just be hopping over to Iran’s neighbor to the west, Iraq. Until then, khodahafez–goodbye!

–Jess

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