Make yourself at home – every Iranian will say when inviting you over. Usually, this equals permission to unwrap yourself from the hijab. Finally! Women learn this skill from early childhood, they have their tricks, clips, style and grace. Still, without this kind of experience, to roll myself up with the huge yellow shawl, keep it in its original position, locate myself on the carpet and have some soup without placing the shawl in the plate, kicking someone else’s plate and covering the distance from the plate to my mouth with a stable and horizontal spoon is close to impossible.
Asia indisputably begins when people stop eating potatoes and start eating rice. Rice is just as dangerous as soup: if you’re not fit for the battle, try reaching for the bottom bites, where the dish is more fried and thereby less crumbly. Ergo, you won’t have to chase the rice grains all around the carpet cloth.
Apart from rice, Iranian cuisine can be summarized in five words: beans, lamb, pickles, lemon, bread. Under the term beans there are also all possible kinds of lentils and peas. Lamb includes shashliks, kebabs and enormous amounts of lard. Lemon means… well, lemon, but a different one for every occasion: one type is a classic tea acidifier, another one is dried and used for stew and soup seasoning, there’s also sweet lemon eaten as if it was tangerine.
Bread comes in all shapes and forms, but the most common one is thin, long, bubble wrap-like. It serves as a plate, any piece of cutlery, pot mat, oven glove and wrapping paper. Pickled is everything, starting from cauliflower, through tomatoes, till you get to cherries.
Phew! I did it! The majority of dinner went straight into my mouth. I put down the spoon, take a sip of dugh, fermented fizzy yoghurt, and reach for tea.
– Have some sugar with your tea! – Mahboob says – or at least a date!
– But I like my tea bitter and I’m already full! – I thought I recognized taarof.
– Doesn’t matter, dinner was cold so you need a date. Dates are warm.
– ??? – I responded shrewdly and started a vivid discussion. The women by the carpet cloth started naming all sorts of foods, no key whatsoever, and together determining whether they are cold or hot:
– Nuts – warm!
– Cucumber – very cold!
– Fish – also cold!
– Meat – depends, beef is coldish, but camel is hot.
As it turns out, Iranian cuisine is based on ancient meal balancing rules. To keep things simple, let’s just say that the products which make our bodies go lazy are cold, whereas the ones that speed up metabolism are hot. It has absolutely nothing to do with the actual temperature of the dish.
Say what you will, nothing will ever convince me that grandma’s aromatic chicken broth is a cold soup!