So finally you have decided to visit Iran, and you are now deciding on which places to visit on your first trip and what to experience and try in Iran; or maybe you had visited this vast country with its remarkable natural landscapes and historical landmarks before and passed through main historical sites in the classic route. Even if so, your new choice is even harder than the first one.
The first trip is quite clear for most travelers, the classic route and everything related to it are on the itinerary of most travelers who have at least two weeks to visit Iran. One thing that most travelers miss is to experience local Iranian foods besides the country’s fabulous nature and history, north and south. Put at least a few days to experience Iran’s food culture or even add some food destinations on your list and you will definitely not regret it.
However, by trying the country’s food culture, I don’t mean the meals you can find almost in all restaurants, in every street corner of Iran. If you have traveled to Iran before or just by reading other people’s travelogue, you will find a shared experience regarding food in Iran which is getting exhausted to eat different kinds of Kebabs in every single place they have visited: from Juje Kebab and Koobideh to Bakhtyari and even more Kebab types, prepared with grilled chicken, lamb and veal or ground meat or merely a mix of them. As a food which needs to be ready over charcoal, Iranians prefer to eat it in the restaurant rather than trying to prepare kebab in their home. So for a long time, unlike Iran’s sumptuous cuisine, the main dishes on restaurants’ menu was a variety of kebabs. I was not until recently that other local foods find their way on the menu of some restaurants. Here, I want to suggest food destinations you should not miss in your Iran travel, follow me on the journey.
As a food which needs to be ready over charcoal, Iranians prefer to eat it in the restaurant rather than trying to prepare kebab in their home. So for a long time, unlike Iran’s sumptuous cuisine, the main dishes on restaurants’ menu was a variety of kebabs. I was not until recently that other local foods find their way on the menu of some restaurants. Here, I want to suggest food destinations you should not miss in your Iran travel, follow me on the journey.
Food Destinations Iran – Gilan Province
Top on my list is Gilan and its provincial capital, Rasht, registered as the city of gastronomy in 2015 for its food diversity. The diversity of flavors and food colors here can be found nowhere in Iran. Gilanis know how to use local ingredients and mix them to create a variety of tasty foods. In fact, you need to spend at least a few days in the province to taste its unique foods and by the end of your trip still, have a lot to return back.
With eco-lodges and traditional restaurants serving local foods, you have no problem finding entirely new tastes here in Gilan, from Mirza Ghasemi and Baqala Qatoq to Torshi Tareh and Alu Mosama. Don’t forget Fesenjan. Though it is being prepared all around Iran, it has different flavors in each province. With the main ingredients being ground walnuts, pomegranate paste, and duck, chicken or ground meat, my favorite is the sour one being served here in Gilan with duck or chicken. There are sweet versions in other regions, so if you have tried one with an entirely distinct taste, don’t worry, it is still Fesenjan.
It’s hard to suggest a place to try local foods in Gilan as there are plenty of good choices. Just to give you some hints, I would suggest Khavar Khanom Restaurant in Sarvelat with an eye-catching landscape, Gileboom eco-lodge in Ghasem Abad and Shorkoli, a local restaurant in Rasht. However, don’t bind yourself to these places and try local foods everywhere you in Gilan Povince.
Important note: garlic is one of the main ingredients of many Gilaki foods. If you don’t like it, ask before ordering foods.
Food Destinations Iran – Tehran
The capital city of Iran is more than the country’s leading cultural and political center. As Iran’s most developed city, Tehran is replete with traditional and fast foods restaurants serving local as well as international foods. Yes, I know you are not here to try foods you can find, actually its better version, in your homeland. Tehran also has old traditional restaurants famous for their atmosphere besides their flavor. Restaurants which has retained their classic style but are still serving best quality foods.
Mainly located in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, you may have heard about Moslem Restaurant, a straightforward option actually. But believe me, the bazaar with its mazes has many more to discover. Do not limit yourself to the one, get yourself lost in the bazaar and ask locals for places to eat lunch (as bazaar is open almost till 7 p.m.) or even teahouses, a great place to mingle with local people. One of my unique experiences was shaped in the middle of the bazaar, in Sharaf-ol-Eslami restaurant. There is always a queue outside, but it does not take much time to enter the restaurant. Here is what I liked the most about the restaurant. There are long connected tables which you have to share with strangers, a way to force people to mingle and talk about social news in old Tehran. Try its Tahchin if mingling with locals when you are eating is a fascinating idea to you too.
When in Tehran, visit its bazaars not only to find the old restaurants and their great vibes but to see people buying and selling food ingredients from colorful spices arranged in rows like a rainbow to fresh and dried herbs and even different kinds of appetizers. Tajrish Bazaar is the first and best choice in Tehran, do not miss it.
The other option you have in Tehran is Ghanari hotel in Somayyeh Street. Though not cheap, the hotel’s restaurant is well-known for its delicious Persian stews.
Food Destinations Iran – Central Iran
Isfahan, Shiraz, and Yazd are probably on your list of must-visits already. However, they are on my list not because of their foods, unique to these cities like Isfahan’s Beryoni and Khoresht-e Mast (Yogurt stew), Shiraz’s Kalam Polo or Yazd’s Sholi! They are on this list for their sweets and desserts. Taste the best Iranian desserts and sweets in these cities (Tabriz should be on the list too for its well-known Baklavas but located in a different region, I excluded it). Here are my suggestions, some of which you probably know about:
- Do yourselves a favor and try Faloodeh Shirazi, a cold dessert consisting of noodles, lime juice and rose water, as the name suggests in Shiraz.
- In Yazd, you have several options among which Ghotab is my favorite one. Visiting Yazd’s famous Mir Chaghmagh Square, you can buy the best Ghotabs as well as Baklavas on the corner of the square from Haj Khalifeh Ali Rahbar, a shop which is always full of travelers, local or international, buying a sweet souvenir for their family and friends.
- Isfahan is famous for its Gaz, a sweet which its main ingredient is being collected from a plant growing around Isfahan, Angebin. Isfahan’s Gazes have different qualities determined by the percentage of their pistachio, with the one having the most pistachio considered as the best one. You can find it on their box, shown with a number. When in Isfahan, also try Dogh and Ghoshfil, a mix of sweet and salty tastes. To be honest I personally didn’t like the mix as I am not a fan of sweet foods. However, Isfahanis always like to invite every single traveler to try this mixture which they find very tasty.
Food Destinations Iran – Southern regions
If you are a fan of seafood, Iran’s southern regions are the best choice. From Bandar Abbas, Hormuzgan and Bushehr to Qeshm and Hurmoz Islands, there are delicious foods which are mostly spicy, typical to the region. Ghalyeh Mahi, Do Piyaze Meigo (Shrimp), Grilled fish, Samboseh, and Falafel are just a few examples which most of them are not only unknown to foreign travelers, many Iranians from other regions are not familiar with too. As the region is not still much developed, many of these foods cannot be found on the restaurant menus, especially in the small towns. However, there are eco-lodges which host you and serve delicious local foods. One of the best foods I have tried was Ghalyeh Meigo (shrimp) in the house of our local host. You may also have the chance to be hosted by a local family however don’t forget to answer their kindness.
Tip: When in Ahvaz, visit Lashkar Abad Street, famous for its street foods, mainly Falafel.
Food Destinations Iran – Kurdistan
As a foodie traveler, you should also visit Kurdistan and other Kurdish cities in western Iran. Having border with Iraq and other ethnic groups in Iran like Turks, the dishes here are influenced by these cultures. Unlike the common food tradition in the region, there are still foods you can just find here, or I should say find the best ones here. Dolmeh is one of them. Found in many other places around Iran, Kurdistan cuisine is known for its unique Dolmeh. I have tried one in a friend’s house in Sanandaj served with baked chicken and a kind of ghee; a delicious one which I never had the chance to eat anywhere else.
Also, try Khoresht Khalal (an almond and meat stew) when you are here. However, it is not something you can find in most restaurants. Let’s hope you are lucky enough to be hosted with a Kurdish family and taste Khoresh Khalal.
My other suggestion is Dandeh Kebab. Don’t worry, it is not like the other kebabs I mentioned before. One of the best ones I have eaten was near Bistoon, in Kermanshah (though not in Kurdistan, it is still a Kurdish area). Local people here would also bake their own bread, one of which is Kalaneh, almost found in every city of the province, you can try one in Abidar, Sanandaj.
Though I have limited this article to five destinations, there are many other places around Iran with great foods like Dizi in Mashhad or Kofteh Tabrizi (meatballs served in Tabriz as the name shows). The general tip here is to ask for local foods in each destination, you will be amazed by their variety and differences.
All in all, a food tour in Iran is more than just trying new dishes. It is an adventure into the heart of people’s everyday life, a gateway to locals’ houses, magnificent old structures (serving savory foods as restaurants or eco-lodges) and also winding Iranian bazaars where people are still buying the kitchen gadgets or food ingredients (fresh or dried). Enjoy it.
During your stay in Iran, you are certain to encounter “taarof” in one way or another. In its simplest form, taarof means politeness. Compared to most other societies, Iran is very polite. Iranians address each other with much respect, consideration and thoughtfulness. It is for example customary to stand up when a person enters the room, to offer your seat to women and those older than yourself, and to let others through a door before you. An Iranian would never eat in front of others without inviting them to his/her food, sit with his/her back against someone without apologizing dearly, or end a telephone conversation without a tirade of well-wishing phrases. Instead, Iranians belittle their own accomplishments, refuse invitations several times before accepting, and, when receiving compliments for a new shirt or dress, insist you take it as a gift.
Another aspect of taarof is the well-known Iranian hospitality and generosity. As a tourist, you can see this in restaurant settings when the men in bigger gatherings argue about who is going to pay the bill. Such friendly arguments could drag on for some time until someone finally gives in and lets the other person pay. When invited to someone’s home, you will also experience an endless hospitality as your hosts are likely to offer you the best from their household. Another example of taarof occurs when shopping and it is time to pay and you ask for the price. The initial and automatic response from the shopkeeper is always “It is nothing; you do not owe me anything”; any other way of responding would be considered rude and abrupt.
As a foreigner unfamiliar with Iranian culture and customs, you will most probably feel clumsy and unsophisticated. You may also be flattered and believe that the invites expressed under the taarof scheme are sincere. Expressions of taarof are however almost per definition without authenticity, meaning that the person uttering them seldom means what he/she says. During your stay in Iran, people may thus offer you things without the intention of ever giving, and they may make promises to you that risk being hollow. Figuring out what is taarof and what is a genuine invitation is sometimes challenging even for Iranians. One thing is for certain though, when the taxi driver says that the ride is free of charge for you, “Ghabel nadare!”, you should categorize this as taarof and insist on paying until he/she accepts; anything else will be awkward.
Compared to other languages, it is fairly easy to be polite when speaking in Farsi since it is a language packed with ready-to-use phrases and idioms that express politeness and good manners. There are numerous phrases for showing appreciation and admiration (unfortunately, when translated into English, the poetry is lost): for example, “May I be sacrificed for you”; “May your breath be warm”; “I will sacrifice myself for your hand”; and, “I will circle around you”. There are expressions for when you appreciate someone’s hard work, when you receive flowers from someone, when you get a compliment, and when someone who has been traveling returns home. There are even ways of apologizing if your back is toward someone, “I am sorry my back is to you”, and also a ready response to the one apologizing: “A flower has no front or back”.
The system of taarof is much more complex than a few polite routine phrases; it is also closely connected to prestige and status and a way of marking out one’s class and position. Scholars argue that taarof historically was a central element in the discourse of the privileged that worked to normatively reinforce the existent power system, giving the elite an instrument to further their interests. Taarof is deeply rooted in Iranian rhetoric and mastering the art of persuasion in Iran not only implies great linguistic knowledge, but also showing extreme humility vis-à-vis one’s opponent, deceitfully wrapping him/her around one’s finger with praise and flatter, and making tempting but oftentimes empty promises. In a similar vein, giving the most exclusive present and picking up the restaurant bill are tacit strategies for safeguarding ones ranking in the social strata.
That said, the culture of taarof makes being around Iranians a rather pleasant involvement. As a people, Iranians are very nice to each other and public life is friendly and familiar; people never hesitate to help one another even if they are strangers, smiles are abundant and so are jokes and laughter, people talk to the person sitting next to them on public transportation, and harsh or impatient tones are rare (except when in traffic bear in mind).
Traffic and transport
Although Iran is a child-loving place, there are some practical obstacles that you will have to think about and plan for when traveling with children in Iran. The first thing that comes to mind is transportation and traffic. Although it has improved a lot over the last years, traffic in Iran is still unpredictable and hectic, and city driving is especially crazy.
To keep your child safe when walking in cities, you must take care; always walk on sidewalks, avoid zebra crossings and instead use the pedestrian bridges when crossing big roads even if it means taking detours, and look both ways even on one-way roads. When walking on sidewalks, make sure that your child walks on the inside and that you walk on the outside close to the street so that your child does not face the cars. Be careful though, since sidewalks at times also are used by motorbikes that want to avoid congestion.
Although buses in Iran are great for solo travelers, I recommend traveling by air or train when traveling long distances with children. Our children easily get bored sitting in a bus for hours. Roadside service stations are scarce and not always up to expected standards, although new rest places are opening up every day. If you decide to travel by car, bring your own car-seat for your child and make sure the car has seatbelts for the back seats as well. The best option is of course to get your own private driver to take you around; it is relatively affordable, you can make as many stops as you like, and tourist drivers are oftentimes also tour leaders.
What to pack for your child
When planning what to pack for your child, remember that Iran is a vast country and that temperatures can vary greatly from season to season and from one place to another. During the hot summer months, I dress my children in light comfortable cotton clothes with long sleeves as well as a cap to protect against the strong sun. If we are planning on visiting mountains or the desert, I also bring a light jacket or sweater as it may get cold, especially in the night.
Another tip is to bring a travel neck pouch for your child to wear around her neck under her shirt wherein you can place the address and contact details to your hotel.
If you are traveling with a toddler, please bear in mind that diapers, baby formula and some medication may not be widely available so it is advisable that you bring your own, especially if you are keen on using a specific brand. Also, bring your own baby food when leaving big cities. Finally, do not bring a stroller, but rather a Baby Björn, since the latter is easier to move around with.
Socioeconomic and cultural differences
For someone who is only used to a Western way of living, traveling in Iran with children, especially in more rural areas, may evoke misunderstandings due to socioeconomic and cultural differences. Strangers may approach and compliment your child, pinch her cheek, touch her hair, give her a kiss on the cheek or offer her sweets. You may also be requested to pose in photos with strangers. People do this out of interest and as a way to be friendly and hospitable. It is of course up to you how you want to deal with these types of situations. It is however advisable to prepare yourself and your child for these types of situations as well as to always be polite yet firm if you feel uncomfortable and do not want strangers to come too close to you or your child.
In general, when my daughters were younger, I avoided places where there were crowds of people. As exciting as the Tehran Grand Bazaar atmosphere is, it can get a bit overwhelming with small children and I was always afraid that they would get separated from me. If you find yourself in a place packed with people, make sure to never let go of your child’s hand.
In the traumatic event of a missing child, ask people around for help and ask someone to call the police. As a precaution, always keep the name and contact details of your hotel written down on a piece of paper in your child’s pocket or written down directly on your child’s arm.
Traveling with toddlers
If you are traveling with toddlers, you will find public baby-changing facilities in shopping malls as well as in larger bus, metro and train terminals and stations. These facilities are however only for women; fathers who need to change their baby’s diapers are not allowed. Mothers can also use the ladies’ section of mosques and prayer rooms to breastfeed and change their toddlers. Breastfeeding in public is relatively uncommon and if you need to breastfeed your baby, it is advisable that you cover yourself when doing so.