It was eye opening in many ways and will surely be one of the standout memories I take away from Iran.
I slept incredibly well in the hotel, with the heat making it cozy and the sounds of the gentle drizzle outside lulling me to sleep. We had an early start in order to get to our cooking class with Persian Food Tours, which was at a small but well equipped kitchen set in a lush garden, about 40 minutes outside of town.
The chef, Ava, was gracious and incredibly happy to have us, welcoming us with fresh tea and a warm smile. Her kitchen was well stocked with 30 or more spices and tea mixes contained in matching jars, beautiful pottery and flatware, an industrial gas stove and the most exquisite, delicate vintage tea set I have ever seen (an heirloom from her Mother)!
At each of our work stations, we had an apron and a little book printed out with the menu for the day, along with the recipes. We started off by getting the chicken in to a yoghurt marinade for the joojeh kebab-e lari (chicken kebabs) and with preparing the starter, ash-e mast (Shirazi yoghurt soup). While the soup was simmering, we learned how to cook traditional Iranian rice – the secret is in the preparation of the saffron and in how one controls the circulation of the steam – and Shirazi salad, which is a mixture of tomato, cucumber, onion, and grape verjus (unripe grape juice).
As the chicken was grilling on the coal barbecue, we prepared the desserts, nut brittle-like sohan asali (almond and saffron candy) and a sweet drink, sharbat-e bidmeshk nastaran, made from the essences of pussy willow and dog rose. I really loved to see how much care was put into the preparation of these traditional dishes, and to learn these recipes that had been passed down from generation to generation. Each recipe had many steps and implemented numerous techniques to extract the best flavor from the ingredients, and this attention to detail was obvious when we shared the fruits of our labor. The lunch was simply stunning, with so many different tastes and such a depth in flavor! The time in the kitchen also allowed all us women to gossip and chat, and it was fascinating to hear an Iranian woman’s perspectives on dating, dress code, Western standards of beauty, personal freedom and what it means to “be a woman”.
The conversation and cultural exchange was, for me, the best part of the cooking class as it is an experience that can only happen spontaneously and only in a space of mutual trust and respect. It was eye opening in many ways and will surely be one of the standout memories I take away from Iran. After finishing up dessert and tea in the garden, we headed back to the hotel to enjoy a bit of a rest in the sunny courtyard before heading off on a walking tour in the city.
When we regrouped, we set off to Vakil Bazaar, a maze of stores selling carpets, fabric, spices, sweets, copperware, scarves and jewelry which dates back to the 11th century. It is labyrinthine with bath houses, tea shops, ice cream stands and mosques tucked in corners and down alleys. The corridors are bustling with life and filled with the sounds of vendors calling out for you to inspect their goods and with the smells of spices and perfumes….quite the sensory experience! After meandering though the bizarre, I walked out towards the Karim Khan citadel to do some people watching. The citadel itself was the home of Karim Khan, the founder of the 18th century Zand dynasty, and is currently home to a museum.
I didn’t go inside but I thoroughly enjoyed walking around the beautiful, tall stone walls and watching kids on bikes zipping around, teens taking selfies, families eating ice cream and strolling the flowered grounds, and young lovebirds sharing a bench, hand-in-hand. Heading back towards the bizarre, the group met at Kohan, a restaurant in the square in front of Vakil Mosque. Thinking this might be a “tourist trap” given the location, I was very pleasantly surprised by my kashke bademjan (eggplant, whey and walnut dip), served with sangak flatbread and a fresh herb salad. It had a beautiful smoky element, balanced with creamy whey, a tart citrus bite and crunchy walnut bits. The rest of the table also thoroughly enjoyed their meal and loved the cute ambiance of the café. A short walk past fruit stands, clothing stores and kids playing football found us back at our hotel, where we each retired to our rooms for another early start the next day.