DECIPHERING THE BLUE (Pt. 2) | Isfahan
Food in Isfahan is bland and predictable | Myth
If someone ever tells you that Iranian food is all about rice and dry meat, fling a kebab straight at their face. While it’s true that rice and grilled meat sans the slightest hint of gravy forms the fulcrum of the land’s culinary heritage, it would be foolish not to venture beyond the banal existence of mounds of rice and a few strips of meat. Even the meat, at nearly every restaurant and café you step into, is grilled to perfection and marinated with little spice but much affection. The fish, always freshly-birthed from the Caspian Sea, is a persistent delight.
The Iranians are very particular about using only fresh, seasonal produce in their cooking. In Isfahan, you’ll come across mounds of dry and dried fruit being sold at shops and markets, with the aromatic mélange of dates, berries, cashew nuts, almonds, apricots, figs, and mangoes often proving irresistible. Dizi wins you over immediately, the hearty lamb, chickpea, and potato stew dish having been perfected over centuries and brought over to your table after being slow-cooked in a clay oven for hours. The fesenjan is another meaty delight, with a rusty walnut-and-pomegranate sauce infused within poached chicken and usually served with tahdig – golden saffron-accented rice crust. Khoresht, or Iranian stew, is a robust coming together of lentils, beans, and eggplant, blended with a selection of meat or vegetables and made in different variants. While vegetarians might want to choke themselves at this point, solace arrives in the form of bademjan, a shimmering eggplant and tomato stew brimming with evocative accents of turmeric and the tang of tomatoes and unripe grapes (meat only optional). The baghali polo (sans lamb) is another option, its medley of rice, dill, fava beans, nuts, and dried fruit kissed with a hint of saffron. To round things off, take your romance with saffron a step further by tucking into bastani akbar mashti – custard ice-cream flecked with smoky pistachios, imbued with the lyrical subtlety of saffron and rosewater.
Iran, and Isfahan in turn, is a deeply conservative society | Myth
While the ever-present hijab and the preponderance of black is an inescapable facet of life here, keep the usually paranoid travel advisories well at bay. A simple grasp of current affairs, an occasional dip into the news, and that oft overlooked weapon in one’s travel armoury, common sense, should be your primary factors when considering a trip to Isfahan. And shock and awe, those are the exact same things you’d need when travelling to just about anywhere in the world these days. Yes, the country’s political predilections often veer towards the extreme, but the current regime is moderate, and this reflects tangibly on social life.
Everywhere you go in Isfahan, people are out on the roads and in the courtyards and among the monuments. This is an ‘outdoor’ city like very few, with seemingly the entire populace congregating on Isfahan’s bridges, in its markets, in the large urban public square of Naqsh-e Jahan, or in the seemingly endless collection of gardens and parks that this city boasts of. Early morning, especially during winter, sees the locals flocking to Sofeh Mountain – a strangely-shaped peak that presents walkers and hikers with paths and routes to traverse its contours, whilst offering the more laidback with a national park at its base that is the city’s favourite picnicking spot. Unimaginable even a few years ago, you’ll find men and women walking together, engaged in conversation, smiling and laughing with abandon, and even, within the city’s confluence of romance and nostalgia, flirting with shy restraint.
Part 2 of a 3-Part Series. First appeared as the Cover Feature in National Geographic Traveller, India (August, 2017) ~ http://www.natgeotraveller.in/paradise-found-uncovering-the-layers-of-irans-most-elusive-city/*