The most dangerous thing about Iran is its food, writes Catherine Marshall.
Alcohol may be off the menu in the Islamic Republic of Iran, but sugar most certainly isn’t. I find it everywhere: in the special biscuits called sohan made in the holy city of Qom and sold in exquisitely decorated tins at a highway mall stop on the way to Kashan; in the flaxen fairy floss that evaporates on the tongue like sweet air; in the tea houses where cups of tea are accompanied by a side order of wooden stirrers coated in a heavy conglomerate of crystallised sugar.
Who needs wine in a world filled with sugar?
This is my drug of choice and yes, I am an addict. Not since I chugged gallons of condensed milk-sweetened coffee in Russia has this proclivity – well-controlled when I’m home, thoroughly abused while on the road – been so adequately satisfied. Though obesity appears to be nonexistent here, my guide assures me that Iran has one of the highest incidences of Type 2 diabetes in the world.
And I might well succumb to this condition myself after a mouthwatering romp through the country. The markets are where all the trouble begins, for they’re filled with sweet temptation: pomegranate molasses; mounds of glossy dates; fruit ‘leather’ – fruit pounded and rolled into flat sheets; halva so perfect it dissolves into sticky tendrils on the tongue.
In a cooking class in Shiraz I learn to make masghati, a custard-like dessert flavoured with saffron, rose water, cardamom and – yes, of course – sugar. At a tea house in Esfahan I nibble sugar rocks straight from the bowl, and at a woman’s house in Yazd I drink my tea unsweetened and eat the sugar cubes instead; they’re shaped like tiny flowers and flavoured with cinnamon, cardamom or rose water. In a boutique hotel in Shiraz I am welcomed with a platter of tiny biscuits called kolcheh and cubes of yellow, jelly-like masghati. The jelly bites must be placed atop the kolcheh and eaten in a single mouthful, it’s explained; I’m quite adept at such a manoeuvre, I find.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that Persians subsist on a diet of sugar: their nan bread – bought fresh from the wood-fire oven – is a staple. Their soups and main courses are derived from a huge variety of ingredients, and are complex and rich in savoury flavouring. Saffron and cardamom abound, and even the drink that accompanies most meals – a yoghurt and mint concoction called doogh – is seasoned with salt.
But it’s the desserts that linger on the tongue – together with the unstinting warmth and hospitality with which they are offered. If I was ever in any doubt about the wisdom of travelling to a country too often vilified by the west, I needn’t have worried. Iran is sweet. TTW
Catherine Marshall travelled to Iran as a guest of Intrepid. The company’s Iran Real Food Adventure runs for 10 days and includes cookery classes and meals in Iranian homes.