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Finding sweet relief in Iran

by Catherine Marshall

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?

Saffron-flavoured sugar sticks

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.

Mounds of dates in a market in Tehran

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.

Biscuits called kolcheh are eaten with jelly-like cubes of masghati

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.

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