A tour of Iran

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

One morn­ing in the early 1970s a slightly scruffy letter ar­rived in my pub­lic re­la­tions com­pany in Lon­don. It was clearly a du­pli­cated one, sent to a num­ber of com­pa­nies like ours – from the tourism at­taché of the Ira­nian Em­bassy. The brief mes­sage en­quired if we would like to ten­der for a pub­lic­ity pro­gramme to pro­mote the coun­try’s tourism. I doubted the worth of fol­low­ing it up, but one of my di­rec­tors said we should. So, we did, and to our sur­prise, from a field of 67, we won the con­tract – it was a job we would work on un­til the rev­o­lu­tion in 1979.

Iran at that time was an au­toc­racy ruled by Reza Shah. Although fa­mil­iar with some of Iran’s Arab neigh­bours, I had never been there and knew lit­tle about it. This changed dra­mat­i­cally that same week when we were in­tro­duced to some new ar­rivals in our vil­lage – an Ira­nian fam­ily, whose en­ter­tain­ing was close to lav­ish and whose cook­ing was su­perb, nearly all done by wife and mother, Parto.

Parto’s cook­ing ac­com­plish­ments in­cluded the abil­ity (and pa­tience) to make the fa­mous mid­dle-eastern sugar-and-nuts pas­try called “Baklava”, which she would serve with glasses of Ira­nian tea.

Her rice dishes were ex­am­ples of per­fect blend­ing of fine in­gre­di­ents and were, usu­ally, the cen­tre­piece of ut­terly de­li­cious din­ner menus. The only con­tri­bu­tion I made to her cui­sine was to in­tro­duce her to frozen peas, which she used mag­i­cally from then on. So, when the time came for a brief­ing tour of Iran, to pre­pare the way for the vis­its of travel writ­ers, tour op­er­a­tors and other spe­cial­ists, we had at least some small ex­pe­ri­ence of Ira­nian or Per­sian food.

As part of our brief­ing, we felt most for­tu­nate to have a ten day de luxe guided tour of that big, fas­ci­nat­ing coun­try steeped in his­tory and a cul­ture dat­ing back more than 2,500 years. We went ev­ery­where – from the tea-grow­ing Caspian Sea coast in the north, through the vi­brant, sprawl­ing, smog-cov­ered cap­i­tal Tehran, to the rose city of Shi­raz and the “oil coast” in the south. Our job was to take note, pho­to­graph places and peo­ple, and to plan itin­er­ar­ies. We were priv­i­leged to see vil­lage and ru­ral life as well as mod­ern ci­ties. Some of this was ageold; for ex­am­ple, this wa­ter wheel, pro­vid­ing the en­ergy for milling flour. The miller, un­like many peo­ple we en­coun­tered, was happy to pose for my cam­era. Sadly, this clearly lovely man spoke a lan­guage we didn’t un­der­stand.

Those days, of course, were be­fore the rule of the Ay­a­tol­las, so the pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion of al­co­hol was al­lowed. The Ira­nian vodka was ex­cel­lent – it had a most pleas­ant, light flavour and, with a twist of lime, it slipped down a treat. The Bul­gar­i­ans had set up a large wine in­dus­try north of Tehran pro­duc­ing a very potable red called “1001 Nights”. In the south of the coun­try, in Shi­raz (“the City of Roses”) we en­coun­tered one of the most amaz­ing wines I have ever tasted.

This wine was golden and tasted like no other. Slightly sweet with an un­der-tone of dry­ness (like un-sweet honey) and hints of apri­cots and roses, ac­com­pa­ny­ing some grilled river fish, it was am­brosial. We ate chicken quite a lot, in var­i­ous guises – there are strong re­gional themes. This recipe is fairly typ­i­cal. 1. Peel the onions and chop fairly small. 2. Melt 25g of the but­ter with the olive oil in a large flame­proof casse­role over a medium heat.

3. Add the onions and stir around for sev­eral min­utes un­til soft and browned, then re­move to a plate us­ing a slot­ted spoon. 4. Turn up the heat slightly, add the chicken joints and brown well on each side. 5. Re­turn the onions to the pan and add the al­monds, apri­cots and prunes. Sprin­kle the cin­na­mon over, add a gen­er­ous grind­ing of black pep­per, then pour in the stock.

6. Put the lid on and bring to the boil, then lower the heat. Sim­mer very gen­tly for 30-40 min­utes un­til the chicken is ten­der. 7. Mean­while, bring a fairly large saucepan of salted wa­ter up to the boil. 8. Drain the soaked rice, add it to the boil­ing wa­ter and boil briskly for 4-6 min­utes only; the rice should still be slightly un­der­done. 9. Drain the rice into a large sieve, rinse through with run­ning wa­ter and leave on one side. 10. When the chicken joints are cooked, lift them out with a slot­ted spat­ula and set aside on a shal­low dish.

11. Then briskly boil the con­tents of the un­cov­ered casse­role for a few min­utes, stir­ring now and then to pre­vent stick­ing, un­til the liq­uid is well re­duced to a thick and syrupy sauce. If us­ing pomegranate mo­lasses, stir it in at this stage. If you have pomegranate juice, put in pan and re­duce vol­ume by at least half. Spoon the mix­ture onto the plate with the chicken. 12. Wash out the pan. 13. Melt the re­main­ing 25g but­ter gen­tly in the clean pan, stir in the drained par-cooked rice and place the chicken joints on top, spoon­ing the thick fruit and nut sauce over each joint as you do so.

14. Fi­nally, cover the casse­role with a tea-towel, or alu­minium foil, and put the lid tightly. (Tie the cor­ners of the cloth over the lid to keep them from burn­ing). Cook over a very low heat for about 20 min­utes un­til the rice is fluffy and ten­der.

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