Before Iran was making headlines with its nuclear program, we often pictured the country as a shimmering mirage arising from the Dasht-e Lut (a Persian desert), where the earth meets the infinite turquoise of the sky. The word "Persia" conjured images of jeweled carpets, exquisite buildings encrusted with mosaics and lush gardens perfumed with jasmine and roses. As one of my high school teachers put it, when she thought of Iran she remembered a photo from the 1930s showing a caravan laden with exotic spices bound for the bazaars of Tehran. Were these images unrealistic? Were they too antiquated to relate to modern Iran?
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus described Persian cuisine as “a model of civilization ... and the epitome of alimentary sophistication.” Herodotus went on to describe the Iranians: “There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians ... As soon as they hear of luxury, they instantly make it their own.”
I recently traveled to Iran to visit friends and family. I hadn't been back in more than five years and was looking forward to my month-long stay.
The variety and number of foreign food restaurants that have opened in Tehran over the past few years — and have continued to thrive despite the economic crunch — clearly show that Iranians, more than ever, are eager to experience new luxuries, particularly in types of cuisine. While living in Iran, dining out had become part of my everyday life. Our afternoons would typically start with a stop at a coffee shop followed by dinner. For some reason, this time, I found myself amused at the endless options before me. My friends would half-jokingly ask me if I'd been living under a rock all these years.
Amir Mostofi, the general manager of Buono Italian restaurant, one of Tehran's top foreign food chains, attributed much of the success of the industry to the eagerness among Iranians to try new things and venture beyond their comfort zones. “There are numbers of Iranians who are unable to travel to other countries and taste different foreign foods,” he observed. “So when they go to a restaurant that serves foods from other countries, they're able to experience foreign cuisine.”
The depreciation of Iranian currency and visa restrictions have made it difficult for many Iranians to travel abroad. Ongoing Western sanctions have taken their toll on many middle-class families, who would often holiday in Dubai or Istanbul.
But does going to such restaurants actually serve as a substitute for foreign travel? It must to some degree, otherwise, why would foreign restaurants be so popular?
For example, pizzerias are seen almost as often on the streets of Tehran as restaurants selling traditional Persian dishes, such as chelo kebab (shish kebab with rice) and abgusht (a traditional Persian stew eaten with bread). In some areas of the city — particularly parts of upscale, northern Tehran — the pizzerias, Chinese restaurants, submarine sandwich shops and hamburger joints seem to be even more abundant than the traditional eateries. Turkish doner kebabs, as well as Lebanese falafel sandwiches, can be found all over town, even in traditional strongholds, such as the Tehran bazaar area, which is renowned for its excellent chelo kebab restaurants. That's not to say traditional Persian cuisine has become less popular; they continue to attract loyal costumers, especially on Fridays, the official weekend holiday in Iran.
The overwhelming popularity of foreign food is not due entirely to the fact that it's "foreign." A good portion of its draw can also be attributed to convenience. “The new generation are young and they're into fast food. They like to go out and have a pizza or sandwich,” said Mostofi.
Moreover, such restaurants, despite their exotic appeal, generally maintain a relaxed atmosphere in which people can socialize. Iranians, as a people, are young. Roughly 60% of the country's 75 million people are under the age of 30, which also plays an important role in the growing foreign restaurant trend. "Let's face it — very few young people like to sit at home on a weekend night and catch up on antiquated television re-runs," said Saman, a 22-year-old university student. "They like to go out with their spouse or friends and have a good time."
When there's little fun to be had, then you've got a dilemma. “You know, there’s not much to do in Iran for fun, and when people get bored they decide to go out and eat. Moreover, the environment [in these restaurants] isn't intimidating. It's like a sanctuary," said Mostofi.
Many of Tehran's posh eateries are also places “to see and be seen” or to simply hang out while enjoying a good meal and sampling a bit of foreign culture.
However, Tehran's present cash-strapped economy has made keeping prices low a challenge for many restaurant owners. With the country's inflation at an all-time high, many restaurants have had to compromise.
"In the past two years alone, our prices have increased between 15 and 20% ... due to the rising costs of ingredients. We're paying four times more than we used to pay. However, we can't raise our prices four times to offset the costs," explained Mostofi.
Mostofi said they had two options: use fewer toppings and cheaper ingredients, or attract more customers.
"We decided to stay on top of our game and it's paid off. Our quality draws more customers, and that is how we profit. As they say in the bazaar, you sell more with less profit and that is your gain.”
I spent my last night in Tehran dining out with friends. As we waited for our food in a dimly lit, lounge-like sanctuary in northern Tehran, the conversation turned to the possibility of better relations with the West and how Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, has been taking steps to open up Iran to foreigners.
"They would feel right at home, at least in terms of food," joked Negar before raising her non-alcoholic mojito. "What can I say? We try to keep our spirits high, after all, as Sohrab would say, 'As long as anemones flow in the airs of a gentle wind, life goes on in plenty, life goes on worthy." Cheers to that!