Iran is draped in art, heritage, poetry and culture—reflections of which run deep in the veins of its people. On a solo trip to the country, two Indian travellers are showered with abundant respect from the locals — one that isn’t even remotely comparable to the respect Iran is subjected to by the world. By Japleen Kaur
Sharanya Iyer, popular as Truly Nomadly on Instagram, recently spent close to a month in Iran collecting stories and breaking stereotypes. Chef Yash Rane, on the other hand, visited the Middle Eastern nation to attend a friend’s wedding only to return with stories to last a lifetime. Despite two diverging reasons to visit, both weave a common narrative: the kindness of locals.
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“The locals go out of their way to make guests feel completely at home,” gushes Iyer with overwhelming gratitude. She explains, “There is an Iranian custom called tahrof, where they offer to pay for your meals or when you’re out shopping. Personally, I haven’t experienced such warmth any where else in the world.” Uzbekistan comes a close second, she adds candidly.
Rane agrees. “My heart felt safe. Despite the language barrier, the locals went over and above to help me feel comfortable—whether it was explaining what food I was eating or simplifying directions, they did it without a hint of impatience.”
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World-over, Persian cuisine has undergone many innocent renditions with most countries tweaking the dishes to cater to local palates. But there’s a different joy in getting to opportunity to savour every bite of it at the source.
A combination of rice, dry fruits, meat, and vegetables dominate menus in Iran. Red Gold Saffron, a key ingredient, adds a unique flavour and fragrance, as does the use of rose water and dried lime.
Chef Rane, who is primarily a non-vegetarian, reveals that every time he sat down to eat in Iran, he felt as though he had stepped into a world where his senses exploded with every bite. Despite travelling extensively, he says he has never experienced food this way — pure, scintillating, and joyous. The variety of dishes available made it difficult for Chef Rane to pick one favourite. Instead, he has a personal buffet he falls back upon. Some of them are: zereshk polo with chicken — a classic barberry rice served with chicken, and loaded with dehydrated berries and dollops of butter; Tahdig (literally ‘bottom of the pot’ in Persian), a fluffy pan-fried rice dish with a golden crest bottom and laced with saffron and orange zest; gormeh sabzi, a stew made using herbs like chives, cilantro, parsley tossed with kidney beans; chelow kabab, a kebab served on cooked rice with grilled tomatoes and paired with koobedeh (ground meat mixed with well-seasoned minced onion); baghali polo, or Fava beans pilaf complete with dill, rice, and meat; khorosht-e-fesenjan, an Iranian sweet-sour-nutty stew made with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses; and gheimeh, a Persian stew made with lamb or beef chunks, tomato sauce, chickpeas and spices like turmeric and cinnamon.
Iyer, a vegetarian, found it challenging to find food that catered to her dietary preferences. However locals, now her friends, helped her sample the meatless offerings of Iran. Some of her recommendations are: kashke badumjan, an eggplant dip loaded with garlic, olive oil and saffron; mirza qassemi, a similar eggplant dip topped with tomatoes and served with flatbread; aush, a noodle soup; and dopiazeh aloo, a potatoes and onion dish.
It’s not uncommon to hear stories of Bollywood’s impact on the world. In Iran, the two travellers found that the Hindi film industry helped break the ice.
For his first meal in Tehran, Chef Rane visited a local restaurant. Confused and lost, he sat at a table hoping to eat. A stranger who sensed his discomfort joined. Chef Rane confessed to the local that he could not read or understand the menu as it was written in Farsi, a language he did not understand, and thus facing difficulties in ordering food. He further added that he is from India. The local immediately removed his phone, switched on Google Translate, and typed out Sholay, a blockbuster Hindi-language action-adventure film. And thus, a new friendship was formed! They conversed for more than an hour and shared kebabs. Upon leaving, Chef Rane learned that the man was, in fact, the owner of the restaurant.
For Iyer, the experience was similar. She recounts the time when she broke into an impromptu dance at a salon. Two local women accompanied her as she frolicked to the tunes of actor Shah Rukh Khan’s songs. The Bollywood craze, she says, transcends continents.
Solo female traveller in Iran
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Iyer confesses that visiting Iran as a solo female traveller required courage and confidence. Experiences and sensibilities she gained as a solo traveller in other countries came into play. For the first solo trip, Iran can be difficult. However, once you become comfortable with the idea of experimenting, finding comfort in the unknown and surrendering, satisfying travel experiences tag along. Adhering to local cultural norms, respecting local customs, and having a little trust in the process can help one feel safe. Iyer, personally, didn’t feel unsafe at any point.
As a solo woman in a nation that isn’t considered ‘safe’, the comforting presence of locals was an eye-opener for Iyer. Taking to Instagram to recount her travels, the travel creator said: beyond the people who went out of their way to give me company since I was all alone, or those who invited me over for countless cups of chai and meals…trust [in Iran] trickles down to everyday things like swiping your card at cafés, tourist ticket counters, bus stations and more, where the card code is openly shared […] unlike […] other places around the world. A lot is in Farsi, including bills, menus and even card-swiping machines. Not once has anyone tried to take advantage of my apparent foreign-ness and entered a higher number on the card machine.
Iran in a nutshell
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Iran is a burst of colours, breathtaking landscapes, jaw-dropping architecture, and poetic verses in every corner. It left the two travellers feeling grounded and speechless, and it’s about time the world realises its powerful presence, too. The loop of learning comes with unlearning what is strategically fed to us by those in power. And the locals do a damn good job of helping you navigate that transition. As Iyer rightly sums up, “Iran is its people, not its government.”
Planning a trip to Iran
Where to go
Planning a basic itinerary for Iran will prove to be more amazing than you think. Consider visiting Tehran, Shiraz, Kashan, Isfahan, Yazd, Qeshm Islands, Hormuz Islands, and Mazandaran.
Good to know
Getting into the country can be daunting if one isn’t a seasoned traveller. The two explorers suggest getting the formalities sorted via local travel agencies in Iran. Tap Persia comes highly recommended for visa formalities, stay bookings, inter-country travel, safety assurance and more.
While Chef Rane applied for an e-visa through the agency and got the documents delivered at his home in a week, Iyer opted for a visa-on-arrival. The latter has two more options: one, to pick it up at a local embassy; and two, to collect it at Tehran airport upon landing. To promote ease of tourism in the country, Iran doesn’t stamp passports. Instead, it gives a slip of paper that doubles as the visa. This piece of paper needs to be kept safe till the end of the trip.
Google translate will be your best friend while visiting Iran since most people converse in Farsi. Buy a sim card and opt for internet connection services at the airport itself since the airport authorities speak in English. Travel insurance is a must, but a lot of well-known companies don’t issue one for Iran. Once again, local agencies come to the rescue here!
Iran’s currency can be slightly confusing. The country follows two systems: Rial and Toman. Additionally, Indian banks do not work in Iran so it is best to carry US dollars that can easily be converted to local currencies upon arrival.
Related: Going Places With People: Meet Nour Brahimii — The First Female Solo Traveller From Algeria To Have A Travel Blog