My conservation with Tahmineh meanders into why doesn’t she have a child? Her reply is startlingly candid, “I do want a child very much. But Sayad is not willing.”
“You ask him.”
I did. It was primarily economic insecurity. I did have a very long chat with Sayad over this. Tahmineh and Sayad were the only two occupants of the apartment where I spent my delightful days in Tehran in November, 2015. On August 20, 2016, I received a mail from Sayad which informed me that I was welcome back to their tiny home, which now has a third occupant, Ronika. I struggled to hold my tears of joy as I looked at the baby’s photographs attached with the mail. I prayed for her: may she live to build a better world than the one in which we will leave for her. From my heart I bring out my Faiz:
Aaiye hath uthaiyen hum bhi
Hum jinhen rasm-e-dua yaad nahin
Hum jinhen soz-e-mohabbat ke siwa
Koyee but koyee khuda yaad nahin
Aaiye arz guzarain keh nigaar-e-hasti
Zehr-e-imroz meiN sheereeni-e-farda bhar de
Come let us as well raise our hands in prayer
Even us, the ones who can’t recall the rituals any longer
Besides the burning passion of love
No idol, nor any god who can ever remember
Come let us pray, may the beauty that created this existence
Fill the poison of today with a tomorrow far sweeter
But the Musafir must move on. And as the bright November sun flow through the large window panes, I start growing impatient: Tehran outside is beckoning me. Where is Sayad? The doorbell rings. Enters the man with a stuff literally carrying it in his arms like carrying a child. Bread. The kind of which I have never seen before. Each of these breads cannot be less than two and half feet by one feet. A deep warm odour fills the room. Noon Barberi. Breakfast begins. I notice that none of the three of us is given a separate plate. Paneer, olive, almonds, honey, yogurt, dates are laid in separate plates with the gigantic breads in the middle. We sit in a circle and eat straight from the common plates tearing the bread with our hands.
But why this strange name: Noon Barberi? Sayad explains: A community called Hazara lives in the Khorasan area in the eastern fringes of Iran. Sometime way back in history the mainland Iranians used to consider them barbers. Over time the two communities came culturally and economically close. These people used to make this bread originally, which during the 18th – 19th century CE entered into the regular mainland cuisine. Since these lovely breads, with hints of both salt and sugar, were made by “barbers”, its Barberi. Bread in colloquial Farsi is Noon. Hence Noon Barberi. Over the next three weeks I ate many new dishes in Iran. Besides the horrible Iranian Halim, each of those food I have enjoyed to the hilt. True, Iran doesn’t have the variety of “Indian cuisine”, which really means nothing, so wildly varied is our food from one region to another, but also because very few, if any at all, of our cuisines are restricted within the political geography of India. Indeed, I often reflect, the most important thing in our life, food, demonstrates the extreme vulnerability of the political maps of nations. Most of us Bangalis would feel far happier to be served, let’s say, Ilish (Hilsa) fish in mustard curry, essentially a “Bangladeshi cuisine” than, say, the best Uttapam available in Chennai. Yet how many genocides have been unleashed on humanity swearing by the sanctity of political maps? I have never been able to figure out what drives this violent madness. Not hunger, surely? But to return to Iranian cuisine, yes, on the count of variety it is no match for what we eat in India. There’s nothing in Iran that can match our Paranthe, which the venerable Oxford Dictionary describes as “a flat, thick piece of unleavened bread fried on a griddle”.
That of course sends no signal to our nostrils or taste buds. For that you have to visit the Paranthe-wali Gali in old Delhi’s mesmerizing Chandni Chowk bazaar. The three or four shops in that alley that have survived over more than one and a half century serve around 40 varieties of parantha’s. Nor have I seen anywhere in Iran, what we Bangalis call fulko rooti, paper-thin hand-rolled round breads that blow up like a small football when baked over open fire. The story of naan, however, is different. The three or four kinds of naans that I have tasted in Iran entice the connoisseur’s deepest culinary senses.
Another kind of huge bread named Lavosh comes from Armenia. This is much thinner than Barberi and is textured with dots. Because of its being so thin it can be easily folded or rolled. You can make a wrap with it by putting ground meat, chopped onion, tomato and capsicum inside its belly. In Varzaneh they made a wonderful Falafel roll with fried ground chickpeas and chopped vegetables inside. Lavosh also tastes lovely eaten plain with honey as a dip. Then there is Sangak. ‘Sang’ in Farsi means stone. Traditionally this bread is baked on small heated stones. Unlike in India or the whole South Asian subcontinent, I didn’t see bread being baked in Iranian homes. There are small bakeries almost in every district in the cities.
In Isfahan I entered into one such bakery. Besides a smiling nod, none paid any attention. A tall muscular gentleman, clad in a white apron and a cap, tore out large morsels of dough from a large heap with vengeance, shaped them into balls with his palms, rolled them flat with a rolling pin and passed it onto his assistant, half his size, who in turn put them on an iron disk, slowly spinning in a slit in the wall. I couldn’t see what really happened as the disk with the unbaked bread rotated to the other side of the wall. But when it returned it brought back a fluffy bread almost the size of a small bed-sheet.
You could buy the bread straight from the counter of the bakery, hot and fresh. But I also saw grocers selling all kinds of bread displayed in their counters. Western loaf breads are not popular in Iran.
I finish my breakfast quickly. Sayad and Tahmineh are still doing justice to the massive Noon Bareberi. Iranians are not only connoisseurs of good food, but they are also voracious eaters. Poor me. I come from Bankura, one of the poorest districts in India. In my land one such Noon Barberi could be a person’s food for a good three days. Unused to the culinary rituals of the land of such voracious eaters I find many things surprising in the manner in which food is served and eaten there. Who, alas, knew that, that surprise would at last degenerate into shame!
Mashhad. Eastern Iran. One of the holiest cities in the country. I am on the last leg of my journey. I have no friends in this city. So I check-into a hotel with an impressive name Farhang-i-Hunar. It’s around 9 p.m. I am hungry. But a dry razor-sharp cold storm is raging outside. After two attempts to get out of the hotel I give up. I have to go the hotel’s restaurant. It will cost me much more than what I could have done with at a street joint. But I have no choice. The restaurant is large. Only one other family, three ladies clearly belonging to three generations, a teenager probably with her grandmother and mother, is just done with the buffet spread and asks from the menu-card.
That spread is quite sumptuous: Ash, which is a thick delicious soup with various kinds of lentils, vegetables and Kabuli chickpeas. Plus the spread includes cheese, butter, jam, Zaytoon (olive pickle) and of course breads. I take my pick and finish a satisfactory dinner. Just as I am done, a waiter comes forward and tells something in Farsi. Realizing that I didn’t quite get him, another gentleman approaches me with a menu-card and says something in completely broken English. This time I make out that he is asking me if want anything more to eat. “Na. Mersi.”
More than in words through gestures I tell him, thanks but I don’t need anything. He retreats with a peculiar look in his eyes. I get up. Tell the guy sitting at the counter that I am at room no. so and so. I can sign the bill and pay later when I check-out tomorrow. More peculiar looks. But he doesn’t produce the bill. I show him the key to my room, which has my room number stamped on the ring. He looks at it and gives me a blank nod, which may mean anything on earth. Hoping that they will add the bill to my rent I leave. Clearly, besides the beautiful girls at the reception, no one speaks English here.
The real drama begins the morning after. I am given the bill at the reception. It’s alright. Exactly as I was told by my Tehran travel agent. But where’s yesterday’s dinner bill? The young woman at the reception calls up the restaurant. Speaks for a moment. Hangs up. She looks surprised, “But you take no dinner here Sir!”
Now it’s my turn to look surprised, “What do you mean? Of course I did.”
“At what time, Sir?”
“Umm. Say around nine.”
She takes up the phone again. I hear her quoting my name and room number.
When she hangs up the phone this time, her surprise has given way to perplexity. Soon the guy who was at the restaurant counter yesterday appears, whispers something to her and leaves.
“You take only preparatory. No charge Sir,” says the lady with a naughty glint in her eyes!
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra