Food can be one of the great disappointments for visitors to Iran and none more so than the ravenous cyclist arriving in a city after a hard day of pedalling, only to find little on offer beyond kebabs, pizzas and hamburgers. At least the kebabs are juicy and healthy, grilled over hot coals, and the various types of Iranian bread are all excellent. Vegetarians will have a particularly hard time finding comfort and getting a decent coffee is difficult to impossible in many parts of the country, aside from Tehran and a few select restaurants. It’s all the more reason to make sure you bring at least the basics for self-catering.
Of the sparse selection on offer, keep an eye out for these hidden gems:
- Honey with cream or yogurt, warm bread and tea for breakfast in Tabriz. Heavenly and packed with calories for the day ahead. Available from dairy shops, which can give you breakfast to go or eat in the small restaurants at the back of the store.
- The Azeri stew of dizi or abgoosht: chickpeas and lamb meat in a tomato sauce.
- Ash soup. There are different versions in every city. Always hearty, often with beans and noodles, and dirt cheap. Sometimes vegetarian but not always.
- The occasional street seller frying up falafel sandwiches or an Iranian take on samosas. Samosas can be vegetarian but sometimes, in Tehran particularly, they are filled with processed sausage.
- Fresh juice stands whipping up vitamin-loaded concoctions.
When it comes to cooking your own food, it’s nice to know that many cheaper hotels will give you access to a kitchen. Ask when you’re comparing prices and rooms. Huge supermarkets like those seen in Europe and Turkey are unknown in Iran. Instead the market is dominated by small shops selling dried goods and dairy products. Some also sell a little fresh produce but stalls specialising in fruit and vegetables are more common. Butchers run separate shops for chicken and red meat.
The majority of corner shops will stock fresh eggs, tins of tuna and chicken, tomato paste, eggplant puree (we’re not sure what the Iranians use this for but it’s good on pasta), baked beans and a small selection of tinned vegetables. Usually you only see peas in tins but sometimes sweet corn will appear. For breakfast, jam and honey are common and less occasionally you’ll see a chocolate spread like Nutella.
Most shops also sell dairy products like feta cheese, yogurt and the popular yogurt drink doogh (both carbonated and without gas). The usual soft drinks are available (Pepsi, Coke and Iranian versions) plus plenty of Iranian fruit-flavoured beers and non-alcoholic versions of brands like Carlsberg. For snacking, there are all kinds of potato chips available and the energy-packed helva is a common sight as well as dried fruit leather.
At produce stands you’ll find potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, green peppers, cabbage and heaps of fresh herbs. Oranges, apples and bananas are common fruits. Bizarrely, we often see cucumbers at fruit stands and not with the vegetables.
Bottled water is commonly available although we drank the tap water and never had any problems. It’s up to you. If you’re happy to go with the tap water, it’s easy to find places to refill your bottles. Look for the metal containers in towns or near mosques. Any local will happily help you to find water (pronounced “awwwb” in Persian) if you ask.
If you really can’t do without a tipple, alcohol is available on the black market for a price. Ask discretely.