Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
20 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Mark Roper

Isfahan nisf-a jahan’, goes the famous half-rhyme: ‘Isfahan is half the world.’ There is nowhere more associated with the refined glories of Persia than Isfahan in central Iran, and to this day it is considered by many to be the country’s most beautiful city. I’ve been dreaming of its legendary bridges, tea houses, mosques and palaces for many months now, ever since we began making plans for a Persian adventure, and at last we are here, standing on the impressive balcony of the Ali Qapu Palace, high above the Maidan-e Naqsh-e Jahan, gazing down at the monuments to a former Shah’s glory.

Isfahan had a speedy and spectacular rise to fame. It was always a bustling provincial trading town, but in the sixteenth century it fell to the Safavids, and Shah Abbas I, Persia’s most celebrated ruler, decided to make it his capital. Over thirty-two years he poured money and manpower into making Isfahan one of the most gorgeous cities in the world.

We had read about the immense Maidan (or Imam Square, as it is officially called these days), but it is only now that we are here, with it stretched out beneath us, that we can fully appreciate how vast it really is. Shah Abbas wanted the square to be the focal point of his new capital, and from the palace’s huge yet elegant balcony, with its carved wooden ceiling, ornamental pool and slender columns, he would have sat with his entourage, looking down at military parades, polo matches, public festivals and all the daily business of the city.

He would also have gazed upon the three new jewels of his empire: the monumental Qeysarieh Gate at the distant northern end of the square, with the sprawling bazaar beyond; the massive blue portal of the Royal Mosque (now the Imam Mosque) that rises at the southern end, and, directly opposite, the pretty little dome of the Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque, built for the Shah’s own family, and connected to the palace, say some, by a secret passage beneath the square itself. It would be lovely to linger here, enjoying the view and the sunshine, but we still have half the world to see.

Yas has a morning of culture planned, so we stride off after her to the Imam Mosque, the grandest of all the Safavid momunents. From the balcony of the Ali Qapu Palace we were able to see that the entrance portal fronts directly onto the square but that the dome, minarets and complex of buildings behind are skewed to the right, so as to orient them, as is proper, towards Mecca.

Now we follow Yas through the mosque’s cool entrance chamber into the lightfilled central courtyard. An ablution pool in the middle is surrounded by double-storeyed arcades. Four vast portals – iwans – are spaced symmetrically around, each leading to a prayer hall or sanctuary. The first impression is of grandeur: a sense of space and sun and emptiness. There are no trees or other vegetation in the courtyard, but on the walls around us a glazed garden of leaves and flowers tumbles over every surface.

Yas leads us onward, and we wind our way through arcades and arches and lofty chambers, each awash with colour and movement. I think of Vita Sackville-West, who visited the city in the 1920s, and wrote, ‘ In sixteenth century Isfahan, Persians were building out of light itself, taking the turquoise from the sky, the green of the spring trees, the yellow of the sun, the brown of the earth, the black of their sheep and turning these into solid light.’ And here it is, this ‘solid light’, all around us.

We cut across the corner of the Maidan to the Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque, the first of the new monuments that Shah Abbas built here, and named after his father-in-law, a revered Shiite scholar. From a distance, the Lutfollah dome is small and elegant; it announces its presence discreetly. But we soon realise that this restraint draws the eye back, again and again. Instead of the familiar turquoise of most Persian mosques, the Lutfollah dome is a soft, milky-coffee colour inset with a tracery of black and white arabesques and the occasional splash of azure blue that sparkles when the sun catches it. It doesn’t compete with the larger, more vibrantly hued dome of the nearby Imam Mosque; instead it complements it perfectly.

Here there is no courtyard, no iwans nor vast prayer halls. Instead, there is just one intimate chamber at the end of a twisting, dimly lit passageway. After the sun and space of the Maidan, our eyes take time to adjust and only slowly do we make sense of our surroundings. Latticed windows set high around the base of the dome diffuse the light softly, and we realise that every surface is clothed in colour. There are blues – every conceivable shade of blue – and greens and yellows and even some gold and white and black. We move closer to appreciate more fully the intense, complex, intricate detail. Wherever we turn, our eyes are drawn to endless swirling variations of letter and leaf, flower and twisting tendril, which all seem to shimmer and change in the light.

Hovering overhead is a shallow dome inlaid with delicate, diminishing, lemon-shaped lozenges that draw the eye ever upward. As I move beneath it, the sun pierces the apex and a single beam of light spills down the side; all at once it becomes the fanned tail of a radiant peacock.

I think it is here, inside this lovely prayer room, that I am at last beginning to grasp the intention of the great Islamic designers with their emphasis on pattern and order and on elusive, constantly changing beauty. It’s to remind us, of course, that God is at the centre of a divinely ordered universe that we mortals can never entirely grasp nor understand. I stop trying to analyse what I’m looking at or to work out where it all begins and ends. I feel my heart constrict as I gaze around and up and, finally, I allow my mind to surrender and float free.

But in Isfahan it’s not all geometry and mathematical precision and abstract beauty. The frescoed walls of the Chehul Sotun Palace suggest that the Safavids were just as interested in the pleasures of the flesh as of the soul, and they were certainly less bound by the strictures of Islam than today’s government.

Chehul Sotun – the Palace of Forty Pillars – was built as a glittering summer pavilion within lovely gardens that stretch back to the Maidan. In fact, there are only twenty slender columns supporting the exquisite inlaid verandah ceiling, but reflected in the still water of a long pool there appear to be forty.

The great interior hall was once a banqueting chamber, where visiting dignitaries, diplomats and adventurers from China, India and Europe were entertained in lavish style. The walls are adorned with vibrant scenes from Safavid life; celebrations of razm o bazm – fighting and feasting – enjoyed, it seems, with equal alacrity. Some paintings portray famous battles and historic scenes, others depict languid picnics and lavish feasts. Despite the Islamic prohibition of alcohol, wine features prominently in many of the paintings: it’s poured from elegant jewelled flasks into tiny bowls that are passed between casually touching hands or raised to lovers’ lips. The walls are alive with colour and movement and tell a thousand scandalous tales. Guests recline on gorgeous brocaded cloths spread with sweetmeats and exotic fruits and are entertained by musicians and sloe-eyed dancing girls. Here a falcon perches on an embroidered sleeve; there, a slender hand slips beneath silken skirts, and, elsewhere, a pale-faced eunuch collapses in a drunken stupor. What indulgence! What life!

Soft-boiled eggs and huge flaps of bread, straight from the baker’s oven. Conserves of sour cherry, sweet orange and cinnamon-spiked apple. Thick clotted cream and honey dripping from the comb. Hot milk, fresh white cheese, soft chewy dates and tiny dried wild figs. I think I’d be happy to eat this way every morning for the rest of my life.

We have breakfasted early and now we are slipping through a vast sprawling network of alleyways in the old part of Isfahan – we are headed for the Grand Bazaar. The shutters are rattling up and we feel the world come alive around us. Part of the enjoyment of visiting the bazaar is the sense of uncertainty, of not quite knowing what you’re going to find around the next corner. Before long the streets are thick with shoppers and we emerge from the clamour and chaos and find ourselves at the entry to the old Jameh Mosque.

As we watch pedestrians bustle in and out of the mosque, we are reminded that mosques are a focal point of a community and that they are always located close to the main centre of commerce. Here in Iran, religion is an integral part of daily life and the mosques are far more than just places to come and pray. Instead, people treat them as a kind of community centre; they are places to meet friends, do business, study, relax, eat – even sleep.

Isfahanis have been doing all these things in the Jameh Mosque – the main congregrational mosque used for Friday prayers in every district across Iran – for nearly eight hundred years. We follow an old man with a bag of shopping into the sunny central courtyard. A group of mothers sits on the edge of a stone pool as their children run through the pigeons, sending them swirling off in a flurry of beating wings.

We move from iwan to iwan, admiring the mosaic façades, elaborate mouldings and intricately carved stonework. And then we find ourselves inside, drifting through a forest of columns in a series of connecting, low-ceilinged halls. After the exuberant, colourful opulence of the Safavid mosques in the Maidan, these internal chambers of the Jameh Mosque feel dark, strangely gloomy and subdued. But as our eyes begin to adjust we realise that this is precisely the point. Instead of colour, here the impact comes from pattern and texture. Instead of multi-coloured tiles, here small brown bricks are arranged in a seemingly infinite variety of designs. It is strangely moving, a kind of austere, ancient beauty. A beauty of simplicity and restraint .

There is little restraint on display at the Kemani gaz (nougat) shop, where the crowds are ten-deep and clamouring for boxes of the delectably soft sweet treat. Unlike the other customers, we haven’t ordered, so have to wait patiently in line. Yas tells us that this is the busiest time of year for Isfahan’s famous nougat shops, as families buy-up in vast quantities to serve to guests over the New Year’s holiday. There is a four-kilo limit per customer, yet the shop is jam-packed with entire families, hedging their bets. We are impressed to learn that the price of gaz ranges from four to fifty US dollars a kilogram, depending on the ratio of pistachios used. We restrict ourselves to several boxes of the less-expensive varieties as well as another local specialty – poolaki – that turns out to be wafers of hard toffee in flavours such as coconut, lemon, saffron and sesame.

Clasping our goody-boxes tightly, we squeeze out of the shop and Yaz leads us to a nearby tea house to recover. The Azadegan Tea House is tucked away in a narrow alley off the north-eastern corner of the Maidan, and is well-known for its eccentric decoration. We enter through a cramped doorway into a smoke-filled narrow room, lined on either side with banquette seating and tables. This is the men-only section, and as we pass through, a few old men glance up briefly before settling back to the business of their water pipes.

Suspended from the low ceiling along the length of the room is an extraordinary collection of smoking paraphernalia, tea pots, lampshades, brass bells and, what can really only be called junk. The walls are crammed with framed black and white photographs from some distant era. We can make out long-dead war-heros, mullahs, politicians, dignitaries and strong-men from a local zurkhane, a traditional Persian ‘house of strength’.

We pass into the neighbouring room – the family section – and collapse gratefully at a vacant table. A waiter arrives promptly and Yas orders the house specialty, a delicate syrup-soaked pastry known as goosh-e feel, or elephant’s ears, because of their shape. ‘Really you should drink dugh with this sweet,’ she tells us, but we all opt, instead, for hot, fragrant chai. Slowly the hot tea and sugary pastry work their magic, and soon we are able to gather our strength and head back out into the world to our next destination.

A nippy wind has sprung up by the time we reach the martyr’s Cemetery on the outskirts of the city. It’s Thursday afternoon, and all around the country businesses are closing for the weekend. Thursday evenings and Fridays are the key times for families to visit the graves of soldiers killed in the war with Iraq, and it is a ritual that holds particular significance for Isfahanis, who lost around thirty-six thousand men during those eight terrible years.

We trail through a sea of Iranian flags that flutter in the breeze over the endless rows of graves. Each is crowned with a photograph of its occupant: there are young boys, scarcely more than children, and teenagers sporting wispy moustaches and 1980s hair-dos. Older men – but still only in their twenties or thirties – are thickly bearded. They all gaze out with the same implacable, clear-eyed certainty.

Yas clutches her shawl tightly and shivers, while Ebi wanders off on his own. It’s a rare Iranian family that is untouched by a war that gained nothing and cost more than a million lives to Iran alone. Those who come here to mourn consider martyrdom an honour, and some visit every week to sit at the graves of their loved ones. But it is quiet in the cemetery this afternoon. Solitary mourners sit in silent contemplation or murmur verses from the Koran, and a few old women busy themselves with sweeping graves and watering flowers.

Ebi rejoins us and is looking sour. ‘This mourning, this grief, it is so much part of being Iranian,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I think it is more important to us than anything else.’On the way out we pass a family heating a pot of soup on a portable stove. They offer us a plate of sweets and Yas explains that this is nazri – offerings of food that are distributed in memory of the departed, and a vital part of the Islamic culture. By sharing nazri, the memories and the burden and the respect are shared by the community.

Yas points out a small child, skipping happily around her mother’s knees and says to Ebi, ‘I don’t think the younger generation wants to think about war. They don’t seem to have the energy to visit cemeteries these days. By the time this one grows up, I wonder, will anyone care anymore?’.

We amble along the embankment of the Zayandeh River in the cold, late-afternoon sunshine, admiring the famous Safavid bridges that span its waters in singleand doublearched tiers. It is too early in the year for the famous river tea houses to open for business, and we have also heard that, one by one, they are being closed down, ostensibly because tobacco smoke from the ever-popular water pipes is damaging the stonework. Other people have told us that the closures are part of the current government’s continuing efforts to minimise opportunities for young men and women to socialise.

The Khaju Bridge is, nonetheless, crowded with pedestrians and as we duck in and out of the arches we pass several groups of teenagers lounging in the alcoves, listening to loud Iranian pop music and smoking water pipes. A little further along, at the sound of our footsteps, a young couple slips deeper into the shadows. And now we join a small crowd that is gathering around a solo singer. He is young, but the words and melody are ancient. We pause for a while to listen, and the wind catches the mournful notes and casts them out over the rippling water.

But the afternoon is drawing to a close. This will be our last evening in Isfahan and there is one final thing we must do before we leave.

It is the golden hour. the time between day and night that photographers love so much, when the world is bathed in a magical light. Greg and I have returned to the Maidan for one last time, for one last glass of chai.

Up a narrow flight of stairs next to the Qeysarieh Gate is a tea house. Overlooking the Maidan, its balcony is empty now except for the two of us sitting quietly with our tea and sweet wafers as we wait for nightfall. It feels like a secret, peaceful place, in contrast to the bustling shoppers going about their evening business in the bazaar below. We gaze for a while at the distant elegant columns of the Ali Qapu Palace, and the domes and minarets of the city’s glorious mosques, luminous in the fading light. From somewhere near by the plangent wail of evening prayer call begins and the city lights start to twinkle.

There is both pleasure and pain in these last precious moments, and now that we are going home I can hardly bear to think that we may never return here. Our journeying has given us tantalising glimpses into worlds both ancient and modern. But we have found that they are elusive dream worlds that seem to shift and change uneasily before our eyes. The beauty of this place – this country, these people – is that it steals up on you, then settles inside, as precious golden memories, that leave you yearning for more. But it's a disquieting beauty, too – capricious, intoxicating, baffling – and we are left with feelings of profound sadness as well as intense joy.

We know full-well that in the few months we have travelled here we cannot possibly hope to understand a country as subtle, tangled and complex as Iran, and yet we have experienced and learned more than we could ever have hoped for, thanks to the unquestioning, boundless generosity of our new Iranian friends. Of one thing we are certain, the experiences shared here will inform our lives – forever.

Now the moon is rising higher behind the dome of the Sheikh Lutfollah Mosque. Soon the square will empty of traffic and people and the grand buildings will be washed in silver. All colour and detail will be bleached away, and all that will remain will be darkness and light. And beyond the reaches of the great city square, where the houses, gardens, roads and mountains roll out to meet the approaching night, the country will sink slowly into shadow.

It is time for us to leave.

Persians have a very sweet tooth – and a very sour tooth! To satisfy both these needs, the Iranian diet includes a bewildering array of preserved vegetables and fruits. We were in awe of the extreme conditions so many Iranians live under – the searing heat, blistering winds and endless dry of summer, and the icy cold and deep snow of winter – and grew to understand how important it is for local cooks to make the most of produce when it is available. Although pickles, relishes, jams, dried fruits and fruit leathers are widely available from the daily bazaar, many households still have a strong tradition of home-preserving – especially in rural areas. One of our great pleasures was trying the different jams on offer at breakfast (saffron jam and orange-flower jam were two extravagant favourites) and the range of home-pickled vegetables that were served alongside kebabs and rice at lunch or dinner.

Pickled vegetables and relishes – torshi – feature at every Iranian meal, as their sour crunch is the ideal accompaniment to rich soups and stews and grilled meats. Just about every vegetable imaginable is bottled in brine or vinegar and flavoured with fresh herbs and aromatics. Pickled cucumbers (kheeyar shoor) and garlic (torshi-e seer) are perennial favourites; the latter improve with age, and some versions can be anything up to ten years old, turning an alarming dark brown or even black in the jar. Many families will faithfully recreate their own mixed pickle (torshi-e makhloot) or relish (torshi-ye leeteh) recipes every year.

The other great preserving agent is sugar, which was used as a sweetener and to candy and preserve fruit several thousand years before it reached Europe. In fact the old Persian word ‘shikar’ is the origin of the English ‘sugar’, and from ‘qanadi’, for sweet shops, we get our word, ‘candy’.

One or two fruit jams (or sometimes vegetable or flower-petal jams) will always appear on the Iranian breakfast table for eating with fresh flatbread spread with butter. Persian jams are somewhat different from thick, firm-set English jams, and closer to syrupy, dripping preserves or spoon-sweets of other Middle Eastern countries. They are fabulous drizzled onto yoghurt or ice-cream or served with thick cream or even custard for an easy dessert.

The Persian fondness for a sugar hit extends to beverages, and over the centuries syrupy fruit sherbets took on an even greater importance in this region with the Islamic prohibition of alcohol. For many centuries, Persians have made use of compressed snow and ice from the mountains, which was stored in ice houses or yakchal, then crushed and mixed with fruit syrups or distillations made from myriad fruit, blossoms, herbs and spices. This idea spread westwards in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was the origin of the refreshing fruit sorbets associated with European kitchens. In fact, the word ‘sorbet’ evolves from the Farsi word ‘sharbat’. To this day, many Iranian families make their own thirst-quenching fruit sherbets for the baking hot summer months.

Yoghurt is another brilliant example of preserving. In this instance, fresh milk is converted into a semi-solid cultured product that stands up to the extreme heat of Middle Eastern summers. Yoghurt, or mast in Farsi, is ubiquitous. It’s eaten at every meal and made in most households. It is enjoyed as much for its health-giving properties as its delicious, slightly sour flavour, and is consumed either as is, mixed with herbs and vegetables as the thick yoghurt salad borani, or as dugh, a refreshing minted, lightly fizzing drink. In every form, yoghurt is the ideal accompaniment to heavy meat dishes, as its ‘cool’ properties balance out the ‘hot’ aspects of meat.

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