|Edible memories, drinkable moods: Bread and water in the land of Iran||
Would humans be capable of savoring the taste of anything from the great spread of life had they were not able to take away the memory of that experience with them? With a little hesitation of a realist mind, the answer is a resounding no. If we could not make memories, we would not have much in our hands to pacify us in the absence of things and in the moments of loss. But then, if we did not have memories, we probably would not even feel that loss or absence. And yet, it is in the interplay of the comfort and discomfort of safety and loss that we grow and hopefully become meaningful individuals.
Food is an entity as old as time and memory. It probably existed even long before humans did. The oldest creative form of food is perhaps bread, made out of the forbidden wheat (in some religious interpretations of the Adam and Eve story, the forbidden fruit is said to have been wheat). As Iranian schoolchildren, the first words we learned to write were ‘aab’ (Persian for water) and ‘naan’(Persian for bread). The first sentences that we ever mastered to write from our Persian language textbook in the first grade were ‘baba naan daad’ (father gave bread) and ‘aan mard aab daad’ (meaning, that man gave bread). Was it a coincidence that these two words were the first and simplest teachings in the process of learning our mother tongue?
Bread has ‘hormat’ (Persian word for reverence), that is what we were told as children. Place it gently on your plate and if you must discard it, then do not throw it away in the dustbin along with other trash. And then every time there was dried up bread in the house, we would remember the ‘namaki’ (literally meaning, salt man). He was a hawker who would go from neighborhood to neighborhood with a pushcart and his long cry of “namakiyeeeeeh!”-The salt man is here! - meant that people could come out and trade their stack of dry bread for salt or fruit baskets. We would watch as he walked away with the memory of our bread in his cart. This was a practical way to refrain from unwanted disposal of bread, a tradition that has faded out, but still in practice in some rural areas.
We were told that it takes ‘aab va naan’ (water and bread) to sustain a life, to earn a living and soon enough we learned that this was not all about the very generic concept of food. If we shared ‘naan va namak’ (meaning, bread and salt) with someone, we had bonded with them over that lingering taste of familiarity, they had become a part of our memories, introduced into the circle of our trust and we were taught to respect that. In fact, the phrase “Eating salt and breaking the salt shaker” is a saying in Persian which referes to people who are ungrateful to one’s kindness, take for granted the hospitality of a friend’s heart and betray one’s trust.
And there was water to take the shape and color of our moods and make us feel lighter. If we had fits of anger, we were advised to pause and drink a glass of water. If there was the knock of a guest on the door, first and foremost the kettle was put on the fire, water was boiled and the tea of intimacy was brewed and served. If we felt happy, if we were miserable, if we were waiting, if we were bored, “Do you want tea?” was a considerate gesture that could instantly connect us with the ‘other’ anytime during the day. And if we had a nightmare, we were told that we could first whisper it to the flowing water, to lighten its wild colors before narrating it for anyone else.
We are all connoisseurs of the concepts that the generous hands of life have to offer us. We take what we want out of need and sometimes because we think they are what we should want and need, and then we digest them into values that we are eager to share with others, to recount what we have tasted and let the world know what is important to us and what never appealed to us in the first place. And that gives us hope, a sort of courage that we are not mere consumers of life but also contributors to it as we continue to search for the bread and water of our thoughts and dreams.
Water: Flow of culture, undercurrents of tradition
Water has always been regarded with eyes of respect and love in the Iranian culture and tradition. The words ‘abaadi’ (meaning prosperity, also village) and ‘abadani’ (meaning affluence) have the concept of ‘aab’ (Persian for water) at the core of them. Water is a signifier of life and its expansion. Wherever there was water, there would also be an ‘abaadi’, there would be people who would build their lives around it. In Persian language, even the phrase ‘aab va khaak’ (literally meaning, water and earth) is used as a synonym for one’s home and birthplace. In Persian mythology, Anahita is the goddess of waters (Aban, which is also the name of the second month of autumn in the Persian calendar). She is also a symbol of fertility, healing and wisdom, meanings and values that flow through the waters of life.
Water has a significant role in the Persian ritual of seeing off a traveler. Before a traveler steps out of the house, one of the family members or friends who have gathered to wish him/her ‘bon voyage’ hold the Quran in their hands and the traveler kisses the holy book and walks from under it out of the door. After he walks or moves away from the house, a bowl of water is splashed behind him while wishing him a safe trip and a secure return to his home. It is believed that the water is a carrier of those wishes and would bring back the traveler to its starting place.
Water is present on many other occasions and in various customs. A bowl of water with rose petals afloat is a common item on the Persian wedding spread and the Norouz (Iranian New Year) spread. Before animals like sheep or chicken are slaughtered, particularly for religious rituals and sacrifices (nazr: literally meaning a religious vow), they are given some water.
A space is also dedicated to the beauty of water in the traditional layout of a Persian house in the form of a central water pool known as Howz. Howz is actually a small round or square water pool that was built in the back or front yard and is still seen in traditional Persian house settings. This adds to aesthetical aspect of the house. Sometimes there is also a small fountain or fish swimming in the pool. In the summer, fruits like water melon and cantaloupe are ceremonially left in the water to cool. In Persian culture and literature, sitting by the water, enjoying the bounties of Mother Nature and contemplating the passing of life is a common theme. Jooy (literally meaning brook) has been an old element of the city’s architecture. North Tehran, in particular has beautiful brooks flowing within its koocheh baaghs (literally meaning, garden lanes. Lanes that have trees and are pleasantly endowed with nature). It is also a common belief that telling your dreams or secrets to flowing water is an act that will unburden one’s heart and more advisable and safer than telling a friend or an acquaintance.
Persian Bread: old as time, fresh as found flavor
Although you can hardly imagine a Persian dish sans rice, bread has always been a very common item on the Iranian dining table. In fact, bread was previously the staple food of Iranians as compared to rice today which is indispensable to Persian cuisine. Iranians revere bread to a great extent. Naan is referred to as ‘barkat-e-khoda’ (literally meaning, God’s bounty or grace).In fact, in the recent past they would take oath by bread. If bread happened to fall on the ground, they would place it on their foreheads, kiss it and keep it back in its place. Even stale bread is not discarded along with other trash. Leftovers and breadcrumbs are usually disposed in separate containers.
When it comes to bread, you always have a choice to go for the one that goes with your taste and the dish you are going to consume it with. There are four major types of flat breads (naan) and about ten types of unflat and sweet breads available in various shapes and sizes in the art of Iranian bakery. In urban settings bread is easily purchasable from shops where it is baked fresh. In rural areas, however, bread is mostly baked at home and it is strictly the task of the women in the family. In the city, people stand in long queues early morning, noon and evening to buy hot bread which is baked in a ‘tanur’(an oven). The tanur is possibly the most important invention in the art of bakery. It is actually a huge opening in the wall (in cities) or the ground (in rural areas) that is filled with pebbles. It takes about half an hour to 45 minutes to heat the tanur and make the dough ready. The ‘shaater’ or ‘naanvaa’ (meaning, baker) asks each customer how much naan they want as the queue proceeds. The dough is shaped and then spread deep into the tanur, on the red hot pebbles with the help of a long wooden handle that has a flat head for the dough to be placed. Each bakery makes one type of bread. While ‘lavash’ which is made from white flour is the most common, ‘taftoun’ baked with white flour and a mixture of whole wheat flours is probably the most popular. The most traditional, however, is ‘sangak’ which is made of brown flour. Barbari is also a common type of bread made of white flour, slightly costlier than other types. Since the primary ingredient is wheat, all bread types can be kept for a more than ten days, usually wrapped in a ‘sofreh’ (table cloth available in various patterns and material) or a ‘sabad’ (bread basket). People try to buy bread on a daily basis as it has always been the custom of Iranians to consume fresh bread but with the advent of modern life and its rat race, daily purchase of bread is time consuming for some. There is a solution to that as well. These types of bread can be frozen and be easily defrosted and heated later.
The Specialty: Bread with the memory of stones
Made of whole wheat flour and hence known for its nutritive qualities, the most traditional bread of Iran is ‘sangak’. Borhan Ghate’, a Persian dictionary compiled in the middle of the 17th century is the oldest text which has defined sangak as “A type of bread that is baked on hot pebbles”. The word ‘sang’ actually means stone in Persian and the word for pebbles is ‘sangrizeh’. There is also another account of the bread which takes the origin of sangak back to the pre-Islamic era. It is said that one of the kings of the Sassanid dynasty fell ill and his physician advised him to have bread that is baked on hot stones. Sangak (literally meaning, stone bread) is indeed baked on a bed of red hot pebbles and shops that specialize in making the bread are known as ‘sangaki’. The oven (tanur) is a dome shaped hole, an opening in the wall and it is filled with stones and pebbles. The oven is heated and the stones glow red with readiness. No yeast or baking powder is used in baking this bread. Instead, the baker uses starter from the previous day’s batch in order to ferment the dough. The dough is skillfully flattened on a slab of wood which has a wooden handle. The handle is used to insert the dough deep into the tanur and on the pebbles. Only good quality whole wheat flour, pure water and some salt make the ingredients of the sangak. Sometimes poppy seeds or black caraway seeds are sprinkled on the dough. This type is known as ‘sangak-e- khashkhashi’. The result is a flat, not so thin bread (3-5 mm thick) of about 70-75 cm length. It is said that shape of sangak resembles a woman’s chador (an outer garment or cloak worn by many women in Iran).
1- Urban water supply in Iran is available for the most part of the country. Sanitation and service provision in rural areas, however, are still a challenge. For instance, in the capital city of Tehran and greater part of the country, people drink water from taps. It is filtrated and refined before supplied to houses.
2- The flat Barbari bread (literally meaning, of or related to Barbars) first became popular during the Qajar period when it was brought to Tehran by the Barbars who are a group of people living in Khorasan, the eastern borders of Iran. Barbari has a dash of sweet flavor and it is fluffy in texture, sometimes with sesame seeds sprinkled on the top. It is also a little costlier than other types of bread.
3- The largest and most effluent river in Iran is ‘Karoun’ (720 kilometers long) and it flows through Chaharmahal and Bakhtiyari and Khouzestan provinces. It is also the only navigable river in the country and together with its tributaries like Dez and the Kuhrang, it forms the largest water basin of Iran.
4- In addition to traditional Persian breads, many types of other breads like toast (white and brown), oat bread, garlic bread, variety of buns (like burger bread, as it is known in Iran), different types of sweet breads and others are also common. French bread (known as baguette) is used for making sandwiches.
5- Iran is one of the countries that face the challenge of water scarcity. Only 10 percent of the country receives adequate rainfall for agriculture; most of this area is in western Iran.
6- The bakers of the city have their own unions. For example, the Union of Bakers in Tehran supervises the process and quality of bread baking in the city. Bakers’ guilds also tend to complaints and see to the betterment of the bread industry.
Bizarre Buzz! Hot and cold, all in one bed of nature!
In the heart of the desert and the year-round hot region of Tabas, you will find the spectacular charms of a natural paradox. Only a few kilometers into Kharv village in Yazd Province, there is a hot and cold water spring that goes by the name of Morteza Ali. The spring is a remarkable tourist attraction and despite the uneasy route to the location, over 600 tourists visit the spot annually.
After Tabas city and a five kilometers walk (it is not possible to go by car) you will reach Kalsardar valley. The walls of the valley stand tall and as you walk along the path, you can see openings that seem to have appeared in a particular order. Some of these openings are mineral water springs and the largest of them is known as Morteza Ali Bath. The hot water flows from the right side of the valley into the river and this creates disparity in temperature of the river water. Sometimes water can get as hot as 10 centigrade. The hot and cold water, however do not mix thoroughly until 300 meters into the river bed.
Subscribe to our RSS feed to stay in touch and receive all of TT updates right in your feed reader