One heads for Iran expecting traditional Middle Eastern fare with the occasional variation to the norm. However, a treat is in store for the visitor to Iran, where one finds that the Persians are sophisticated eaters and cooking is an important part of their lifestyle.
NO doubt the best food is prepared and eaten in the home, where dishes require considerable preparation, marinades and slow cooking. As few or no supermarkets exist, produce is always fresh, available from their local bazaars, and regional specialities are highly prized.
Their bread is flat and thin and served with every meal. At breakfast one can roll it around cheese, fruit or jams, such as fig, rose, strawberry and carrot marmalade. At lunch or dinner, the bread can be used with a dip or to soak up the remains of the delicious sauce from a casserole.
Almost every meal, either at lunch or dinner, commenced with soup. At times they were a rich broth with minced balls of lamb or finely diced lamb with spinach, split peas, lentils, parsley and dill. On most occasions we were served a vegetable soup with a barley base and with saffron and a range of spices. Available with the soups were a small jug of lemon or lime juice, which one was expected to liberally apply for a sharpness integral to the flavor.
Served at the same time as the soup was a bowl of yoghurt, either plain or with cucumber, garlic, chives or dill as a flavoring. At the outset one had a few mouthfuls due to its reputation as a traveler's protector, but the quality and its refreshment soon had one downing two bowls a day on top of spoonfuls at breakfast.
With the main dishes came the basic food of Iran, rice. Although cooked and presented in different ways, the rice was always long-grained, light and fluffy with excellent flavor, yet often pilaf-like with saffron, dill, pomegranate or sour cherries. Pats of unsalted butter were served with the rice to enable one to make a crater in the rice, add the butter which soon melted, and then blend it in with the rice.
A form of kebab, either lamb, chicken, fish or mixed, came with every meal, together with a salad and rice accompaniment. The meats had always been marinated for some time and were nearly always tender and delicious. Cooked vegetables were available as a separate dish as well. Accompanying dishes were mainly stews, mostly vegetable or vegetable based with meat added. Hot spices such as chili were not used, but saffron, turmeric, dill, fennel, mint, oregano, pomegranate were used together with different nuts. The vegetables included beans, spinach, potatoes, tomatoes and often egg-plant, with quince also a popular base.
Kufteh or meat balls in the north were delicious, the larger ones being a meal in themselves.
Dolmehs or stuffed vine leaves were excellent, but the two dishes which left a lasting impression were Dizi and Fesenjan.
Dizi is a rich stew of lamb, chick-peas, tomato, onion and turmeric, served in a stoneware bowl. One drains off the liquid into a soup bowl, devours the soup, then pummels the remaining meat and vegetables into a meaty gruel to be eaten with bread having removed any bone. With this dish, as well as others, one is offered a spicy yoghurt drink called Dugh. Dugh is very salty, but mixed with mineral water is quite refreshing.
Fesenjan was the winner amongst our group. It consists of duck (or chicken) simmered with crushed walnuts, pomegranate juice and lemon juice. Outstanding on the many occasions presented to us.
Quality fresh fruit was offered to us to complete a meal, with sweet and delicious melons, pomegranates tasty but full of bananas, apples, oranges, mandarins and strawberries.
Because of this we rarely had deserts, especially as creme caramel or fruit salad and ice-cream were the only ones on offer. At times one was offered baklava and halva, so few resisted these rich and delectable tit-bits.
While travelling on the bus we were offered fresh dates (not dried like those at home), tiny dried figs, pistachio and mixed nuts, together with local biscuits. The fabulous biscuits were mainly short-bread pastry filled with a mixture of dates, cinamonn and pistachio or hazel nut.
Ali, our excellent Persian tour operator, ordered for us at each restaurant, ensuring that a new delight was offered at almost every meal and that we sampled a speciality of the different regions. He also ensured that our favorite dishes were repeated. As a result, we have never enjoyed the dining as much on previous tours nor had such consistently good fare.
I am writing to recommend to you Mr. Ali Oveissi's Iranian inbound tour company, Abgin Tours of Persia Ltd. My recommendation is wholehearted and without reservation.
Australians Studying Abroad (founded 1977) is Australia's oldest and largest educational and cultural tour company, running up to fifty study tours per annum to some forty countries. Many of these tours are operated in conjunction with eight of Australia's premier universities. Australians Studying Abroad is the recipient of a number of important academic grants and awards, including two major Australian Research Council grants, the most important academic grants given by the Australian government.
Australians Studying Abroad (ASA) is fiercely protective of its high educational and operational standards and therefore only deals with impeccable operators in the countries we visit. For six years ASA has commissioned Abgin Tours of Persia to operate its popular tour entitled Iran: Art and Culture of the Persians. ASA is now expanding its work with Abgin, which will operate a new program, Architecture of Iran. This tour, operated by ASA in conjunction with the Architecture Faculty, University of Melbourne, is accepted for professional development points by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. A third tour highlighting Persia's beautiful gardens will be operated by ASA in 2007. This program was developed by Mr. Oveissi, using his deep knowledge of his country and his excellent academic contacts in Iran.
Over the last six years, Mr. Ali Oveissi of Abgin tours has maintained an extraordinarily high standard in operating ASA tours of Iran. He has my complete trust because he is impeccably honest, uses Iran's best qualified guides, such as the President of the Iranian Guides Association. Mr. Oveissi, who personally conducts our tour, takes infinite care in ensuring the very best experience for our travelers. He, in fact, constantly offers added services at no extra cost, which are unexpected but greatly appreciated by our clients.
Mr. Oveissi and his guides are highly qualified and well-educated, speak fluent English, and understand completely the educational needs of a tour company such as ours. Mr. Oveissi has collaborated with me in writing articles on Iranian music, has spoken about Iranian culture on Australian government radio, and has enriched our tour programs with excellent advice. Mr. Oveissi also understands completely the intellectual and practical needs of English-speaking travelers. He has collaborated with us in research and writing of ASA's tour handbooks that are accepted as important educational texts in Australia.
Should you be considering a tour of Iran, I can therefore recommend Abgin Tours of Persia to you as a service provider of the very highest quality and understanding, which will go to extraordinary ends to make your program the most exciting possible. Proof of this is in the growth in popularity of ASA's tours to Iran which is due, in large part, to Mr. Oveissi's care and personable treatment of our travelers. All our tour participants have left Iran saying that in Mr. Oveissi they have made a true friend.
Christopher Wood Director, Australians Studying Abroad
Fellow, University of Melbourne, Fellow, Monash University
P.O Box 8285, Armadale, Victoria 3143, Australia
Ray and I have recently returned from a three-week tour of Iran where we learned a great deal about the current situation of Iran.
We would like to find ways of encouraging more people to travel to Iran and hear another side to the Iranian story. This means setting up tours through interested organizations and I suggest using the same Tour Organizer we had, Ali Oveissi, Managing Director of Abgin Tours of Persia LTD.
The tour was an Australians Studying Abroad Tour called "Art and Culture of Persians". In the three weeks we traveled extensively throughout Iran visiting many historical sites from many periods. The Elamite sites out of Ahwaz, the Achaemenid sites of Persepolis and Parsagade (5OOBCE) out of Shiraz a number of sites from the Sassanian period (300CE) and shrines and mosques from about 10th century onwards. We visited Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish sites. We also visited a number of interesting sites showing the extraordinary ancient appropriate technologies of the Persians - the qanat system for bringing water from the mountains to the desert, the wind towers to cool houses and ice houses for making and storing ice.
We had an Australian art historian as our guide who gave us lectures while we traveled on the bus between cities and between sites. We also had two excellent Iranian guides - Ali, the Director of the Tour company, has a strong emotional attachment to Iran and Persia even though his father now lives in the US. Hadi is a tour consultant and well informed on both historical and current affairs. Both men were very open and prepared to answer any questions we cared to ask. We gained very different insights into what has and is going on in Iran. The account of the 1979 Revolution and the role of Ayatollah Khomeini, the account of the Iran-Iraq War and the current pressures on Iran from the US especially over the uranium enrichment issue. The fact that Iran has 2million refugees sheltering in their country from Turkey (Kurds) Afghanistan (Hazaras) and Iraq.
We gained more insight into the Shia branch of Islam and visited quite a number of Sufi shrines where the mystical side of Islam was discussed. We also visited several churches and were intrigued at the way in which Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian symbols were incorporated into the decoration in mosques. The Parliament of Iran has seats for Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians and nomads (There are 2 million nomads in Iran whose culture and pathways are protected).
Whenever we were visiting sites where Iranian students were present we would have people gather around keen to talk. We met friendliness all the way and had no instance of antagonism at all.
I would like to encourage more groups to go to Iran. Ali, the Director of Abgin Tours of Persia LTD is prepared to set up tours on a range of subjects with tours of 9 to 21 days a possibility. Amongst other tours Ali has had a group of doctors from Europe and has set up a tour visiting many churches in the country.
I am happy to discuss these issues further if you wish.
We have traveled to Iran twice: In 2002 with a group of I3 and this month (October 2005) by ourselves. On both occasions we used an Iranian tour company: Abgin Cultural Tours of Persia (established late 90's)
The guides on both trips were highly professional and extremely knowledgeable about Iranian history and culture. The service on both trips was outstanding:
We are now planning our third trip and will use the same company. We can't recommend them highly enough to other LP readers looking for a good Iranian tour company.
Russell Casey and Mandy Chamberlain