Iran has been one of the hardest-hit countries in the COVID-19 crisis, so we’re taking this opportunity to explore the country virtually, and celebrate its amazing food, literature, cinema, art, and people.
It’s tough to know where to start with a place as dynamic and complicated as Iran. Steeped in a history dating back thousands of years, multiple empires, numerous invasions, insurgencies, and revolution, modern-day Iran is rich in arts, culture, delicious food, and experiences spanning from the country’s capital of Tehran to the ancient ruins of Persepolis and the shores of the Caspian Sea.
But as one of the countries hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis, Iran’s politically-charged present makes the lens through which we typically approach destinations even more complicated. It’s a country that isn’t open to the vast majority of travelers, even when we aren’t in the midst of a global pandemic.
Now more than ever it’s important to humanize this crisis, especially in places that feel so out of reach. In this temporary era of virtual travel, we can explore Iran from the comfort of home and stand in solidarity with the citizens most affected by this globally crippling disease.
Below, you’ll find an outline of what makes Iranian culture so unique and worth celebrating, from rich and aromatic cuisine to local contemporary artists shaping the industry.
Persian food is delicious in part because of its diverse culinary DNA. The region has been invaded and occupied by a number of conquering armies from ancient Greeks and Mongols to Napoleon Bonaparte, and was once one of the largest empires in the world stretching from the Balkan Mountains to the Indus Valley. Don’t let the desert climate fool you—underground aquifers make the land incredibly fertile, lending the cuisine a heavily herbed and produce-forward bent.
Persians love their aromatics, stews, and rice dishes, and are more likely to invite you over for a home-cooked meal than suggest going out to eat at a restaurant, making for a sophisticated comfort food palate. Try these recipes below to understand the nuances of Persian cuisine. As they say in Farsi, noosh-e jan (A.K.A. “bon appétit”)!
You know that good crispy rice that gets cooked at the bottom of the pot? Persian cooking puts the good stuff front and center with Tahdig, or “scorched” rice, which is served almost like a cake and broken off into deliciously crunchy golden shards.
This hearty lamb or short rib stew is made even heartier with white beans, chickpeas, and potatoes, and spruced up with tomatoes, turmeric, and lime. It’s sometimes referred to as “Dizi,” which refers to the clay pot in which it is often made. Persian families often riff on this old recipe with their own additions of veggies and aromatics. At the end of the day, it’s a one-pot dish that will comfort any hungry stomach.
Often referred to as “Bastani” or “Bastani Irani,” this Iranian ice cream is made from milk, eggs, sugar, rose water, saffron, vanilla, and pistachios. It strikes a delicate savory-sweet balance, and will be unlike any other ice cream you’ve tried.
Iranians really know how to bring out the power of rice. Rice is not just a starchy supplement to your meal in Iranian cuisine—it can easily be turned into the main event, especially when it is as bursting of flavor as this jeweled rice recipe. Again, many families have their own variations, but jeweled rice typically involves a combination of saffron, pistachios, barberries or dried cranberries, plus a mix of other spices and herbs. It’s wildly addicting.
Another key ingredient in Persian cuisine: pomegranate. Fesenjan is a traditional chicken stew usually served on Shab-e Yalda, the Iranian celebration of the winter solstice predating Islam by thousands of years. The meat is steeped in a gravy made of pureed pomegranate, walnuts, and spices, resulting in a super rich yet uniquely tangy flavor.
A frittata like you’ve never seen. As mentioned, Persians mean business when it comes to herbs, as evidenced by the herb-to-egg ratio of this strikingly green frittata. You could truly eat this dish for any meal of the day.
While locally-made Persian teas are hard to come by, traditional tea drinking in Iran is as much about the experience as it is about the ingredients. After a thoughtful process of steeping, diluting, and cooling your tea, put a sugar cube between your teeth (the video above uses a saffron-infused rock candy, but regular sugar will do just fine) and drink the tea through the sugar as it dissolves in your mouth. Your regular tea routine will never be the same.
Iranian Virtual Experiences
Play Iranian Video Games
Numerous articles over the last several years taut Iran’s emerging gaming industry born out of necessity in a world where sanctions prohibit imports of mainstream games. One of the most popular Iranian video games is Garshasp: The Monster Slayer. Often compared to the God of War franchise, the storyline draws from Persian mythology instead of ancient Greece. There’s also iNK Studios’s Revolution Black Friday, which places gamers into a virtual narrative of the country’s infamous 1979 uprising.
Immerse Yourself in Persian Art History
Tehran is nicknamed the City of Museums, and it’s not hard to see why. From the Golestan Palace to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, Treasury of National Jewels, the Glassware and Ceramic Museum of Iran, the Carpet Museum, and more (you should, ahem, also see what they did with the former U.S. embassy), there’s much in the way of Iranian cultural institutions preserving and promoting various mediums of Iranian arts and culture. The Google Art Project has a vast collection of ancient Persian art, as does the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Iran Chamber of Arts online, there’s also extensive documentation of Persian textile design on Youtube, which, if you have a loom, it may be time to get cracking on some hand-knotted Persian rugs.
Practice Persian Calligraphy
Calligraphy is one of the most revered art forms in Iranian history, a tradition that goes back thousands of years and spans different genres and styles. Some relate the prevalence of calligraphy to the non-figural tradition of Islamic art and the importance of the written text of the Qur’an. The art of decorative letters is soothing to practice (and watch). Access tutorials here and be ready for the mental exercise of writing from right to left if you’re a non-Arabic speaker—you could also start by learning the Persian alphabet.
Bop to Some Classic Persian Pop
Is your old workout music getting a little repetitive? Allow us to introduce you to the world of Persian Pop: energetic, sensual, and a touchstone of modern Iranian history. Start with Googoosh, who may very well be the Cher of Iran as one of the most enduring pop stars to have transitioned from pre-revolution Iran to today.
Books by Iranian Authors
One of the most groundbreaking and bestselling graphic memoirs of all time, Persepolis is the author’s coming of age story taking place during and following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Published in numerous languages, Persepolis was made into an animated feature film in 2007. The book grapples with themes of feminism, identity, and social repression.
The ancient poet Hafez (born in 1315) is a landmark of Iranian literary history. His lyrical epics were often transcribed in beautiful calligraphy alongside elaborate illustrations or miniatures, used as inspiration for musical compositions, and included as decor in many Iranian homes today. Many Iranians use the complete works of Hafez for fortune telling, opening the book to a random page on certain holidays to indicate what will happen in the future. Hafez was beloved by Western poets of later generations such as Thoreau, Goethe, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and you can even visit his tomb in Shiraz, a southern city in Iran known for its eponymous wine.
This fabilistic novella written in 1989 is lauded as a literary masterpiece by many critics. Following the lives of five very different women—one is a teacher, another a prostitute—who come to live together on the outskirts of Tehran, Women Without Men was radical in challenging gender relations in Iran following the religious revolution and was later adapted into a feature film directed by Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat. Parsipur spent time in jail before leaving Iran and writing several other works of fiction as well as a memoir of her time spent in four different Iranian prisons.
One of the most famous coming of age novels in modern Iranian literature, Pezeshkzad’s sense of humor carries the reader through extended family dramas and a foiled love story that centers around an unhinged patriarch, Uncle Napoleon. This timeless satire gives an inside look at Iranian family life and was later adapted in to a long-running TV series.
If you’re looking for a detailed outline of modern Iranian history, look no further. Drawing on eyewitness accounts and deep research, Mootahedeh tracks the period leading up to the 1979 Revolution all the way to the very recent past, and will help anyone understand Iran’s current sociopolitical standing beyond the controversial headlines.
This riveting debut novel published in 2007 documents the lives of a well-to-do Iranian Jewish family whose father is arrested and accused of being a spy. The plot follows various family members as they navigate their newly terrifying reality and eventually embark on a dangerous journey to safety. Though the book is a work of fiction, Sofer was just 10 years old when she and her family escaped persecution in Iran many years ago.
Iranian Cinema to Watch
The first Iranian film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, A Separation is a gripping drama that centers around the separation of a middle-class Iranian couple, their daughter, and ailing grandfather. The writer and director, Asghar Farhadi, is as celebrated within Iran as much as he is outside, and has written and directed several other notable films, including About Elly and The Salesman, another Oscar-winning flick. Rent it on Youtube.
This Is Not a Film
Filmmaker Jafar Panahi is a controversial Iranian figure, whose previous films The Circle and Crimson Gold were banned in Iran. In 2010, Panahi was arrested on charges of conspiracy and propaganda against the state, and was subsequently prohibited from making movies for up to 20 years. But Panahi was not one to sit still. He filmed a video diary of his experience under house arrest on his phone and in 2011 smuggled the content out of Iran in a flashdrive baked into a birthday cake, where it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. This Is Not a Film went on to win the National Society of Film Critics Experimental Film Award and is seen as an enduring political statement for creative freedom in Iran. Panahi followed up this success with his docu-style film Taxi, in which he poses as a taxi driver and uses dashboard-mounted cameras to paint a portrait of contemporary Iranian life. Watch it on Kanopy.
Taste of Cherry
A well-to-do Iranian driver sets out to find the perfect person for an unsavory job: filling up his grave with dirt after he takes his own life. With the beautiful scenery of the Iranian countryside as its backdrop, the cast of characters the protagonist meets in his search act as backboards for philosophical musings up until the very controversial surprise ending. An insightful and poetic story by the late director Abbas Kiarostami, this 1997 film will challenge your existential standing—in a good way! Watch it on the Criterion Channel.
Contemporary Art in Iran
Because the global community is rarely provided insider access to contemporary Iran, present-day artists have become a further-reaching lens on Iranian culture, fascinating art lovers around the globe—and have experienced increasing demand from collectors as a result.
Many Iranian artists have emigrated to other countries and are represented by galleries all over the world, though plenty still live in Iran, particularly the capital of Tehran. See just a few of the most prominent contemporary Iranian artists below.
This self-taught photographer shoots representation of modern Iranian life that combats Western stereotypes and has exhibited her work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
This painter draws on ancient Persian mysticism to inspire his work and is one of the most exciting young voices in Iranian art. He is represented by Dastan Gallery in Tehran.
One of the most famous living Iranian artists, Tanavoli considered the “Father of Modern Iranian Sculpture.” has works that have been acquired by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as a documentary made about his coming of age as an artist in Iran.
Iran National Football Team | @teammellifootball
Like so many countries around the world, Iran’s football culture is strong. Known as Team Melli, Iran’s national team is one of the highest ranking football teams in Asia, winning third in the Asian Cup finals in 2019. A lot of their players are some of the most followed Iranian public figures on Instagram, and they’re not terrible to look at.
Elnaz Shakerdoost | @elnazshakerdoost
One of the most recognizable faces in Iran belongs to actress Elnaz Shakerdoost. With over 7.8 million Instagram followers, Shakerdoost has earned her following from appearing in around 28 films since 2003. She was awarded Crystal Simorgh Best Actress in 2019 at the Fajr Film Festival, Iran’s major annual film festival.
Anashid Hoseini | @anashidhoseini
Anashid Hoseini is an Iranian fashion designer and illustrator with a popular clothing and scarf brand called Hiba, which seeks to reimagine traditional clothing in Iran with colorful prints and sophisticated materials.