Affectionately referred to as ‘half the world’, Isfahan’s rich culture, cuisine and unmatched elegance are making it a drawcard as the city opens up to travellers. Philip Sweeney explores the city’s faded grandeur, picnic culture and renowned hospitality.
Isfahan is the capital of Isfahan province in Iran. Travel time from London Gatwick to Isfahan Shahid Beheshti International Airport is approximately 14 hours. Currency is the rial and the time is 3.5 hours ahead of GMT. In December, the average high temperature is 12C and the average low temperature is 4C.
The Iran Tourism & Touring Organisation is Iran’s national tourism organisation which maintains tourist offices across the country. http://itto.org
Pegasus Airlines has services from London Stansted and Gatwick to Tehran (a five-hour drive from Isfahan) several times a week, from £207 return per person. http://flypgs.com
Turkish Airlines flies daily to Isfahan from London Gatwick via Istanbul, with return flights starting at £365 per person. http://turkishairlines.com
Food of Life by Najmieh Batmanglij (Mage, £36) is a classic tome, recently updated, by the US-based doyenne of Iranian cookery writers.
The Saffron Tales by Yasmin Khan (Bloomsbury, £26) is an enjoyable travelogue and recipe collection by a young British Iranian.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Isfahan, visit climatecare.org where donations go towards supporting environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London produce 1.28 tonnes C02, meaning a cost to offset of £9.60.
Isfahan: Iran’s third city and a place of bridges, palaces, mosques and caravanserai (roadside stops for travellers). And, it seems, picnics. In gardens around Naqsh-e Jahan (Imam) Square, families relaxed as their melons and tomatoes chilled in marble fountains and pans bubbled on camp stoves behind monumental edifices built for the 16th-century Safavid ruler Shah Abbas.
Our guide, Affie, switched seamlessly from the minutiae of Safavid mosaics to the details of contemporary alfresco eating as we strolled past them. ‘Look, an okra stew!’ she exclaimed. ‘Okra only entered Isfahani cuisine 20 years ago with refugees from the Iran-Iraq war.’ A lady in a chador (full body cloak) tending a saucepan offered us a taste and confirmed, as if to script: ‘I learnt this dish from my neighbour – she’s the widow of a war martyr from Ahvaz.’ A bit further on, another family tucked into bowls of halim bademjan, a local dish of lamb and aubergine.
Later, as we walked back towards our hotel over the great Zayandeh-Rood River, darkness had fallen and the picnickers had brewed tea and stoked their qalyans (smoking pipes) with charcoal and tobacco. Knots of young people had gathered on and under the 33 arches of the Si-o Se Pol bridge. A singer serenaded one group with a languid lament. ‘For the missing water,’ he told me. A chorus of frogs from dried-up puddles emphasised his point.
The river is diverted in summer, meaning Isfahan’s 11 famous bridges cross an expanse of baked mud. This is just one of the 20th-century developments that followed the country’s industrialisation in the oil boom of the 1970s. Another is the vast ongoing Metro excavations which have somewhat eroded the charms of the city often referred to as one of the most beautiful in the world. Isfahan’s attractiveness may have deteriorated but it’s a long way from being destroyed. Compared with traffic-choked Tehran, it’s still enchanting, its long avenues shaded by trees, gardens and great works of architecture.
Isfahan’s central crossroads location has ensured the city’s fame as an unmissable destination and those who are keen to discover Iran as it emerges to tourism after 30 years of political isolation will certainly have it at the top of their list.
Before I arrived, I called US-based Iranian cookery writer Najmieh Batmanglij. ‘It was the reign of Shah Abbas which introduced sophisticated saffron-flavoured rice dishes to the country,’ she said. ‘Today’s refined Iranian cuisine is a continuation of what began in the royal kitchens of Isfahan.’ So my first stop to check out ingredients was the historic and labyrinthine Bazar-e Bozorg (Grand Bazaar). In covered alleyways full of spice stalls we saw open sacks of myriad colour: saffron, dried lime and barberries, fenugreek, golpar (Persian hogweed), sumac, sour cherries, tamarind pulp, orange and rosewater, powerful date molasses and vinegar. There was also an abundance of rice and just as many variants of yoghurt and whey, ubiquitous to Iranian cooking.
The Isfahani culinary repertoire includes all the classic national dishes. I was already familiar with ghormeh sabzi, the dry beef and spinach stew that’s piquant with fenugreek and dried lemon; gheimeh, a lime-flavoured stew of lamb with split peas; and the famous accompaniment of white rice with a crispy base, sometimes augmented with a thin potato crust. I rapidly got up to speed on dizi, beef shin slow-cooked with split peas and potatoes then pounded into a paste. And then there was a mouthwatering version of the celebrated Persian kebab at Shahrzad Restaurant.
With its richly decorated interior and row of three cashiers busily working adding machines, it’s an Isfahani institution. The owner told me its state of preservation was due to the fact his father stopped serving wine and beer in the mid-Seventies, avoiding the fate of neighbouring restaurantsand shops that were firebombed by mullah-driven mobs in the first stage of the post-revolution eradication of alcohol.
The Abbasi Hotel, where we headed to experience the next classic, a thick soup called ash, was also a casualty of the revolution. Considered the country’s finest hotel until it was torched in 1978, it has since been almost fully restored to its former grandeur. In the evenings the central caravanserai courtyard hums with activity as what seems like all of Isfahan queues for ice creams, drinks or ash. This is the place to observe the fashions – tight trousered young blades and shrouded beauties with voluminous headscarves, lavishly made-up doe eyes and bandaged noses that are evidence of prestigious cosmetic surgery.
Don’t let all this distract you from the ash, though, a dense pottage of pulses and herbs thickened with short noodles. It’s tasty and sustaining, and the idea of serving a homely street dish in the city’s smartest hotel is bang on-trend, though perhaps unintentional. It’s also available in the downmarket shops of Hafez Street, along with gaz (pistachio nougat), nuts by the kilo and much else. But to sample beryani, the popular speciality of Isfahan, we headed down to the riverside branch of fast-food chain Azam Beryani.
Entirely unrelated to the UK curry house staple biryani, it’s a sort of hamburger: a patty of partly precooked mincemeat, half lamb and half beef, flash-roasted in a pan and topped with a scoop of fried sheep’s lung, pickled walnuts and mini cucumbers and served in a hot flatbread. Absolutely delicious, its cooked-to-order freshness was preferable to the buffets of most restaurants.
In the plush VIP restaurant at City Center, Isfahan’s newest shopping centre, we saw an interesting selection of Persian food, strong on the prized fish of the Caspian Sea, and were entertained by a pianist and the light tenor voice of one of the waiters. For music and ambience, though, the traditional violin and percussion trio in the beautiful Garchibashi, featuring tiles from its past as a hammam (public bathhouse), beat the shopping centre hands-down.
Due to Iran’s legendary hospitality, you often hear claims about the superiority of home cooking over restaurant food. But under the present regime, access to it is strictly controlled, with tourists – especially British and American – obliged to obtain government clearance and be accompanied by a guide before arranging so much as a cup of tea with any non pre-programmed person.
We had a security-vetted dinner in the apartment of our driver, an elaborate affair that began with mounds of fruit and nuts over drinks, followed by six main courses, including an elaborate polo (a mixed rice dish containing sour cherries) and one of Isfahan’s strangest specialities: khoresh e mast, an emulsified casserole of yoghurt, saffron and finely ground lamb that can be served interchangeably as main course or dessert.
In place of the typical British dinner party guest’s bottle, we arrived with headscarves for the family’s daughters. Traditionally, Iran produced arak, a grape spirit common in the Eastern Mediterranean, and adherents of the few permitted non-Muslim religions are allowed to consume alcohol in their homes. But for the majority of Iranians, illicit arak and smuggled foreign liquor are only a phone call away if you have the contacts (and don’t mind risking 80 lashes to go with the hangover).
Frankly, the drinks list in restaurants is not very conducive to light-heartedness. There’s doogh, a watered-down herb-flavoured yoghurt that is allegedly delicious, various fizzy drinks, water or non-alcoholic beer, often referred to as Delster, the name of the most popular brand. It’s now such a booming but under-supplied market that even staff stacking shelves in a supermarket suggested I urge British breweries to get in on the act. There are also alcohol-free araks and often a short list of mocktails. An Iranian mojito, I can report, ranks close to the nadir of mixology.
Iranians are big on listing the medicinal properties of their food, starting from a basic categorisation of which ingredients are hot or cold in a physiological sense, extending into details of all the curative virtues of their contents. The most linguistically picturesque version of this was the menu in the Azadegan Teahouse, where men sat on benches, puffing on qalyans. Here the English translations of the menu included ‘Anti Bloat’ and the inspired ‘Blow the Aging Process’, an apparent effect of blueberry tea. Such is the complexity of Iranian cuisine and culture that I left Isfahan feeling like I needed a lot more time and many more blueberries, and I fully expect to return and enjoy more of both.
Where to Stay
Abbasi Hotel Isfahan’s most luxurious hotel, with spacious and opulent public areas, beautiful central courtyard with large garden, café and pool. Rooms in the more modern annex are slightly inferior to the older ones. Doubles from £80 per night. Amadegah Street, 00 98 31 3222 6010, http://abbasihotel.ir
Kowsar Hotel The large front-facing guestrooms at this 1970s multi-storey building have balconies overlooking the Zayandeh-Rood River and Si-o Se Pol bridge. It’s an acceptable international four-star standard hotel, if somewhat aesthetically underprivileged. Doubles from £92 per night. Mellat Boulevard, 00 98 31 3624 0230, http://hotelkowsar.com
Partikan Hotel Very conveniently placed just off Imam Square, the bedrooms here are plain but comfortable. There’s a large pleasant lower ground-floor restaurant for dining. Doubles from £80 per night. Sa’adi Alley Nagh’she Jahan Street, 00 98 31 3221 4291
Saadi Hotel Quiet and plain budget hotel in a tree-lined street just removed from the tumult of Abbasi Street, the Piccadilly of Isfahan. Doubles from £30 per night. Abbas Abad Street, 00 98 31 3220 3881, http://firstname.lastname@example.org
Safavi Hotel Good mid-price hotel near Imam Square. There’s a wonderful rooftop teahouse where you can relax and admire the views. Doubles from £46 per night. Felestin Street, 00 98 31 3220 8600, http://safavihotel.ir
Where to Eat
Prices are per person for three courses, including soft drinks.
Abbasi Hotel Ash (thick soup), ice creams, kebabs and drinks, all served from a series of booths around the perimeter of the great central garden courtyard of Isfahan’s most sumptuous hotel. From £15-£23. Amadegah Street, 00 98 31 3222 6010, http://abbasihotel.ir
Arakhan Modern restaurant decorated with ornate tiles. Conveniently located near the river, it offers a menu that includes an excellent roast lamb. From £12-15. Charbaghe Street, 00 98 31 6191 4410, http://mrchangal.com
Azam Beryani One of the best purveyors of beryani, Isfahan’s iconic fast food. Cheap, quick cheerful and tasty. One of three branches, this is near the riverside avenue. From £8. Masjed-e Seyed Avenue, 00 98 31 3338 3070, http://beryaniazam.com
Azedagan Teahouse A traditional bazaar teahouse that is divided into sections for men and families (i.e women). Expect omelettes, ash, tea, sherberts, soft drinks and smoking pipes. From £8. Off Naqsh-e Jahan Square, 00 98 31 3626 6648
Firuz Sharbatsarai Explore the charming reproduction antique interior, which is delightfully cool on a hot, sunny day. Enjoy delicious and refreshing drinks and a short menu of dishes such as chicken with prunes. From £8-£15. Next to Vank Cathedral, Jolfa district, 00 98 31 3229 9857
Jarchibashi A rambling set of magnificent arched and tiled rooms in a former bathhouse, equipped with fountains, a stage for musicians, attentive waiters and a menu of classics that features several fish dishes. From £8-£15. Bagh Ghalandarha Alley, Hakim Street, 00 98 31 3220 7418, http://jarchibashi.ir
Julfa Café Smart, modern café with great Turkish and espresso coffee and simple snacks such as kookoo sabzi (roasted vegetables). You can also eat fresh savoury bread bought from the Armenian bakery a few doors down. From £8. Julfa Hotel, Next to Vank Cathedral, 00 98 31 3667 2408
Shahrzad Restaurant You’ll find a particularly good lamb kebab here. It has a lengthy history (even by Iranian standards) and a beautiful interior. Expect smart and efficient no-nonsense service, a mixed clientele and solid versions of all the classic dishes. From £15-£19. Chaharbagh Street, Abbasabad Avenue, 00 98 31 1220 4490, http://shahrzad-restaurant.com
VIP self-service restaurant Discover a modern, brilliantly illuminated, flashy neo-antique decor and an extensive buffet that features a wide range of Isfahani dishes. From £38 for unlimited food and drinks. Branches at Isfahan City Center mall, second entrance of Sepahan Shahr, Dastgerdy Hwy, and by Sio-se Pol bridge.
Don't missFood souvenirs Spices, pistachios, rose water and gaz can all be bought in the Isfahan Grand Bazaar. Other great local artisan products such as metalwork and carpets can be found in shops under the colonnades surrounding Imam Square. Kashan It’s worth considering a stop at the rose water capital on the way from Tehran. A festival celebrating its production is held here every May.
- Ash: Soup made with pulses and herbs then thickened with noodles
- Barberries: Small, red, sharp-tasting berries that are dried, sautéd and used as a garnish
- Beryani: A kind of burger: half lamb and half beef, topped with a scoop of fried sheep’s lung, pickled walnuts and mini cucumbers. Not to be confused with the Indian rice dish biryani
- Dairy: Both yoghurt and kashk, a fermented whey, are widely used as ingredients or accompaniments
- Date and pomegranate molasses: Dark, sticky syrup that frequently appears in both sweet and savoury dishes
- Dizi: Slow-cooked beef shin with split peas and potatoes
- Dried limes: Used to flavour soups and a variety of dishes and served powdered on grilled meats
- Gheimeh: Lime-laced stew made with lamb and split peas
- Ghormeh sabzi: Dry beef and spinach stew that also contains fenugreek and dried lemon
- Golpar: Persian hogweed, which is used as a fresh garnish
- Halim bademjan: A dish of lamb and aubergine
- Khoresh: A thick stew of meat, usually lamb. It’s one of the most commonly found dishes
- Nuts: Commonly eaten as snacks, and in the case of walnuts and pistachios, both key Iranian products
- Saffron: A spice derived from the crocus flower. It’s usually dried, ground and dissolved in water
- Pickles: Cucumber, garlic and other vegetables are pickled and served as side dishes
- Rose water: Made by distillation, typically in Kashan near Isfahan, where the annual rose harvest is a major national event
- Sherbet: An ancestor of sorbet and a replacement for wine after it was first forbidden by early Islam. An iced drink of fruits, syrups, herbs and vinegars
- Sour cherries: Along with quinces and prunes, often stewed with meat, particularly in Isfahani cooking
- Taftoon: A kind of flatbread, cooked in clay ovens, accompanies almost all meals. Made with yoghurt and eggs
Philip Sweeney and Martin Thompson travelled to Iran courtesy of Pegasus Airlines and The Iran Tourism and Touring Organisation
This article was published on 30th November 2016 so certain details may not be up to date.