Food. It doesn’t get any more essential than that. All humans need to eat to survive. But food is also a fundamentally cultural experience. It’s been written about at length in anthropology – what food means to people, how it structures identity, how it acts as a marker of distinction, etc.
Food appears in one of my favourite anthropological texts – Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger, where the author deconstructs the kosher taboos of Leviticus. I’ve also interviewed author of Real Pigs Brad Weiss on a TFS podcast. A lot of this work covers theory about food. But the process of doing fieldwork, as a profoundly personal, embodied experience, also involves food.
So I wanted to try my own hand at reflecting on my experiences with food in the field, because it had the greatest influence on my understanding of Iranian culture.
Preferences and taboos
Food is a big deal in Iran. I’ve yet to meet someone from Iran who didn’t have strong opinions about the country’s cuisine. The country’s bazaars are stocked with local produce – from pistachios to pomegranates, fresh cheeses to leafy greens. Home cooking and food at restaurants doesn’t differ that much from one another – a testament to the country’s relative isolation and the esteem with which national dishes were held. Although there are variations in regional cuisines (for instance, the food in the south of the country is understood as spicy), a handful of dishes dominate across the country.
Food is also something deeply personal – captured by individual tastes and preferences, which are of course shaped by cultures in which one grows and lives. One country’s food is another country’s inedible. For example, it’s hard to imagine northern European cuisine without heavy additions of pork meat. And yet, go south to the Islamic world and such flesh is taboo, by custom as much as by religion. Stinky tofu might be a delicacy in parts of East Asia, but even imagining it is beyond the realm of comprehension in much of Iran.
There are two examples from my own fieldwork in Mashad that I think show the diversity of individual experience – from those tastes that I enjoyed most, to the very particular, distinct, ‘acquired’ flavours of Iran.
One of my favourite meals in Iran was breakfast. Where possible, my partner and I tried to replicate the muesli that we ate at home in Australia. Oats with milk, yoghurt, and some sultanas was usually our fair. But on occasions when we stayed the night at a friend’s or informant’s home, the following morning we usually ate something more “traditionally” Iranian. This was usually bread – but not just any bread.
Iran has three main types of bread. Barbari is a thick, flat bread. Lavash is a very thin bread that comes in long sheets and is rolled up. But my favourite was sanggak. Literally “little stone”, the bread was long and thinnish, but baked in an oven on a bead of hot small stones. When pulling it out of the oven, it was common to find small stones sticking to it, which purchasers would then smack or flick out of the bread on a specially built frame, before folding it up, putting it under their arm, and taking it home.
The best thing about bread in Iran, though, was that it was invariably always fresh. There were bakeries on every corner, and it was common to seek out a new loaf every morning. This meant breakfast usually included a hot or warm piece of sanggak, alongside a mild white cheese, butter, dates, and cups of hot black tea served with thick chunks of crystalised sugar. It’s hard to describe what a delight hot bread with melted butter slathered in date paste is, but it remains one of the highlights of my time during fieldwork.
Kebabs are a major affair in Iran. Two kinds predominate across the country. One is jujeh – literally “chick” kebabs. Jujeh is made from skewered chunks of chicken meat marinated in saffron. The other, kubideh, meaning “pounded”, is usually made from lamb mince, occasionally beef, carefully patted around a skewer then roasted over hot coals. Both are usually served either with rice or bread, and a roast tomato – or perhaps yoghurt.
Mashhad was famous for its shishlik, lamb rib kebab. Others include chicken hearts and sections of liver. But in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kordistan province and a major Kurdish city in the country, close to the border with Iraq, I was invited to try a local delicacy. In a hole-in-the-wall kebab shop, I stopped in with a local who welcomed the opportunity to induct a foreigner in regional ways. Here in Kurdistan, goat was king. Alongside the regular jujeh and kubideh, were chunks of goat meat, and roughly hewn pieces of goat fat glistening. But it was the pale slightly off-white kebab that my guide pointed at.
“It’s the local speciality”, he said. “Goat’s testicle”.
Not wanting to turn down the opportunity to try something new, nor to offend my guests, I ventured to try it. The butcher took two of the round, slightly pallid testes, and began to cut them into pieces, deftly thrusting them onto a blade to sit over hot coals. Having dissected them, he pressed his gloved hands against each other, and pulled them apart. “Sticky”, he acknowledged.
At this stage, I was having second thoughts, but pressed on safe in the knowledge that I was performing an act that would raise my esteem in the eyes of those present and help to rapidly acculturate me. Biting down on the now-charred-still-white pieces, to be sure, the flesh was not as bad as I expected. Neither good nor bad, it was remarkably neutral in taste – flavoured only with a little bit of salt and eaten with lavash bread. My guide smiled as I ate. “They say it’s good for your virility”, he chuckled, “but not even us locals really eat it that much”. Both he and the butcher continued to guffaw at the incredulous foreigner. So it was that I was sold what was effectively a medicinal tonic as a tasty treat.
Food as culture
Consuming food is ultimately something multivalent, both profoundly personal, and also caught up in the realms of various cultural norms and taboos. What for one society might be standard fair is in another community inedible horror. But, if my experiences of eating during fieldwork have taught me anything, it’s always worth trying something new. Even if you’re the centre of the joke.
[Feature image by Alicia Wilson;‘Fruit and Vegetable shop’ in Iran by Kamyar Adl https://www.flickr.com/photos/kamshots/3751509897/]