Fresh bread in Iran is glorious. It draws you into the streets at least once a day. You seek it out like your life depends on it. And tasting it makes you regret having to ever leave Iran and have to chew supermarket bread again.
Going to the neighborhood nānvaii (NUN-vaw-ee) has another perk: you see the creation of food at a primal level, men dressed in white and plastic slippers relentlessly clawing the doe, molding and shaping it, and then turning and facing the sometimes unbearable heat of the open oven–in order to feed themselves and the world around them.
There’s passion, struggle, the creation of something real and necessary before your eyes–not on the computer screen. This is real; Wall Street speculation is not.
In most Iranian households someone buys the bread every single day and then rushes home before it cools down. Fresh nān (NUN, also spelled naan) is available almost anytime of the day–minus the afternoon siesta time–in virtually any neighborhood.
You wait in line, you ask, and then you wait as too-hot-to-touch bread is pulled out of the oven with hooks and often masterfully Frisbeed to the front counter.
I frown when Saeideh assigns me chores. But for nān I might walk several blocks, past the nearest nānvaii and to my favorite spot. From hunkering over the laptop to watching live honest labor — it reconnects me with reality and reminds me of my privileged place in this society.
Today, I’m standing in front of a nānvaii in central Mashhad, having promised to buy bread on the way to breakfast at the home of Saeideh’s grandma.
I ask for one topped with cumin seeds, one with poppy seeds and one with sesame seeds. Total comes to about 50 cents USD.
I’m told it’ll be a few minutes. But because I’m accompanied by Saeideh’s uncle, who lives in the neighborhood and knows the owner, I get to go behind the counter and film the baking process.
I’ve taped breadmaking countless times all over Iran. I don’t know why, but for me it never gets old. Maybe because I can’t stop comparing the present to the decades of eating supermarket bread while living outside Iran.
There are five brick-and-clay ovens here running on natural gas. Not long ago, all the ovens ran on kerosene and, before that, on firewood. Now the brick ovens are quickly being replaced with ugly metal ones with motorized conveyors. The charm is gone.
The proprietor tells me the shop makes 3,500 taftan (tuff-TOON) units a day, each costing between 10 and 18 cents USD, depending on the topping.
When my order is ready, the bread is placed before me. It’s, of course, too hot to carry.
Eventually, I manage to grab them and move onto to my other grand privilege: eating food from the farm.