Buying fresh Iranian bread is a daily ritual all over the country, I wrote in an earlier post.
Getting fresh dairy and eggs is more tricky but far more affordable than it is in the West.
Easting fresh here is not about money; like much of life in Iran, it’s about politics.
I’m in central Mashhad and after securing fresh bread, I’m walking a narrow alley to the home of Saeideh’s grandma.
There’s reason to be happy. My 83-year-old grandmother-in-law has local connections deep enough to consistently secure dairy and eggs directly from the countryside.
The table is already set when I arrive and my expectations are fulfilled. There’s fresh butter, sheep cheese and eggs. By fresh, I mean real fresh, not the “fresh” claimed by food marketers.
There’s also homemade quince jam and cold bidmeshk drink, made from seeds of the Egyptian willow.
Other than the sugar cubes for the tea, nothing on the table is from the supermarket. Westerners call this eating fresh and/or organic, depending on the price tag and the marketing behind the product. Some can afford it. The vast majority–myself included–can only look at the pretty farm scenes on the package and pretend we’re eating fresh.
In Iran, eating fresh doesn’t happen easily either–but it’s more about connections not money. If you live in the city, eating mahali (Persian: “local”, implies food from the village) first and foremost depends on the quality of one’s connections: knowing a supplier whom you can trust, getting the right phone call when supplies arrive from the countryside and securing your share before they’re grabbed by others.
There are stores that claim to sell mahali products. Some are reputable. Some others’ claims one should take as seriously as McDonald’s claim to freshness. Iranians are masters at using food coloring and flavoring and other shenanigans to dump substandard food on unsuspecting victims. “I swear on the grave of my mother,” the dishonest say all day long. Both Saeideh and I have been conned multiple times.
Eating mahali gets easier the further one gets from Tehran–another good reason to avoid that disgrace to humanity.
In our neighborhood in Vilashahr, in the outskirts of Mashhad, it’s a bit easier. The local market owner’s father still lives in the village from which we get eggs from cage-free chickens. Occasionally, he also gets us amazing butter.
For the tourists visiting Iran, hotel breakfasts buffets usually offer only factory-packed, chemically-enhanced dairy, honey and jams, served in tiny plastic packs, as if they’re just giving out samples.
But many “ecolodges” offer tourists fresh breakfasts using locally-produced foods.
In the tiny town of Taft, near Yazd, we had perhaps the most fresh breakfast yet, at the Nartiti Ecolodge, complete with an eye-popping assortment of homemade halva.
Ironically, eating mahali gets riskier the closer one gets to the farm, because product from the wrong source could be tainted with dangerous bacteria. And one should always boil the mahali milk from any source for at least 20 minutes.
Again, it all comes down to having a source you can trust. Everything here is about personal connections.
Now I am sitting next to Javad Hashemi, Saeideh’s uncle, on a couch that must’ve come from the set of The Pee-wee Herman Show. I’m jonesing to start eating. I am going to eat so much, they’ll have to pry me away. (And, of course, that bulge on my abdomen is not going to shrink.)
In two weeks, I have to be in Barcelona. But I don’t want to leave. Where in Spain or Europe or anywhere in the Western world am I going to eat like this–without paying lofty prices?
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