With all the attention focused on the negotiations over Iran's controversial nuclear program, it's easy to miss some of the other important developments in that country, and by that I mean the burger boom that's taking place in Tehran.
Someone who's been on top of that meaty story is the Washington Post's Jason Rezaian, who recently filed a superb report from Tehran about the city's profusion of burger joints. Here's a taste of his article:
Greasy burger joints have been part of Tehran’s fast-food landscape for decades, even in the years just after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when any symbol of U.S. culture was denounced as an example of “Westoxification.” Those eateries were mostly in downtown working-class neighborhoods, serving laborers in need of a blast of calories or students watching their budgets.
Now, though, high-end burger restaurants are suddenly popping up across the city, making the gut-busting American institution — and the quest for the best burger — the latest trend in Tehran dining.
Facebook pages dedicated to local hamburger outlets debate their relative merits, comparing them to McDonald’s, In-N-Out, Burger King and other U.S. chains. That fascination with brands has resulted in such blatant rip-offs as McAli’s, Superstar — conspicuously similar in appearance to Carl’s Jr. — and even a place calling itself Five Guys.
I recently sent Rezaian, who's been based in Tehran since 2009, a few questions to get a bit more of the backstory of this Iranian culinary awakening. Our exchange is below:
The international sanctions against Iran were designed to punish the country for the continuing efforts to develop its controversial nuclear program. But it appears the sanctions are also starting to impact the daily life -- and eating habits -- of average Iranians. As the Wall Street Journal reports, rising food prices have led to a spontaneous three-day boycott of grocery stores and bakeries that a surprising number of Iranians appear to have joined. From the WSJ's report:
Iranians protesting soaring food prices launched a spontaneous three-day boycott of milk and bread purchases, in a sign that growing economic hardship could lead to more civil disobedience.
The grass-roots campaign, which ran from Saturday through Monday, wasn't affiliated with any opposition group. Dozens of Iranians said in interviews and on social-networking sites and blogs that they had participated in the boycott, and a number of bakeries and grocery stores across Tehran, the capital, reported declines in milk and bread sales of as much as 90%.
Iran's economy has been deteriorating amid domestic mismanagement, corruption and international sanctions that have made it difficult for manufacturers to import raw material and to conduct banking transactions. A European Union embargo on Iranian oil is set to start July 1.
Prices of basic goods rise almost daily. Independent economists estimate annual inflation is hovering between 50% and 60%. In the past two weeks, the price of bread has increased 33%, chicken 28.5% and milk prices are climbing daily, according to Iranian newspapers and semiofficial news websites.
With financial sanctions against it getting tighter and tighter and the drums of war beating louder and louder, Iran appears to be getting proactive -- at least on the food front. As Reuters reports, Tehran is busy stockpiling grain in anticipation of the sanctions' effect on daily life. From the Reuters report:
Vessels carrying at least 360,000 metric tonnes (396,832 tons) of grain are lined up to unload in Iran, Reuters shipping data showed on Thursday, a sign that Tehran is succeeding in stockpiling food to blunt the impact of tougher Western sanctions.
Iran has been shopping for wheat at a frantic pace, ordering a large part of its expected yearly requirement in a little over one month and paying a premium in non-dollar currencies to work around toughened Western sanctions and avoid social unrest.
Food shipments are not targeted under western sanctions aimed at Iran's disputed nuclear program, but financial measures have frozen Iranian firms out of much of the global banking system.
Since the new year, some vessels had turned away from Iran without unloading after Iranian buyers were hit by a trade finance squeeze, but Thursday's data appears to show that shipments are now arriving successfully.
Meanwhile, this stockpiling is having the unintended consequence of helping American wheat growers and the US economy. As Reuters notes in another article, Iran's stockpiling includes buying large amount of wheat from the land of amber waves of grain:
Persian New Year (Nevruz) is upon us and Turmeric & Saffron, a very nice blog devoted to Persian cooking has a great roundup on what to cook for the occasion, complete with links to recipes. The roundup can be found here.
Don't expect to learn how to make your favorite French or Italian dishes while watching Iranian television. Turns out the state broadcasting authority there has issued a ban on cooking show that feature "foreign recipes." More details here and an article looking at the "foreign" roots of some classic Persian dishes here.
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