Niloufar Javadi introduces us to the unique world of lifestyle advice and rituals in Iran
Most people associate lifestyle advice with fashion magazines and YouTube videos which advocate for veganism, minimalism and zero waste lifestyles. However, lifestyle advice as a concepts dates further back than one might originally think. Family members, most prominently grandmothers, have been the guardians of family wisdom long before mass media was around.
Coming from a large Iranian family, I was lucky enough to live close to my grandmother during my childhood. Hence, my upbringing was directed heavily by her countless pieces of advice. We have a specific word for this type of advice in Farsi (the predominant language spoken in Iran and my mother tongue), nasihat refers to advice or wisdom passed on from an older family member to the younger ones. This can include but is not limited to: dietary recommendations, relationship advice, spiritual guidance and medical assistance. Perhaps the fact that Iranians have this word is a sufficient indication of the substantial role this form of cumulative wisdom has had in the Iranian culture. My family is originally from a small city in the northwest of Iran called Abhar. It is located in a relatively green area, hence,the traditional occupation of most of the population is farming. However, due to its distance from the sea and Iran’s generally dry climate, Abhar has harsh winters and hence the majority of my grandmother’s nasihat involves dealing with the weather and its consequences.
The fear of the cold is imprinted on the collective consciousness of the inhabitants of Abhar. My grandparents’ preparation of winter provisions usually starts towards the end of August. Even though today limited farming is done in the area,wheat and barley-based foods are the basis for most conventional winter meals. Bulger is used extensively in a popular traditional dish called Ash, which is a thick, rich soup, consisting of kale, spinach, okra and beans. Ash is often served with Kashk, a yoghurt-based white powder which when sifted and mixed with water becomes a protein-rich cream (Ash and Kashk can be found in the majority of Iranian restaurants around London, just FYI). During summer harvest a lot of fruits are also prepared for later use. Grapes are the second most abundant produce after wheat. My grandmother has rather creative methods of storing grapes and incorporating them in various dishes during the winter. No part of the grape has to go to waste, both the fruit and the leaves are used. Grapes are usually cooked with water and sugar and stored like jam. This jam can also be cooked with poached eggs and served on homemade wheat noodles. Grapes can also be sun dried to make raisins which are then fried and served with rice and lentils, or mixed with yoghurt and cucumber slices to create an energy-filled appetizer. Grapes are extensively used in these forms during winter because of their energy dense nature and flexible storage methods,hence making for efficient nourishment before physical work in the cold weather. Interestingly enough, most protein bars and energy balls found in London’s supermarkets today also incorporate raisins, which have been used to the same effect for years in most parts of Iran. Conventional winter foods rarely incorporate meat which is a reminiscent of the original context of these recipes when meat was hard to come by during winter.
Gas and electricity have been around in Abhar for almost 60 years. However, they have not changed traditional thermoregulation methods, they have simply modified them. Around September,when my grandmother would stop leaving the garden doors open and start sun-drying grapes, my grandfather would bring out the majestic korsi. An alternative to traditional European fireplaces, the korsi is perhaps less aesthetically pleasing but it has had a significant impact in creating unbreakable family ties for generations. It is a table- like structure which occupies a roughly 4-meter square area and is draped with 3 to 4 layers of woolen blankets. These blankets cover the korsi and about 50 cm of ground on each side. An electric heating system is placed underneath the table and the family sits around the korsi, stretching their legs under the blankets. Food and a kettle of strong tea is placed on top and conversation ensues. The korsi previously used hot coal container as a heating unit. Needless to say, using the korsi has been much less stressful since electric heaters came into the picture. A minor drawback of this phenomenon is that it decreases productivity by about a hundred percent. My family members crawl under it in freezing cold to do work or read, but fall asleep immediately. Moreover, leaving the shower,according to my grandmother, can also prove an exhausting task during winter. Several layers must be put on and after the hair is blow dried a thick Russian scarf is wrapped around the head for the remainder of the day to prevent a much dreaded cold.
Iranian grandmothers across generations have been admirably persistent in convincing their children and grandchildren to engage in the following methods of treatment for the common cold. The most popular remedy for a sore throat consists of soaking quince seeds in water overnight and serving them with hot water and a mixture of different herbs like borage and dried lemons. Quince seeds secrete a substance with gel- like consistency which soothes sore throats. Despite its foul taste, I can confirm the effectiveness of this treatment based on firsthand experience. As for the rest of the symptoms, onion steam therapy is a highly recommended method. A single onion is chopped and brought to a boil in a large pot. After the pot begins to steam, it is removed from the stove and put in front of the patient who then places a sheet on his head. Covering his head and the pot, he must then inhale the steam in an attempt to treat nose blockage and cleanse the body of viruses and bacteria. However, staying under the sheets for too long is also not recommended for fear of dehydration and general lack of oxygen.
Perhaps it is understandable why the arrival of spring brings so much joy and celebration in the Iranian nation. And, perhaps, there is a lot we should take from Iranian advice to survive London’s cold winters.