To share a Persian meal with Iranian friends is to experience pleasure that goes well beyond the mere titillation of the palate. Every dish laid on the table prompts someone or the other to tell a story or recite a poem that extols its succulence. It is hard to come across another people who possess such a large repertoire of literary quotes about food and drink, especially quotes drawn from the rich traditions of Persian poetry.
The trend began in pre-Islamic Iran. In his monumental work Shahnameh (Book of Kings), Ferdowsi (940-1020 AD), acclaimed as "perhaps the sweetest and most sublime poet of Persia", argued, tongue firmly in cheek, that
cooking was the invention of the Devil.
This force of evil, wrote the poet, appeared as an accomplished cook before the young king Zahak who, as a follower of Zoroaster, was a vegetarian fond only of bread and fruit. Every day, to the growing delight of His Majesty, the chef produced one enticing dish after another: eggs, partridge, grey pheasant, quail, chicken, lamb and a wondrous veal cooked in saffron, rose water, old wine and musk.
So overjoyed was the king with these delicacies that he asked the gourmet chef to make a wish of his choice, which he would be pleased to grant forthwith. All that the chef sought was permission to lay his face and eyes on the shoulders of the king. The request was granted. The cook kissed the shoulders and vanished. Suddenly, two fierce black snakes sprouted from the spots where the chef had placed his face. Persian lore has it that the people of Iran suffered for centuries for the king's gluttony and gullibility.
Ferdowsi wrote a large number of verses celebrating the virtues of wine, but in this domain no one quite matched the talents of Omar Khayyam (1058-1132 AD) who, let it be underscored, composed his paeans of praise for the stimulant four hundred years after the advent of Islam in Persia. The poet was clearly in favour of alleviating his present turmoil regardless of the retribution that God reserved for him in the after-life:
"Tomorrow, rank and fame for none may be
so today thy weary soul set free
Drink with me, love, once more beneath the moon
she oft may shine again, but none on thee and me."
Saadi Shirazi, another poetic genius of the 13th century, mocked at the well-heeled of his day, which included the Fathers of the Faith, in verses that are still recited with much gusto these days:
"A sherbet of roses and sugar in a golden chalice
Though given by a rich man, if he has malice
cannot be as sweet as a piece of dried bread
from the hands of a pauper at the gate of the palace."
A century or so later, Hafiz, by far the most popular poet for Iranians to this day, wrote with gay abandon about wine, woman and song:
"Saki! Ere our life decline, bring the ruby-tinted wine
sorrow on my bosom preys, wine alone delights my days
Bring it! Let its sweets impart rapture to my fainting heart
Saki! Fill the tumbler high - why should man unhappy sigh?
Make the bubbles swim along the goblet's smiling brim."
Another favourite poet, Bu-Isaq of Shiraz, who lived in the 15th century, wrote on food at great length. Today, however, Iranians quote him with a dash of amiable mockery because of the way he described his beloved:
"lithe as a fish,
eyes like almonds,
lips like sugar,
a chin like an orange,
breasts like pomegranates,
a mouth like a pistachio"
and so forth.
This provoked a modern poet to wonder whether the bard referred to his beloved or a dry fruit shop!
In a stimulating paper presented at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery in 1998 - from which I have derived much of my information - Margaret Shaida remarks that food and food poetry have changed little over the centuries. What was regarded as fine or poor food centuries ago is still seen as fine and poor food today. And so it is with poetry. Not for nothing have the gastronomic and literary arts been called the stoutest pillars upholding Persian culture.