Every time I come across an interview with someone else who has traveled extensively, the same thing happens. The interviewer asks a question along the lines of, “Which country surprised you the most?”
Invariably, the answer comes back, “Iran.”
It’s not hard to understand why. For most Americans, Iran is synonymous with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis. The crisis lasted for 444 days. Now, nearly 40 years later, Iran and the USA still have not restored diplomatic relations. In fact, tensions are close to an all-time high. Just this week, the United States’ President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani got into a heated war of words on television and twitter, culminating in thinly veiled threats of nuclear war.
And yet, every American and European that I know of who has visited Iran comes back singing the same song: “it is the most friendly country in the world! …when people saw that I was a foreigner, they insisted that I join them for dinner”
If an Iranian invites you for dinner, you must go.
This much I know from my own experience, even though I have never been to Iran. Growing up around Washington, DC — where there is a thriving community of Iranian immigrants — I have eaten many of the most painstakingly-prepared, extravagant, and delicious meals of my life in the homes of my Iranian friends.
I’ve fallen in love with dishes like fesenjoon (a rich chicken stew with pomegranate molasses and walnuts), shirin polo (my favorite – a basmati rice pilaf accented with candied citrus zest, sweet carrots, and pistachios), and of course, chelo kabob (those perfectly grilled chunks of meat on skewers served with rice and flat bread).
Naturally, I want to try my favorite Iranian dishes on their home soil, and maybe discover some new favorites while I’m there. Across all cuisines, I find that the simplest foods end up being the hardest to recreate away from home. Especially breads. You can make a complex curry anywhere, if you have all the right ingredients, but somehow a New York bagel is impossible to replicate outside of the city. So, I will be sure to savor all the hot, fresh, stone-baked sangak and barbari bread straight out of the oven whenever I reach Iran.
While much of my motivation to visit Iran is food-oriented, man can’t live on bread and kabobs alone. The soul requires nourishment too. Fortunately, Iran is full of inspiring spaces like the beautiful blue-tiled mosques of Isfahan and stained-glass windows of Shiraz.
Georgia is home to what must be one of the world’s most under-celebrated cuisines. Outside of the region, few people seem to have tried or even know anything about Georgian food. They are missing out, but that may be about to change, as I see more and more Georgian restaurants popping up around the world.
Russians certainly recognize the magnificence of their neighbor’s culinary creations. It was there that I first discovered — and quickly fell in love with — Georgian food. Moscow in particular is home to numerous, delicious Georgian eateries. Their menus reflect Georgia’s geography — a cuisine at the crossroads of Slavic, Turkish, and Middle Eastern influences. Some dishes, like lobio (mashed beans), are nearly identical to their Iranian counterparts. The similarities don’t end there…
Georgians are also renown for their hospitality, believing that guests are a gift from God.
Some of my favorite Georgian dishes are kharcho (a hearty soup with meat and rice), khinkali (massive soup dumplings with doughy handles), and khachapuri (sort of like a pizza without the sauce; the cheeses vary by region, sometimes they add an egg).
When I finally make it to Georgia, I will have to balance all of the inevitable overeating with some good exercise. Perhaps a long walk after each meal. I will have no shortage of places to explore.
Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi, looks like the kind of place that would make a good base for an extended stay. It helps that Georgia offers visa-free access for up to one whole year to citizens of the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and dozens of other countries. Outside of the capital, Georgia is home to some epic mountain scenery that I would love to see, ski, and hike.
Finally, there are the incredible Georgian dancers. I first discovered Georgian dance while watching Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai. The dancers spin like tops, defying dizziness, as they bounce from their knees to their toes and back to their knees. I would love to watch a live dance performance in Georgia and maybe take a few lessons while I’m there.
Who goes to Uzbekistan? Or anywhere else in Central Asia for that matter… but why not? It’s hard to imagine a more fascinating region. Steeped in history and full of intrigue.
I want to explore the back streets of Bukhara, Khiva, and Samarkand — to see the ancient mosques and markets along the old Silk Road.
I want to continue the search for Ibn Battuta’s favorite melons, bargain for a blue and gold teapot, and eat all of the wonderful food, like non (a round bread that is puffy around the outside and flatter in the middle; some bakers decorate their loaves with intricate patterns) and lagman (hand pulled noodles, directly related to China’s la mien and Japan’s ramen — in Uzbekistan the noodles are served with hunks of meat and vegetables, either fried together or as a soup).
Most of all, I want to visit Uzbekistan to find and eat the world’s best plov. A dish celebrated throughout Central Asia (and a close cousin of India’s biryani), plov consists of rice cooked in a broth with meat — usually lamb — as well as garlic, carrots, and spices. Sometimes fruits, nuts, and other flourishes are added, especially for weddings and festivals.
A trip to Mongolia strikes me as the ultimate travel adventure. I would like to spend a few days in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, ideally in time to catch the Naadam Festival of nomad games. Participants from all over the country gather each July to compete in wrestling, archery, and horseback riding.
When I think of Mongolia, the word that comes to my mind is: rugged.
I want to get out of the city, trek the Gobi Desert, visit a real Ger camp, and sleep in a yurt. Most of all, I want to get to know some of the locals, their culture, and traditions. I am endlessly fascinated by Mongolian music — especially the throat singing.
Of course, I couldn’t visit Mongolia without seeing some fluffy yaks, camels, and goats.