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Cafes in Iran…without the coffee! | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tehran-The fascination with Iranian cafes ceases to exist. The youth in particular do not find that visiting these cafes is socially or even spiritually gratifying. The cafes are found all over Iran, with a high number particularly situated in working class areas where most of the old customers habitually visit the cafes to smoke the water pipe. In the early forties and fifties, these cafes were meeting places for artisans, workers and government employees. These gathering places in Iran were known as Batouq, which explains their existence in all neighborhoods nearby to commercial centers and workshops. With time however, unions emerged causing the cafes to give up their main role as the place of gathering, forcing them to become restaurants, serving traditional Iranian dishes like the popular ”Deezee”. Deezee is a combination of meat, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, chickpeas, kidney beans and a range of spices, which are mixed and cooked in a special pot. This pot used to be made of stone, however it is cooked now in a normal aluminum saucepan. Even this famous Iranian dish has lost its popularity within Iranian society and has paved the way for more modern fast foods.

Despite the fact that there are still places for people to drink tea and smoke the water pipe, the old style cafes no longer exist in the main cities. Many were developed into modern restaurants, bridging tradition with modernity by issuing it with the traditional name of ”Sofra Khana”. This is the older name, which is used to refer to restaurants like ”Ali Qabo Sofra Khana” in Ghandy Street in northern Tehran and ”Sofra Khana Azry” close to the train station south of the capital.

Hameed Perwi, the head of the association for owners of these traditional restaurants, says that there is a difference between the original café and the Sofra Khana both in the service that they provide and in their interior design. He believes that the Sofra Khana is a modern version of the traditional cafes. The traditional cafes would bring together a range of people who would sit side-by-side drinking tea and smoking the water pipe. However, one should mention that Iranian women are not allowed into these cafes. The visitors would eat certain dishes such as ”deezee”, ”cream and honey” and ”Tibrizi cheese” with ”Sangak bread”. Sangak bread is made of wheat flour and is renowned for its extensive length!

The Sofra Khanas serve various meals and are supervised by government

health departments. The cafes offer traditional music played by bands and serve the customary water pipe. The only thing that is missing from these cafes is coffee! Despite the clear connection to the name, cafes in Iran hardly serve coffee as Iranians rarely drink it. Rather, the most popular drink is a light tea served all day with sugar cubes.

Even until now, the educated elite still remember the Nadery Café on Nadery Street. The name of the road was changed to Jumhuri Islami Road (Islamic republic) after the fall of the Shah. This was one of the cafes in which poets, educated intellects and writers would congregate in what used to be part of the Nadery hotel. They would meet on Mondays to discuss all current issues relative to culture. However, now matters have changed. Traditional cafes have to compete with coffee shops, internet cafes, and game cafes. Those who visit Cafés have maintained this habit while families have found a new and more attractive alternative for restaurants in the Sofra Khanas.