California McDreaming

Fast food in Tehran

In the early 1980s, at the peak of Iran’s war-stricken, coupon-dependent economy, there were still some people with more than enough in their pockets to move outside the country’s borders — where long lines didn’t form next to grocery stores and siren calls didn’t go off at regular intervals. At that time the internet still lay in the distant future and the number of available television channels did not exceed two. We had nothing better to do than sit in the candlelight of missile attacks launched by “Saddam the heathen” and listen to Iranians living abroad who told us of places where there were no wars. Blessed were those living in the West, the land of milk and honey. Of course, these visitors were often encouraged by our seemingly endless thirst for information, and embellished their tales accordingly to satisfy our appetites. We may have known that they were exaggerating, but we savored the accounts nonetheless.

Somehow, the experience of eating out was always a part of these conversations. We heard of pretty young girls standing behind clean counters with eager smiles, taking orders, ready with the goods before customers were through placing them. Their restaurants served Coca-Cola—the original, which was unquestionably better than our own local sodas — and crispy French fries, which wouldn’t remain lodged in your throat the way ours did. We dreamed of McDonald’s and “fast food” while sitting in our paltry local sandwich shops waiting for the owner to prepare the requisite rubber sandwich wrapped in oil-stained wax paper.

In the early 1990s, when the breeze of Reform was yet to hit the country, a big billboard with a double arch appeared on Tehran’s Africa Street. News traveled swiftly that a restaurant-owner of Iranian origin living in Spain had decided to open a branch of the biggest chain in the world in Tehran. There was such a commotion on the opening night — people were salivating at the thought of a Big Mac — that the police had to interfere. If only they knew that this was in fact McDonald’s faux-style.

The hunger for fast food was only to increase. A few months after the Africa Street episode, the more prosperous northern part of town saw the opening of several more McLook-alikes. “Nader” was one these. We made sure to go to the barbershop and put on our best clothes before standing in long lines that reeked of perfume and cologne. Seeing the spotlessly uniformed staff was a novelty, as was the visually stimulating menu. We paid two times as much for the same meal elsewhere, but we were happy.

Iranian fast food from this point on became a favorite of visiting relatives, the sons and daughters of exiles, who came back in increasing numbers. They were so impressed by the Iranian version of burgers and chicken sandwiches that we thought they chewed on the equivalent of old shoes in their McDonald’s. After a slew of these gastronomical tours we started remembering the stories that we had heard during the War, not without some irk. “Weren’t the Burger Kings and McDonald’s that your parents spoke of dreamy places only found in fairy tales?” we asked them eventually. Our cousins explained that fast food “over there” was quite common, that what found its way into the stomach was nothing more than an easily digestible ball of cholesterol void of any nutrient, and that burgers and nuggets looked alike and tasted the same everywhere. Hearing these accounts was never pleasing to us. We wanted our fairy tales back.

Then came the era of fast food franchises. “Boof ” was first with its iconic owl emblem, “Venus Burger” next with its television ads, “Super Star” with its playground, “Apache” with its controversial name, “Barun” with its claim of healthyness and “Heeva” with its tagline, “Mother’s milk is your child’s best food.”

Today, our palates are familiar with the taste of foods that, in the absence of our own ghormeh-sabzi, take little time to order and eat. When we get out of our offices, we step into the brightness of these mushrooming restaurants routinely, unimpressed by what was once a culinary novelty. Things have changed, and even the son of our local sandwich shop owner now covets the cult of fast food. His restaurant is mottled with neon lights and a slick menu. Somehow, we miss the sandwiches that his father’s grimy hands once prepared.