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Chinese Cuisine in Iran

by Manijeh Maghsudi

Chinese Food in the Middle East

Summer Volume: 2012 Issue: 19(2) page(s): 13-16 and 23

Little is known about Chinese restaurants and Chinese cuisine in Iran. What is known is that there are many Chinese people working in this country. What is not known is what Iranians know about their food. Therefore, surveying Chinese Restaurants in the country's capital city of Tehran is the goal of this researcher, and of this article.

Learning about Chinese eateries in Iran was done thanks to extensive in-depth interviews with the manager, chef, and staff of what was the first Chinese restaurant to open in Tehran, the country's capital city. To the best of their knowledge, Chinese restaurants exist only in Tehran and not in any other Iranian city. There are five of them, all located in upper income areas of the city where wealthy folk reside. The first Chinese restaurant, named Golden Dragon or Ezhdehaye Talaii, was opened some six decades ago, the year was 1959. Close to sixty years have passed since then, and now there are but five Chinese restaurants in Iran.

Why have Chinese restaurants not been that popular even though numerous other Chinese products do come to this country? Foods items from China such as apples, grapes, garlic, and tomato paste are popular, so are soy sauce, many kinds of Chinese noodles, and tofu. A question asked is: As there are restaurants of other nationalities, why have Chinese restaurants not developed?

In this first Chinese restaurant, modifications have been made to make the foods more acceptable to Iranian tastes. With these considered assumptions, and what the Chinese chef of this eatery thought, some changes have been accepted, particularly in the past decade since a great variety of Chinese products are available in many shops in Tehran and other cities and villages of Iran.

In recent years, changes of Chinese imports include lots of clothing, handbags, shoes, household goods, and a wide variety of food products. Promotion of these and other Chinese products did result in stagnation in domestic factories and production facilities making a large number of productive units go bankrupt and close down. This did not impact the large number of Chinese products present in many households compared to fewer made in Iran or other parts of the world.

This increase in Chinese products sold in Iran includes many kinds of fruits, garlic, rice, tofu, and many Chinese sauces. These are available in a Chinese market in Tehran called Behjatabad Bazaar in center of Tehran where prosperous middle class people reside. There, they sell some of the most expensive and luxurious food products in this city and almost all kinds of imported Chinese foods including but not limited to soy sauce, spices, rice, noodles, tofu, and other foodstuffs. Chinese rice can be found here and all over Iran as can many other foods popular in the Chinese cuisine. Furthermore, these are available in this market at lower prices than domestic varieties leading to decline in purchasing of Iranian agricultural products. At present, Chinese imports and the recession are big issues in most countries all over the world, not just a problem in Iran.

Chinese products are present in most countries, their restaurants present and growing in the United States, Canada, and most European nations. So once again, why have Chinese restaurants not gained market share in Iran? Italian restaurants and American fast food style places are popular and widely available. Why do Iranians not show much interest in, and not welcome or want to taste the flavors of Chinese cuisine?

Many have said that Chinese cuisine is unacceptable, and that the Chinese do not understand the Iranian culture or their Islamic religious beliefs. Iranians feel strongly about this and as soon as the subject of Chinese cuisine is brought up, they express many negative beliefs including that Chinese cuisine uses dogs, cats, rats, beetles, human embryos, and thousands of other strange materials. These presumptions and prejudgments are quite common in Iran. Surely that must have an impact.

What characteristics of Chinese cuisine o Iranians understand? This important question exists in this country where there are fewer Asian immigrants than in European countries, South and Central America, Australia, New Zealand, and in the United States. Few people do migrate to Iran from the East. Is it because there is no Chinatown nor any Chinese districts in Iran? There are these few Chinese restaurants, and they have made changes and transformations to make their food more acceptable to Iranian tastes, but have they had a major impact and what are their restaurant patrons like?

The Golden Dragon Restaurant in Tehran is the first Chinese restaurant in the country. It is located in one of the most expensive parts of Tehran, in the north part of the city. Accessible from two main squares of northern Tehran, Vank Square and Tajrish Square, it is in a building that has three levels. Colored red and with nice Chinese lamps, the building covers a large area and it adds to its Chinese identity. Iranian restaurants, in general, are not that large.

In an interview with the manager of this restaurant and one with the chef, we learn that the restaurant was founded in 1959 and has been a Chinese Restaurant in that same place since then. What does seem unusual for Iranians is that there is no serving pause during the day; that is this eatery is open from eleven in the morning straight through until eleven in the evening. Many other restaurants in Iran close between three in the afternoon and half after seven in the evening. There is another branch of Golden Dragon, a bit smaller, and in a more northern part of Tehran. Of the five Chinese restaurants in this city, the other three are not well known. One is out of the city and actually between Tehran and Karaj, another is in north Tehranl it is very small.

The Menu at Golden Dragon is available at the offices of this magazine. It is a mixture of Chinese regional cuisines, with a greater part of its dishes from the western part of China and the Xiangtan Province. This is probably because the main cook is from that part of China. It has dishes in all parts of a meal and has several set menus suggestions that combine a starter, a main dish, and one or two other dishes. These are for one, two, or up to five persons. The manager advises they are most popular, particularly among female customers. The other Chinese restaurants in Tehran are run by Iranian chefs. The chef at Golden Dragon does speak Persian and is capable of taking initiatives when managing his non-Chinese kitchen assistants. His name is Ma Chin and he is from western China, close to Tibet, in an area called Chi Hay. That area has large numbers of Han Chinese living there and large numbers of four different ethnic groups, all mainly Muslim. These ethnic groups are the Tou, Saa Lau, Dong Xiang, and the Khan. It is interesting to note that the population of Muslims in China is around seventy million, a number almost equal to the total population of Iran.

Chef Ma Chin is thirty-two and recently married to a woman from his native region of China. She is currently taking language instruction which will help her integration and be easier for her in Iran. Chef Ma has considerable culinary experience and he started cooking at age fourteen, first as an assistant and later as the main cook. His journey to Iran began with the recommendation of one of his sister's Iranian friends who suggested he go to Iran and work as a Chinese cook there.

How did his sister get to know this Iranian after moving to that country? She received a scholarship to continue her studies there.

After that, she moved to work in Kish, an island in the southern part of Iran. Six years ago, Ma Chin took his first steps to come to Iran, and that was when visiting her. He searched for a job and eventually found one and received permission to work in the country.

As his sister lived in Iran for more than ten years, she was familiar with the Iranian system and able to assisted his doing all that was needed to join her and work in Iran. Without her, he probably would not have been as successful. For him, prospects of job and career were much greater in Iran than in China, and to his knowledge, he is the only Chinese cook in Tehran. Furthermore, his income is much higher in Iran than it would be in China.

The manager of the Golden Dragon Restaurant used to run an Italian restaurant before he came to work in this Chinese eatery which has the same number of tables the Italian one did. He believes Italian restaurants are more compatible with Iranian tastes, and says "there were always people queuing outside the Italian eatery, some for forty-five minutes." He believes the main reasons are different criteria applied by Iranians to foods served in a Chinese restaurant, and told us that "the Chinese believe the look and color of food is important while Iranians appreciate aromas of food." He also said "Iranians do not like spices much."

Many wonder about food characteristics in Chinese restaurants in Iran. We found the cooking of Iranian dishes longer than Chinese dishes. Iranians like their meal completely cooked and for a long period of time. In other words, Iranian dishes are liked well done, the consumer not feeling that he or she is eating a carrot with the teeth. Chinese dishes are not well done. Now in this Chinese restaurant in Tehran, some of the cooking is similar to Iranian cooking. Many dishes are fried and cooked longer than they would be in China, their ingredients not completely smashed but remaining fresh looking.

All beef and poultry prepared in this Chinese restaurant must be and is Halal, that is it is slaughtered following Islamic rules. A variety of sea foods are not Halal in Iran such as crab, shark and oyster and so they are not served here. There are no such restrictions in Chinese cuisine. For Iranian acceptance, all fish and other marine creatures are supplied from Iran.

With respect to flavors of dishes, Iranians prefer them sour, so Chinese dishes served in Iran are more sour than their original counterparts. They include added vinegar, soy sauce, and tomato paste making their tastes more closely resemble those of Iranian dishes. One other resemblance, Chinese dishes have plenty of sauce and it is thicker than sauces found in Iranian dishes. That said, meals served in Tehran's Golden Dragon Restaurant have less sauce than similar ones do in China. The dishes in this restaurant that are most acceptable to Iranians include Sin Jian Kebab which is presumably from Xinjiang, duck, and egg rolls.

As Iranians are fond of sour dishes and they like kebabs, the Chinese chef in this restaurant prepares many dishes with the above preferred characteristics. In addition, as many Chinese dishes are spicier with a larger variety of seasonings in comparison to Iranian ones, the dishes in this restaurant are not as spicy as are their homeland Chinese counterparts.

Less oil is consumed in Chinese cuisine than in Iranian cuisine, so dishes served in this Golden Dragon Restaurant have more oil than typical Chinese dishes. In China, common oils are sesame, soy, and peanut oil while in Iran cooks commonly use sunflower oil. The manager told us that Iranians coming to this Chinese restaurant did not like the taste of the above mentioned oils commonly used in China, so some of them are replaced with more acceptable ones for their Iranian patrons.

Other differences in Chinese dishes compared to Iranian ones include the colors and decor of finished dishes, and Chinese dishes prepared with various vegetables. As Chinese dishes have varied color and some decor, and because Iranians do not deem these important nor desirable, when preparing their dishes little attention is paid to these visual elements. Another difference is that Chinese chefs use a special seasoning ingredient found in China. This item's trade name is Ajinomoto and commonly known as MSG. This sodium salt of glutamic acid is used less and the chef replaces it with other Iranian salts.

Dishes served in Chinese restaurants in China have considerable variety, many are served at the table centered on a revolving table-top. Guests can take what they want and put the food into their bowls or on their plates with their own chopsticks They can do so turning the table-top and helping themselves to their favorite dishes. Many take some of the same dishes several times using their own chopsticks or flatware.

In Iran, things are served differently. Iranians do not like to put a spoon they have used into a shared plate. They have expressed not liking this behavior in this Chinese restaurant. They do not like that the soup is served in a large bowl, also placed in the center of the table, and everyone can help themselves. In Iran, soup is served in individual bowls, one bowl to each diner.

When patrons first come to this restaurant, they are served a cold welcome drink, an Iranian one that is a mixture of cherry juice, barberry juice, and bubbling water. This welcome beverage is common only in this restaurant and not in the other Chinese restaurants in Iran. Other drinks available include Coke, Canada-dry, Seven-up, and mineral water. Based on Islamic rules in Iran, drinking any alcoholic beverage is prohibited, doing so has severe penalties, so none is served here.

The chef at this restaurant likes to serve green Long Jing tea while black tea is regularly served in Iranian eateries. At this restaurant, tea leaves are simmered in a teapot for a short while, then the brewed tea is poured into individual teapots and served to the patrons. Waiters refill the teapots with tea leaves many times during the meal, as needed.

Goods imported from China to Iran include the afoementioned Ajinomoto, also a Chinese spice named ka jou; the latter prepared from bitter red seeds of a tree with the same name. Another seasoning used here is called shawo goua, a type of mountain mushroom, also a yellow algae from a tree named khe muan. These and Chinese chopsticks, Chinese spoons, and green Long Jing and other teas are available in in this Golden Dragon Restaurant.

Why the lack of development and expansion of Chinese restaurants in Iran is, I believe, for two main reasons. The first relates to present cultural, social, religious, and economic situations. There is no creation nor acceptance of anything promoting and/or developing Chinese cuisine in Iran. The second reason relates to shortages and lack of facilities that Chinese restaurants face in terms of raw materials and Chinese staff. For example, the Chinese chef here points to shortages of needed sauces and spices, and that these items are not manufactured here so they must come from China. Without them, serious problems occur in that the chef cannot make certain dishes if they are not available.

Another point mentioned is his need for Chinese staff, in particular Muslim Chinese, as they are well acquainted with cooking features and restrictions of the Iranian Muslim culinary. Since the number of Chinese dishes made in restaurants is extensive, shortages of trained staff is critical. This Chinese chef points out that Chinese dishes should be served warm or hot in order to maintain their original flavors and textures. This need is not common in Iran and furthermore, equipment is not available to enable this. Another point he mentions is there are no facilities for advertising Chinese cuisine; still another that everything about Chinese cuisine is based on many negative suppositions, not all of them accurate.

What fascinates is that Chinese food is not well promoted in Iran despite the fact that there are many Chinese workers in this country. The number of Chinese restaurants are disproportionate to the number of Chinese in Iran as well as the size of the total population of Iran. As most Chinese companies and institutions in Iran have their own Chinese cooks thast they bring from China, that may be one reason why there is little demand by the Chinese in Iran for Chinese restaurants. In addition, Chinese restaurants are expensive in Tehran making them less desirable for middle-income and low-income people to partake of their food. It seems that there is no way, economic or otherwise to introduce Chinese foods to Iranians.

In order to promote Chinese cuisine, it is recommended that a Chinese chef prepare foods at a Chinese restaurant as Iranians are not well-acquainted with Chinese cuisine. It is not easy to get permission to work in Iran by a Chinese chef who wants to set up a business here. And, due to cultural differences, it would be wise to have Chinese Muslims cook in Iran as they are familiar with Islamic rules and Islamic food beliefs. Given Islamic culture in Iranian society, the prospect of integration would be greater for a Chinese coming from a Chinese-Islamic religious group. All of these and the need to import some ingredients from China requires lots of pre-arrangements and overcoming many administrative obstacles.

In conclusion, Chinese cuisine in Iran does include many cultural differences. The lack of its development and promotion in Iran may be related to cultural, religious, social, and economic parameters. The most important among them are Iran's religious culture and Islamic restrictions that prohibit acceptance of many culinary differences. These and other social and cultural differences may prevent growth and development of Chinese cuisine in Iran. These differences need consideration so that this cuisine can be accepted by larger numbers of people in Iranian society.

Chinese cuisine can get close to tastes, colors, and flavors of dishes in Iranian culture. With this in mind, I asked the manager and the chef of the restaurant whether many Chinese dishes now served in the Golden Dragon Restaurant have similar tastes, colors, and flavors of Chinese dishes in China. They stated they do not, and that these and the cooking styles of Chinese dishes served in the Golden Dragon Restaurant are closer to Iranian dishes than authentic Chinese ones.

We did ask chef Ma Chin to cook a large variety of Chinese dishes for a week so that my associates and I could taste and express our viewpoints. We instructed him about what changes to make so that more dishes would be accepted and enjoyed by Iranian patrons.

He complied and did reduce spices in many dishes and he did apply some changes in cooking methods to be more acceptable for his Iranian patrons. Chef Ma Chin learned from us, and after trying some Iranian dishes, he did select some Chinese dishes to make for us and later include them in the Golden Dragon menu. These selections were examined by the general manager, the restaurant owner, and myself. Some were short listed, others needed a few more modifications to make them more desirable for this restaurant's Iranian customers.

Results included dishes with fewer spices, less sauce, less use of oyster sauce, and less soy sauce, as well. This chef is now careful to also use less sugar and less oil. Now that he has lived in Iran for a while, he realizes that Iranians perceive Chinese food as low calorie and well suited for a healthy diet plan. Therefore, he includes dishes with less oil and he adds more vegetables. He should keep these ideas and to be sure his customers understand that these are his new recipes and not always real Chinese food.

Now, Chef Ma uses more vegan-butter and vegan-oil for cooking whereas in China he would use more soy oil and peanut oil. These modifications are necessary to make his Chinese food more compatible with Iranian food and increase Iranian acceptance of his Chinese food. The process of adaptation to Iranian tastes was not only limited to changes in ingredients but also in the way they were cooked and the manner they were served. With little tolerance for raw foods with the exception of Sushi, which is now becoming more popular among affluent social groups, he hopes more Iranians will get to know and like his new recipes and acclimate to his original ones.

People in Iran do respect that restaurants can be different and they do understand that in China, people share different dishes. In Iran, individuals want their own dishes. This can restrict choices and give less opportunity to become acquainted with more foods and different dishes. Because in China but not in Iran, dishes are appreciated warm and with nice decor, he puts less emphasis on this and more on the quality and quantity of food served; big portions are favored by Iranian customers. This chef looks forward to more customers appreciating his Chinese-Iranian foods.

What follows are five items selected from most of the sections of Golden Dragon's extensive menu:

Caviar (50 grams)
Golden Dragon Platter (2 each of Spring Rolls)
Chicken Wings and Crispy Shrimp
Vegetable Spring Roll
Deep Fried Chicken Wings with Sesame
Chicken and Corn Soup
Chicken and Spinach Soup
Si Hun Si Tan Soup with Egg and Tomato
Vegetable Soup
Wantan Soup
Pi Houn La Salad, a special Shinjanes salad
Chinese Salad (Chicken, Vegetables, Noodles)
Celery and Shrimp Salad
Cucumber Salad
Jin Via Pa Chae
Shun Sou Ya (Golden Dragon Fried Duck)
Ow Shuan Ya Koya (Fried Duck with Five Special Spices)
Sweet and Sour Duck
Golden Dragon Special Vegetables (Tofu with Fried Vegetables)
Fried Chinese Lettuce
ggplant With Fried Vegetables
Fen Vi To Du (Wedged Potato, Celery, Carrot, and Five Special Spice)
Sea Food:
Hot and Sour Lobster
Crispy Prawns
Garlic Shrimp (Shrimp, Butter, Lemon, Garlic)
Sweet, Hot and Sour Shrimp
Golden Dragon Fried Fish (with Beef, Vegetable and Special Spice)
Chopsuey Beef (Beef with Vegetables)
Beef with Broccoli
Ma Pow Dow Foe with Steamed Rice (Minced Meat with Tofu in Special Sauce)
Beef Curry with Steamed Rice
Yan Low Chow (Shinjanes Kabob)
Chopsuey Chicken
Goom Ba Ji Din (Chicken with Peanuts and Peppers)
Sweet and Sour Chicken
Chicken Curry with Steamed Rice
Shinjanes Fried Chicken (Onion, Capsicum, Potato and Special Spice)
Shaw Chowmien (Noodles, Vegetables and Shrimp)
Jilow Chowmien (Noodles, Vegetables and Chicken)
Liow Low Bameye (Separated Fried Noodles with Beef, Onion, Potato and Tomato)
Ghan Bameye (Fried Noodles with Minced Meat in Special Sauce)
Sou Chay Chowmien (Noodles, Vegetables)
Vegetables Fried Rice
Shrimp Vegetables Fried Rice
Beef Vegetables Fried Rice
Chicken Vegetables Fried Rice
Special Fried Rice (Beef and Chicken)
Steam Rice
Sushi Menu:
Nigri Sushi - 2 pieces
Hosomaki Roll (6 pieces)
Kappa Maki (Cucumber)
Ebi Maki
Spicy Shrimp Tempura
Beef Maki
Futomaki Roll (8 pieces)
California Roll
Philadelphia Roll
Vegetables Roll
The author, an Assistant Professor at Iran's University of Tehran, published a Persian language book titled: Anthropology of Family and Kinship in Persian in Tehran. She has interest in, and expertise about healing practices among ethnic groups in Iran and she belongs to a research program on traditional pharmacology. She focuses on different types of cuisines among ethnic groups in Iran, has done comparisons between Turkman and Mongolians, and is now researching Chinese and Japanese cuisine.

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