Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world and Iran produces 90% of the world's supply. Why is it so expensive? It is the stamen of the autumn crocus, each flower produces 3 stamens, and it takes 20,000 stamens to produce just 100grams of the spice - every one of which must be picked by hand in the short (3 week) flowering season.
The Iranian saffron industry is very well regulated and you can be sure that any saffron you buy there is the real thing, which is not the case in some other countries.
Saffron is one of Iran's favourite spices so you will find it for sale everywhere.
What to buy: Saffron is usually sold in flat round plastic boxes of 5 grams weight. That makes it very easy to pack and any keen cook would be delighted to have some. Make sure you buy whole saffron (the stamens), not powder.
What to pay: About $5 for 5 grams
Best shopping in Iran is in Esfahan and Shiraz if we talk about souvenirs.
You can negotiate about each piece you want to purchase.
Carpets and kilims are extraordinary and even if you think it's expensive and seller will rip of your skin, you'll pay nothing compared to prices in Europe/USA.
Also there are some local crafts tipical for region and you should consider to buy as a present. Camel bone artist are popular and their miniatures can be easily found in central Esfahan and Shirazi bazaar.
Picture frames are nice too. Glassware is amazing. Jewelery is popular in Iran.
If you buy any of this, try to find place where they manufacture and sell because you'll pay directly to producer without margin paid to retailers.
What to pay: Never pay first price.
Never cut first, let him do it.
Be nice and polite, but not naive.
Always ask for discount.
Be sure you know few words in Farsi.
Be sure you know how they write numbers, that's how sometimes you can pull for "price for locals".
You don't have to buy if you don't like product no matter how pushy they can be.
Comparing to other nations, Iranians are really good and nice retailers.
I developed a serious liking for this Iranian fruit snack, and sampled many flavours and types during my trip.
Lavashak is made by cooking, then pulping fruit - either just one type or as a mix of fruits. The puree is then spread thinly on greased trays, and left to cool then set.
My first Lavashak hit was a commercially produced 7 fruits variety, which had me hooked, with its contrast of sweet and slightly sour taste.
Majid had bought this packet from a roadside stall on the Rasht - Qazvin road. We spent the rest of the journey tearing off strips of the dark red fruit paste and chewing happily. During my trip, we bought more packets to eat while driving along
In Masuleh, I was pleased to find a man selling tubs of home made lavashak, he offered me a piece to try. This was even better - it was more moist than the commercial variety.
I managed to limit myself to just one tub!
On my last night in Iran, my guide (Majid 2) had invited me to eat with his family, I left with a sheet of homemade lavashak, that one of their friends made! This was quite a bit tougher, but it lasted longer .
I was hoping to stock up with packets of Lavashak at the airport, to take home for presents for friends - OK, for myself!!!! Sadly, I didn't see any.
Think I'm going to have to find a stockist on t'internet to keep me going 'til I visit Iran again!
From my rather scant knowledge, learned from Japanese "Chikyu no Arukikata" Guidebook, visiting a number of Persian Carpet shops in Japan, as well as chatting with salespersons here in Iran:
Wool from Dry Iranian Highlands is the most suitable material, as it is resilient.
More valued now are the natural dyes rather than synthetic. Such natural substances include madder plant, pomegranite skin, indigo, walnut shell, wheat husks, grape seeds, and others.
Iranian people themselves are valued consumers of Persian Carpets for long history, and is essential item from their newlywed life.
The carpets have value comparable to estate assets worth, such as real estate or cash assets.
The carpets becomes more beautiful with proper usage and value increases as antique property (I heard it takes around 70 + years to qualify as "antique", and about 30-70 to quality as "old"). Part of the cleaning process (perhaps every 10 years) includes shaving a wee bit off the top when there is UV fading.
(Isn't this an interesting parallel to the human life span? Now... when shall I schedule that anti-ageing laser dermabrasion???)
Look at the reverse side of the carpet to determine "laji", i.e. how many knots per 7 cms. Typically, wool carpet have 30-70 knots, whereas silk would have 55-70 (excellent could have 100 knots).
What to buy: Different regions of Iran Carpets each with own specialty are:
Esfahan-style, typically with silk weft and wool pile, with long history.
Qom-style, whose production history is quite new, but with using fine silks and fine knot density, has become the top standard and internationally favoured for high end pure silk, fine cloth-thin carpet.
Other styles are Kashan-style, Tabriz-style, Naeen-style, Bahktiyari-style, Gashgahi-style, Turkmen-style...
You can purchase the carpet depending on how you like to use it, generally wool is recommended if using on the floor at your inner lobby or living room with furniture upon it.
Silk is recommended for spreading upon Japanese-style Tatami rooms or upon fine furniture, but of course any good use according to your imagination is perfect!
A typical design is produced by bundling long triangular rods about 10-15cm length, and 1-2mm width. Each rod comprises for example wood, camel bone, brass, shell, etc. Results of this bundle becomes a roughly pencil diameter and pencil-length "inlay rod", whereby the cross-cut shape of this rod reveals the hexagonal or triangle beautiful design.
The "inlay rod" is then embedded upon wooden or camel bone substrate, one patch at a time, whereby after embedment the remaining inlay rod is shortened by careful cross-cut away.
What to buy: For really jewel-quality work which is much harder to find, precious metals or ivory may be used, though it's known that importing ivory is forbidden by Washington Convention, so be careful when purchasing.
I have to admit I fell for the temptation of "cuteness". I first noticed one being used by the attendant at our hotel's internet cafe, and afterward noticed them everywhere in the bazaars.
Excellent souvenier gift, don't you think?
What to pay: Not very much at all! Even by bargaining, it is a matter of saving a few dozen cents...
What to buy:
Classical Persian Literature, such as Shirazian Sufi Master Hafiz (1320-1389), and Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam (1048-1123)
As for typical Persian Music, we asked for recommendations, and purchased two different artists as shown. One is a long-standing musician, and the other is a popular youthful band where this particular release is a benefit for the earthquake victims in Bam.
I did not know until now that solo female singers are in principle forbidden to be sold - that said, my gut feeling is that if you know your way around, some shopkeepers could possibly have un-displayed items available for sale...
Later in my journey, though I sometimes even heard loud woman singer music blaring from young mens' the car on the streets, I heard that this is in principle illegal, and could result in a few days car impoundment.
However, I heard that women-only concerts by women are OK, if somewhat rare.
What to pay: decent prices in line with Iran's market economy
These carpets were purchased in various shops in Esfahan. Recommended particularly; two shops within Abbasi Hotel as well as some shops across the street from the hotel, as the best quality are available here, and certificates of authenticity with shop name are offered. Credit cards are also welcome in these shops, but the discounting leverage is somewhat reduced in such case.
Also, Mehrabad Airport Duty Free Shop in Tehran has many lovely selections of all sizes and quality, including a decent selection of the rather hard-to-find very tiny (about hand towel size) gift-size silk carpets. The shopkeeper informed me that the pre-tagged prices are government-regulated (however, I do not know if further discount negotiation may be done in this situation). The government prices are about the same as those after a good negotiation session final price in the city shops. Unfortunately, as only cash is accepted even at the duty free shop, purchasing more carpets was each side of our loss since I ran out of cash by the end of my journey!
What to pay: Really, just like when purchasing an automobile, diamond or other "estate asset", it all depends on the quality!
These stunning designs are found as vases, tea sets, plates, hanging wall plates, etc. In the bazaars, you may find an artisan making a work in progress, and can purchase his/her completed pieces.
The construction is a bronze base covered with white porcelain enamel. Then the artist paints the design with a few-hairs-thin paintbrush (cat's hair, as one artisan told us)
Viewing these designs do evoke a sense of remembering the design of Masjed-E-Emam mosques, etc.
What to pay: I would say from around $50-$300 over a range of sizes of wall hanging plates. The tea sets and vases will be much higher.
Garam Khal is made by a woodblock print upon cotton material with natural material ink (the synthetic inks should be accordingly cheaper), such as traditionally red, beige and mustard colour, also with blue and black.
Typically used as tablecloths, bedspreads. Price-wise makes fine gifts.
You may see the maker printed on the reverse, and oftentimes the master printer working in his shop in the bazaar. They are quite keen to show prospective buyers their work in progress, as well as their history of being interviewed by international media.
What to pay: Reasonable prices, and not a "major purchase" compared to say, carpets.
Here is the type of sweets which is good for distributing as presents or for your family, friends and colleagues, as it is the only sweets I found which were individually wrapped.
The white Gaz is a type of nougat embedded with pistachios, and with pleasant rosewater aftertaste. Though it's good, it tends to be really sweet - and I think it's best served together with unsweetened Tea.
What to pay: quite inexpensive
...but perhaps easier to find in restaurants along Caspian Sea???
It seems that Sturgeon Caviar is not classified as "Iranian Cuisine", and that the Industry is designed mainly for export.
As far as we asked where we could eat in Tehran, it seems that only the Japanese Restaurant "Serina" (almost next door to Homa Hotel) offers Iranian Caviar Sushi. Many Japanese who visit here are quite keen to try Iran Caviar, but we did not get a chance to eat here.
What to buy: This Asetra had extremely fine taste, very buttery, with the right amount of saltiness.
What to pay: We did however, find two varieties at Mehrabad International Airport Duty-Free shop, Beluga Caviar (about $200 for 50 g), and Asetra Caviar (as pictured here about $100 for 50g). The production date on the jar was just one day prior to our purchase(!), and keeps maximum freshness 3 months unopened, or 9 hours after opening.
Remember that even Duty Free Shops accept only cash (US dollars or Iranian Rials) no credit cards, much to the loss of the shopkeeper (and us), as our cash level was nearly zero upon leaving the country!
I love Saffron. In rice, and in Indian Desserts. My cupboard smells lovely, just by storing the unopened tins. Well, as TheWanderingCamel has already made an excellent commentary about Iran's Saffron, I'll suffice only to add the English Description found on the back of this box of Farzad Saffron:
"Not only Saffron is used in most of foods, drinks, desserts, sweets, and cakes for its fantastic and pleasant odor and color, but also it is appetite stimulant, refresher, exhilarant, and brighterner of face, dilutents of blood, sexual strengthen and regulator of nervous system. Nothing can replace Natural saffron".
So, I'm glad to know it is healthy food too!
This is Mashad-produced Saffron by Payehe Khorasan Co. and the expiry is two years post-production.
What to pay: For all the content on the tin plate in the Box only, about $10-$15 US dollars, I think. (The other bottle is another company and another price.)
I'm not sure exactly how Sohan is created, but due to reading various accounts, including one here on VT, I sought this sweet intentionally. It is very yummy indeed.
This tin says in English:
Saffron, Flour, Sugar, Wheat Sprout, Butter, Yolk, Almond, Cardamoms, Pistachio.
It is not hard candy, I think it tastes something like carmellised coconut, perhaps the flour is for biting ease. The photo here is the smallest size available, even though it's better to eat in the same quanity as a chocolate bar due to the richness!
This will last me a long time, if I'm careful how to eat. :-)
What to pay: Not so expensive, maybe around $10 or so US dollars?