In the early 80s and at the peak of the war-stricken, coupon-dependent economy, there were still those with more than enough in their pockets to land outside the country’s borders where long lines didn’t form next to grocery stores and where siren calls didn’t go off at regular intervals. At that time the Internet was still beyond our horizons and the number of T.V. 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 foreign-residing visitors who told us of places where there were no wars. Blessed were those living in the West, milk and honey cascading from their streams. Of course, these visitors were often encouraged by our seemingly endless thirst for information and embellished their tales to satisfy our appetite. We may have known that then, but we savoured the accounts nonetheless.
Eating out was always a part of these conversations. We heard of pretty young girls standing behind whistle-clean counters with sweet smiles, taking orders and having them ready before customers were through mouthing them. These restaurants served the very original Coca Cola, which was unquestionably better than our own sodas and crisp-tasty French-fries, which wouldn’t lump in your throat the way ours did. We dreamed of McDonald and “fast food” sitting in our paltry local sandwich shops waiting for the owner to prepare the rubber sandwich wrapped in oil-stained wax paper.
In the early 90s, when the breeze of Reform was yet to change things for good, a big billboard with a Double Arch appeared on Africa Street. The news travelled with the speed of light that an Iranian restaurant-owner 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 salivating to the thought of Big Mac on their plates – that the police had to interfere. The anxious crowd never consummated its much dreamt-of Fast Food experience. Devotees of the regime considered MacDonald’s the emblem of “Great Satan” and didn’t see it fit for a revolutionary order to have it on its menu. Later, the Mac-look-alike license was invoked to close this chapter for the time.
Foreign fast food restaurants remained closed, but replicas started to crop up here and there, in the northern, more prosperous part of town. Nader was one of these early fast food establishments situated on the ground floor of a tower of the same name. At rush hour we stood in a long line waiting to reach the counter, but even this fascinated us.
Seeing the spotlessly uniformed staff was a novelty, as was the sight of well-groomed clientele, who looked like they had shown up for a gala affair. We could also check out the visually appetizing menu on top of the counter. Pictures looked familiar but names didn’t. We needed diacritics to pronounce them and ultimately used our fingers to point to what we wanted. We paid two-times as much for the same meal elsewhere and scampered for a seat, tray in hand, to gulp down our food and surrender the seat to the next tray-bearing customer. Needless to say, we were happy.
Iranian fast food from this point on became a favourite of visiting relatives, the sons and daughters of the earlier ones, 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 old shoes in their McDonald’s. Those who went back made sure to advertise Iranian Fast Food to the in-turn visiting relatives, to the point that we ended up taking our just-landed cousins one night to this one night to that joint. 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 Burger King and McDonald that your parents spoke of these dreamy places only found in fairy tales?” we asked them eventually. Our cousins explained that Fast Food “there” was for the common folk, that what found its way into the stomach was this easily digestible ball of cholesterol void of any nutrients, and that burgers and nuggets looked alike and tasted the same everywhere. Hearing these new accounts wasn’t pleasing to us. We wanted our fairy tales back, but gone forever they were.
With time fast food places like Nader mushroomed in the city and we could see one opening at every corner. We got used to mouthing “combo,” “double burger, and ”chicken strips,” and started thinking of our own wax paper-wrapped sandwiches. The quality of Nader’s food also took a dive and it no more boasted the line that we found so unusual.
Now the quality of food that we eat matters and we are not ready to pay any amount of money just for the experience of it. Ironically, in the place where that initial Double Arch was supposed to open, another fast food joint opened not a year ago. This one is called Super Star. It comes complete with a children’s playground and Happy Meal. The bustle outside Star Burger shows that we no more need to call it Big Mac to enjoy it and we can be equally happy with our own junk food.
* Originally published in Casa Asia’s newsletter Voz (Sedā), Iranian Pool, An Encounter with Contemporary Iranian Culture