In last night's much-touted Parts Unknown episode, host Anthony Bourdain lands in Iran, a country that's "a big blank spot on nearly every traveler's resume." According to Bourdain, he had been trying for more than four years to visit the nation that's often subject to Western sanctions and even deeper Western skepticism. But while there, Bourdain marvels at the openness and friendliness of the Iranian people — many of whom warmly welcome him into their homes — the beauty of the country, and the complexity of its food. He samples long-simmered stews, egg-stuffed meatballs, turkey-filled haleem porridge, and the iconic chelow kebab.
But there's an edge of uncertainty. Two of Bourdain's on-camera guides, journalists Jason Rezaian (an Iranian-American correspondent for the Washington Post) and Yeganeh Salehi (an Iranian contributor to United Arab Emirates newspaper The National), were imprisoned earlier this year by the Iranian government. Bourdain dedicates the closing moments to them: "At this moment, as I read these lines, Jason and Yeganeh are still prisoners. Somewhere. Their future, the reasons for their arrest, are still unknown." Thankfully, Yeganeh has since been released. In an essay for Medium, Bourdain says of Iran: "It's also place that can warm your heart one day and break it the next."
The episode received some criticism on Twitter and Facebook, causing Bourdain to respond: "And to all the offended: I guess we shouldn’t show people Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, Congo or anywhere we find policies repugnant?" Here now, in the spirit of Quotable Bourdain, the best lines from the episode:
1) On receiving a surprising welcome: "I am so confused. It wasn't supposed to be like this — of all the places, of all the countries, all the years of traveling, it's here, in Iran, that I am greeted most warmly by total strangers."
2) On Iran seeming oddly familiar: "There are neighborhoods of Rome this feels a lot like."
3) On A+ side dishes: "Chelow kebab wouldn't be complete without Persian rice: fluffy, long-grain, perfectly seasoned with saffron, the rice in this country is like nothing you've ever had."
4) On the precarious balance between Western influence and tradition: "So, how does one have fun in Iran these days? This is a line that is constantly being tested. Alcohol is of course forbidden. You can get away with listening to rock, or rap, sort of — sometimes. But you cannot yourself rock or be seen to visibly rock."
5) On random detainments: "Despite all permits and paperwork being in order, we're detained for several hours. This sort of harassment is a daily part of life for Iranians."
6) On Iran being named an "Axis of Evil," to one of his local hosts: "People have been ridiculously nice to us. Aren't you guys supposed to be the Axis of Evil?"
7) On why the best Iranian food is served in private homes: "This is a land of secret recipes, passed down within families like treasured possessions."
8) On local hospitality: "There are very sophisticated, very time-consuming dishes to prepare; always from scratch, and always in excess of what you could possibly need. You tend to kill your guests with kindness around here."
9) On a rather colorfully bedecked cafe: "I'm guessing from the decor this is a former wrestler's hangout?"
10) On local biryani: "Biryani — maybe you know the word. But this doesn't look like any biryani I've ever had. Minced lamb shoulder, onion, turmeric, cinnamon, mint, and of course, saffron, more valuable than gold by weight."
11) On getting kicked out of a place of worship: "Is this okay, this impromptu giving of oneself to the creative urge to stand and sing out to no one in particular? Maybe. But not okay, apparently, to film."
12) On the importance of starch: "In this part of the world, whatever your background, bread is a vital, essential, fundamental, and deeply respected staple."
13) On American involvement in the region: "It is worth mentioning, whatever you think, wherever we are now, that Saddam [Hussein], supported by the U.S. government and with our full knowledge, used sarin and mustard gas on hundreds of thousands of Iranians. Less known in America, known and felt by everyone in Iran."
14) On expectations: "So far, Iran does not look, does not feel the way I'd expected. Neither East nor West, but always somewhere in the middle."
15) On an obscenely large dome of rice: "Rice mixed with yogurt and saffron, baked into a crispy dome: Don't think of rice as a side dish around here, it can be the main event."
16) On the dinner spread: "You put far more on the table than anyone can conceivably eat."
17) On the unexpected eruption of a conveniently symbolic sandstorm: "You learn pretty quickly that in Iran, there is plenty of grey area; an undefined territory. Where is the line? It seems to change with barely a moment's notice."
18) On an impressive set of wheels: "That's a perfect L.A. car right there."
19) On Iranian takeout pizza: "It comes with ketchup!"
20) On the lost days of old: "I spent my youth pretty much doing this — hanging out in a parking lot."
21) On the complexities of the country: "All I can tell you is, the Iran I've seen on TV and read about in the papers, it's a much bigger picture. Let's put it this way: It's complicated."
22) And one bonus quip from one of Bourdain's hosts, who lands the LOL line of the night: "The Axis of Evil: We're not the Axis of Evil. We're just normal evil, like everybody else."