In the Persian fairy tale ‘The Girl of the Sour Orange’ ( Dokhtar-e-Naranj-o-Toranj ), a young prince sets out in search of the elusive beauty who lives inside the sour oranges that grow in an orchard of silver and gold trees, guarded by a somnolent demon couple. She is destined for a brave man who can slay these demons. After the prince has successfully plucked three oranges from the orchard and beaten the demons senseless, he rides into the desert. Two beautiful women emerge from the first two oranges; however, the prince loses them both, when he can’t bring them the two things they demand — water and bread. But he has the presence of mind to carry supplies rom the city for the beauty in the third orange, the heroine of this story.

Like the girl of the orange, a fresh barbari is all you need to have a full meal and still have enough left to share. Unfortunately, my first meal in Iran, after being deprived of food for 20 hours, was a can of salmon and flat, thin bread that looked like someone had baked it for the express purpose of covering a small table. At the end of this tasteless meal, I was given the name of my bread — lavash. I had only ever seen the word lavash printed on a bag of two-inch triangles sold at gourmet stores along with dips. My life was a lie: the lavash I had been eating was easily two-foot long and at least half-a-foot wide. Even so, I texted home that night: ‘I am starving!’

That evening, I bought a loaf of bread, cheese, pasta, milk, olive oil and the handful of spices that I knew I could use. I had no idea how to use the sumac and the combination of spices that they call advieh , which, unhelpfully, translates to ‘spice’. The next morning, as I sat in the shared hostel kitchen in Tehran spreading cheese on bread, two other women joined me. They came laden with walnuts, cucumber, tomatoes and lavash. They sat at the table, broke a piece of lavash, slathered it with cheese, picked up a walnut and half a tomato, and made a tiny wrap. I must have looked like a hungry child staring intently at this piece of instant art. They pushed the food towards me, saying, “ Mikhori ? (Would you like some?)”. I had no clue what that meant at the time, but I know a plate of food when pushed under my nose. I picked up a walnut, a tomato, cheese and a piece of lavash and took a bite. The bread was chewy, the cheese creamy and salty, the tomato tangy and the walnut crunchy with a hint of bitterness. This was breakfast for the rest of my stay. I do not remember what happened to my loaf; it may still be growing mould in the hostel’s ancient fridge.

The next day, I was escorted to a traditional bakery, dedicated to the lavash, hidden in a basement two minutes from the hostel. It was a quaint little place, incongruously sitting among the neat buildings that stood above. Having grown up associating Iranian bakeries with romanticised bazaars and restaurants in the old city, this was a revelation. Each paper-thin bread, adorned with a bubble wrap pattern on its surface, was folded over twice before being wrapped and sealed in plastic. It was four degrees outside. I held the bread close to keep warm. It smelt of wood fire.

I had questions. What was a bakery doing in the midst of a bank, travel agent, stationery shop, vintage carpet store, hospital and mini-mart? The fruit seller nearby did not help its case. Except, I discovered, Tehran is littered, quite literally, with bakeries. Most residences have two or more within a one-km radius. The Iranian sufreh (tablecloth) will always have bread upon it, for diners to break bits and pieces off the corners. Bread is heavily subsidised, and there are bakeries even in villages where people bake their own bread.

The quaint ones, like the one I was whisked into, bake a single type of bread; others tackle everything from muffins to scones and macarons. On a good day, the baker will offer you cupcakes for free. It is hard to remember New Year resolutions in the face of a cute Iranian baker, with a glazed cupcake, talking about a ’90s Bollywood film.

But the true touristy bread experience is in the noonwaiy-e-sonnati or traditional bakery, which ordinarily dedicates itself to one of four kinds of breads — the lavash of the aforementioned breakfast, the barbari , the sangak and the taftoon . You can buy all of these at the supermarket, but no Iranian with culinary integrity would choose store-bought bread over the aroma of flour and wood fire. The type of bread you choose often depends on the bakery closest to you. The bakers open at 6 am, often right after the fajr prayers, and continue until nine at night. Two queues of sorts, one for those who want a single bread and the other for those who want more, throng each bakery. In some towns, queues for women and men are different. If you have a barbari or sangak queue in your vicinity, your tummy and camera are both in luck.

The barbari is a sesame-crusted bread, golden brown and crisp on the outside, soft and chewy within. As you stand in one of the two lines, take in the scent of sesame and admire the precision with which the bakers toss and pull bread from the oven and hang them along the walls. Think of the tea you will sip through the sugar cube held between your teeth. That is all you need to enjoy a barbari , although there is no law criminalising its consumption with khoresht (stew), kebab, or nothing.

The sangak hangs on hooks, just like the barbari , to prevent steam from ruining its crisp crust. You can tell them apart from their colour and texture. The sangak is similar to our roti in colour, but this sourdough bread is marked by its pebbled texture, which comes from the stones over which it is baked. The sangak oven is full of glowing pebbles (‘sang’ means stone), and locals will advise you to check for these before you bite into the bread. At the kebab stalls, selling everything from beef, lamb, and chicken to mushrooms and tomatoes chargrilled over fire, your sangak will find the perfect companion. Alternatively, you can order a dizi — a lamb-and-chickpea soup served in a clay pot — to mop up with your sangak . I recommend a bed at the conclusion of this meal.

The humble taftoon is similar to our tandoori roti, but is flatter and made of wholewheat. With the barbari and sangak to compete, I almost missed out on this excellent companion to kebabs and the thick lentil and noodle soup ( aash-e-reshteh ) served with whey.

The word ‘fresh’ in an Iranian bakery means straight out of the oven, or baked within the last hour. The bakeries work 15 hours a day to ensure fresh bread is available for every meal. Old bread goes to the bottom of rice pots or in soups to add texture. Only lazy students and bachelors eat stale bread; the good and well-fed stand in the shapeless queues for their fresh loaves, to dig into cheese, warm stews and soups.

Farah Yameenis an oral historian