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Food and “Taarof”
By Chef Seb
Today I want to talk about a Persian cultural gesture of kindness called “taarof.” Taarof is something you see every day in Iran among the people; it’s a way of showing gratitude by compromising for someone. All my life, I’ve wondered why Persians are always using this gesture even when it’s not sincere. What’s even more interesting is how this gesture is used in the hospitality industry. Before I get into why this is so important in my culture, I want to define the exact meaning of “taarof.”
T’aarof (also sometimes written as Ta’arof or Tarof) is a Persian form of civility, emphasizing both deference and social rank. In other words, it is the art of excessive politeness and humility, in which Persians treat their guests better than they would their own family, with an insatiable desire to be the best hosts. The term encompasses a range of social behaviors, from a man displaying etiquette by opening the door for a woman, to a group of colleagues standing in front of a door insisting that the most senior enter first.
The prevalence of t’aarof often gives rise to different styles of negotiation than one would see in a non-Iranian culture. For example, a worker negotiating a salary might begin the negotiation with excessive compliments to the employer, followed by a lengthy bargaining session consisting entirely of indirect, polite language; both parties are expected to understand the implied topic of discussion.
T’aarof also governs the rules of hospitality in Iran, especially in gatherings where the host insists on feeding you more food even though you are full. The idea behind this is to show your guests you really care for them by serving all of your food. For example, if are invited to a Persian home for a meal and you have eaten enough yet wouldn’t mind eating more, under Taarof, you are expected to refuse out of politeness in an attempt to not appear gluttonous when offered a second helping. In such a case you may refuse once but would accept when the offer is made a third time.
Taarof is a big part of the buying and selling that goes on in stores across Iran, particularly in small shops, restaurants, and cafes. When enquiring about the price of an item, the buyer is told, “it’s nothing” instead of being quoted a price. With over two million Iranian-Americans residing in the U.S, it’s not uncommon to encounter an Iranian at my restaurant where at times I can feel I am being expected to offer to comp their meal. This makes me wonder, if I applied taarof to my daily routine and every one of my guests accepted it, how long will I stay in business? And if this gesture is not sincere, why do people use it?
These are cultural practices that can be gracious but yet misunderstood.