The tourism machine in Tehran is much like the one in most major cities: the majority of its attractions revolve around boring tour buses, weird visits to dank caves or ‘authentic’ (a.k.a. ridiculously expensive and bland) restaurants. However, tourists these days are no longer simply a confused mass of sunburnt baby boomers, clutching crumpled maps in their hands and donning fanny packs tightly secured over sensible cargo shorts. More and more people want to get away from all that cookie-cutter nonsense—which is why a designer and a chef named Matin and Shirin thought it was time to flip the dusty system upside down through their Persian Food Tours.

Both having worked extensively in the tourism industry, 26 year-old Matin comes from a graphic design background, while 31 year-old Shirin is a chef who leads cooking courses for both foreigners and Iranians. Together they’ve used their strong entrepreneurial spirit to turn their experience and love of cooking into a thriving business, built entirely from scratch. Persian Food Tours began serving guests in the spring of this year and combine guided walking tours of Tehran’s Tajrish bazaar with cooking classes led by Shirin herself. As the first of its kind in Tehran’s tourism industry, they’ve had to prevail through pernicious doubt and various setbacks during the establishment of their business—and to prove themselves not only as businesswomen, but as women, period. Not afraid to challenge conventions, Matin and Shirin are accustomed to acting as pioneering forces and bravely paving their own paths against the grain. In doing so, they’ve inspired numerous women and girls throughout Iran to follow in their footsteps and go for what they want to do.

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GIRLS ARE AWESOME: Hey, Matin and Shirin. Why did you start your Persian Food Tours business?

Matin: We’ve both lived in Europe, and it was something I had seen there, so I was very familiar with the idea of it. I had also started working in the tourism industry, and had experienced how the usual tourist would do sightseeing—just hop-on, hop-off, get in this place, get in that place. Many found it exhausting and felt they didn’t get to be very involved, even though they actually wanted to be.

At that time, I already had my eye on Shirin. She was already a cook and had this kitchen she had put together from scratch. It started in a parking lot, and over five months she had built it up into this beautiful kitchen. Even though we didn’t know each other well, we started to build the business idea—what recipes we should do, how should we do them, what courses we should serve, etc. We had zero outside support and we still do everything ourselves. Nobody else is involved.

Shirin: We’d spent a lot of time talking to tourists, asking what sorts of things they had been doing while in Iran and what foods they had been eating. A lot of our food you can’t get in restaurants: our goal is to introduce different types of Iranian food, with menus for each of the four seasons, structured around seasonal ingredients.

Matin: We experienced that tourists would get bored from eating the same things over and over, especially kebab. Other than that, people didn’t know what Iranian food really was.

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What are gender roles like in the kitchen? Are there differences between a kitchen at a home versus in a restaurant?

Shirin: It’s mainly that men will do the kebab, but all the preparations are done by women. 15 years ago in Iran, it would have been shameful for a man to cook: our parents’ generation, they would say it’s improper. But with our generation, this mentality is changing. A lot of young guys now want to learn how to cook, and will come to my classes because they love to cook at home and want to get even better at it.

You set up your entire business on your own. What were the ups and downs?

Matin: What we did with Persian Food Tours was a first in Iran. Setting up a tourism-oriented business is just different here. Maybe if we were in Italy, for example, where there are many food tours and many tourists, it would be more common. But we don’t have that here.

Shirin: Cooperating with tourism agencies in Iran has been challenging. They wouldn’t believe that a tourist would find our business fun and worthwhile, rather than just the regular sightseeing. We really had to challenge the mentality of the existing tourism industry.

As we see it, cooking is one of the most cultural things you can do. Seeing how a culture prepares its food reveals a lot about its people. We wanted to give tourists some of that insight. Another challenge was that the established tourism industry thought we were too young and inexperienced to do this sort of thing.

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Shirin, you are a mother. How has this affected building your business?

Shirin: I have a four year-old son. When I do cooking courses during the day, I have him in daycare, but I also do cooking courses for mothers and kids. That’s when he joins in and will instruct and direct the other kids.

I have an Instagram with about 130,000 followers, and many are like me—they’re young, they have kids and they want do things, not just sit at home. I get a lot of messages saying, “you’re a role model, we look up to you”. People see that my parents live abroad and that I’ve had to do things my own way, and my Instagram followers have seen how I’ve handled having a kid while living in a country where everything is situated around men. These days, women are respected a lot, but the mentality can still be like, “a woman should be staying at home taking care of the kids and the cooking.” I see a lot of people looking up to me, saying “if she did it, I can do it too.” I’m always trying to teach people that you have to pave your own way. Even if you aren’t allowed to leave home, you can cook from home, and you can sell your food from home. Be productive: this is how you can be a good mother to your children. If they can see that you are doing something with your life, they’ll look up to you and see that they can do something with their lives as well. I’m so privileged to have been able to influence so many young women’s lives.

Has living abroad made a difference? Do you think you would have done things the same if you had only been brought up in Iran?

Matin: It definitely influenced how the two of us became good partners. We had a lot of the same ideas around what foreigners might like and what ingredients exist in other countries. That really helped. But the fact that we’ve lived abroad wasn’t decisive in creating this business.

Shirin: I’m the type of person who can’t sit at home and do nothing. I’m always active, working and gaining experience. But other people might like to sit at home—it just depends on the personality. Even if I hadn’t been brought up abroad, I know I would have done something for myself.

Matin: It’s more about character, not location. A lot of girls who have been brought up here do amazing things.

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What would you like to tell awesome girls around the world?

Shirin: You can do whatever you want to do. But you have to have passion, initiative, and just go after it. You have to work hard to get it, and maybe you don’t get it right away. I mean, a year ago I wouldn’t have thought that I would have a place like this, and have people coming for cooking courses. Now they do, but back then it was a wish, a dream.

Matin: In an environment that is still very much based around men, we have to do double the work. It’s still like this everywhere, even in the most democratic countries, but here in Iran, a woman has to do a lot more work to get to the same level as a man. However, girls shouldn’t give up. Girls who are young and are not in a privileged country or environment, where they don’t have equal rights, shouldn’t let those things discourage them from getting out there. It definitely takes a lot of work, but it can be done. If somebody doesn’t do it, things are just going to continue on like they have always have. Somebody has to make the change.

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