This introduction to Persia’s extensive culinary history includes recipes for every occasion, along with serving suggestions for memorable meals at home.
I spent my childhood and teenage years living in Tehran, surrounded by a set of strong female home cooks that included my mother, grandmother, aunt, and several older cousins. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, they trained my taste buds, schooled my sense of smell, and ingrained in my memory the fundamental nature of Persian cookery and the food of the country that today we know as Iran. After I migrated to America in 1974, this initial informal culinary education guided my attempts to recreate those Persian dishes in a small Western apartment kitchen. Soon, these undertakings turned into a serious life purpose: For the past 40 or so years, I have systematically explored the history, principles, and practices of Persian cookery and Iranian food—initially as a serious side quest and in more recent years as a full-time mission. This article is my attempt to introduce you to Persian cooking—the food of Iran—and give you a set of recipes to get you started cooking traditional Persian dishes at home.
An Ancient Cooking Culture
Contemporary Persian cuisine is rooted in an ancient civilization. There are documented historical references to Persian cuisine, in the form of cuneiform clay tablets, dating back more than three thousand years. In 550 BCE, when Cyrus the Great defeated the Greeks and Egyptians, the borders of the Persian empire expanded and Persian food culture was carried into conquered lands. Centuries later, the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, the Arabs, and the Mongols, all of whom also carried Persian cuisine to other lands, including to the rest of the Middle East and India. However, while Persian cuisine has impacted the food cultures of many other lands, I still don't think this ancient cooking culture is well enough known in the West.
I often use the labels “Iran/Iranian” and “Persia/Persian” interchangeably. The word Persia was, for much of recorded history, the one that Westerners used to refer to Iran. In 1935, the Iranian government formally asked the rest of the world that Persia be called Iran, the name used by those who lived there. Today, “Persian” is more of a cultural identity and historical heritage designation whereas “Iranian” primarily refers to the nationality of people who live or were born in the country that today is known as Iran.
When it comes to nationality of people, I generally use the term “Iranian people.” When it comes to culture, language, cuisine, art, and folklore, I typically use the term “Persian.” The important thing to remember, however, is that the discussion of Persian food includes culinary principles and practices of not only communities who live in Iran (including Kurds, Arabs, Azaris, Turks, and many others) but also Persianate societies in surrounding countries such as Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia and in Central Asia (for example, the Parsi communities in India), as well as the growing Iranian diaspora communities around the world.
Preparing to Cook Persian Food
In my article on how to stock a Persian pantry, I describe the essential ingredients for cooking Persian recipes. The majority of the ingredients used by Iranian home cooks are well known to Westerners because of the unrecognized influence of Persian cuisine on other food cultures of the world. This will become clear as we explore the recipes for some of the more popular Persian dishes.
There are some important ingredients, however, that might not be in your local grocery store. In metropolitan areas of the United States and Canada, where there are significant Iranian communities, you will find dedicated Persian markets. In areas where there are no Persian markets, the next best brick-and-mortar sources are Middle Eastern, Afghani, Mediterranean, Indian, or Turkish markets. There are also several trusted mail-order and online merchants that specialize in Persian ingredients, including Kalamala Persian Grocery, Sadaf, Persian Basket, and Tavazo. Many spices can also be ordered from spice houses such as Penzeys, Kalustyan’s, and The Spice House.
The Essential Flavors of Persian Cuisine
Persian cuisine is diverse, flavorful, and aromatic, but above all else, it balances contrasting qualities—hot and cold, crunchy and soft, sweet and tangy, raw and cooked, heavy and light, thick and thin—all across the same meal. Persian cuisine is well seasoned, but not “spicy hot.” It is relatively simple to make but at times requires a bit of patience. It also can be visually captivating, with presentations that thrill the eyes before the first bite is taken.
Some of the fundamental elements of Persian cookery are largely unknown to the Western world. These include the blending of fresh and dried nuts and fruit into meat braises and rice dishes; the significant role that a wide range of fresh herbs play in a large number of dishes; the unique method of rice cooking where the rice is cooked twice (parboiled first, drained, and then steamed); the use of unripe fruit and unripe nuts; and the use of a wide range of delicate souring agents, such as lime and lemon juice, yogurt, pomegranate molasses, verjuice, sumac, and dried lime.
How Persian Meals are Served
“Sofreh” is a critical concept associated with any Persian home meal. In the past, most Iranians ate sitting on the floor. A square or rectangular cloth called a sofreh—equivalent to a tablecloth—would be spread on the floor on top of a carpet where everyone would sit to eat. Today, although many Iranians now sit around a dining table, a sofreh (often made of plastic, these days) is still spread on top of the table. The word “sofreh” is also used as a verb to describe the act of setting the table.
In Iran, where family members, guests, and strangers alike gather around the sofreh, practically all meals are served family-style. This important characteristic of Persian home meals means that everything—bread, yogurt, sides, soups, rice dishes, stews and braises, beverages, pickles, etc.—is put out at once rather than served in separate courses. In some Persian restaurants in North America and Europe, however, you may find food brought out in courses, for the ease of the kitchen staff or to meet the expectations of non-Iranian diners.
First Things First: Bread
Looking at the menu of a typical Persian restaurant in the Western world, you may get the idea that rice is the staple food of Iranian people. Although rice is a very important element of Persian cookery, in most regions of Iran, bread is the staple food. In Persian culture, bread is considered God’s blessing to his people; therefore, children are taught from an early age that bread is not to touch the ground or be thrown away. Practically all Persian meals, street foods, and snacks involve some sort of flatbread.
Although there are hundreds of regional flatbreads baked by home cooks and neighborhood bakeries across Iran, the four that you’ll find in most regions of Iran are lavash, taftoon, sangak, and barbari. Many Iranian and Middle Eastern brick-and-mortar and online markets carry one or more of these breads. Lavash, however, has become quite popular in North America and many grocery stores now carry it in their bread section. Readily available pita bread is an acceptable substitute for Persian flatbreads.
Salads, Accompaniments, Side Dishes, Starters
As I mentioned above, in a typical Iranian home, every part of a meal is served together. Among the components is a wide range of dishes that can be classified as salads, accompaniments, side dishes, and starters. They include both hot and cold items and the majority are vegetarian. The following are among the most popular:
Sālad-é-Shirāzi (Shirāzi Salad): The main ingredients of this refreshing salad are cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions, which are flavored with salt, black pepper, olive oil, and some sort of acid (such as vinegar, lime or lemon juice, or verjuice). Sālād-é-shirāzi has a pleasant salty-sour flavor and is crisp and juicy at the same time. Along with sālād-é-olevieh (which has Russian origins and is a blend of contemporary chicken, potato, and egg salads), and sālād-é-fassl (a seasonal fresh green salad often augmented with some cooked ingredient such as pinto beans or beets), sālād-é-shirāzi is one of the three most popular Persian salads.
This salad can accompany practically any main dish, except maybe soups. If the main dish involves some sort of rice dish, many Persians serve several spoonsful of sālād-é-shirāzi on their primary plate so that a bit of the naturally formed salad dressing is absorbed by some of the rice.
Māst-ó-Khiār (Yogurt and Cucumber Side Dish): A Persian sofreh is incomplete without a bowl of a yogurt-based accompaniment known as borāni. Borānis combine yogurt (drained or undrained) with some raw or cooked vegetables and one or two simple flavorings. Their popularity stems from the fact that they are simple, healthy, often very quick to prepare, and able to serve multiple needs as a restaurant appetizer, as a side dish, or as a dip for cocktail parties.
Māst-ó-khiār, the most popular of such yogurt-based dishes, is creamy, tangy, light, and refreshing, with a subtle crunch that comes from cucumbers. It can accompany a wide range of mains from rice dishes to grilled meats or be used as a dip. Other popular borānis incorporate spinach or Persian shallots. You’ll find them on the menus of practically every Persian restaurant in the Western world.
Kashk-ó-Bādemjān (Kashk and Eggplant Starter): If you like eggplant, kashk-ó-bādemjān could become your new favorite eggplant dish. If you don’t like eggplant now, this rich, easy-to-make dish could very well change your mind, as it has for many people I know.
As an appetizer or side dish, kashk-ó-bādemjān is commonly accompanied by some sort of Persian flatbread (such as lavāsh, sangak, tāftoon, or babari) or another type of flatbread such as pita. It can also function as a main dish, served in large portions along with a hefty amount of flatbread and accompanied maybe by a bowl of yogurt and sabzi-khoran, the traditional Persian plate of fresh herbs and feta cheese.
Iranians love their rice. Over the centuries, they have refined rice preparation to extraordinary levels and have developed myriad ingenious rice dishes that are justly famous.
Chelow (Steamed White Rice) and Tahdig (Crunchy Rice): The most esteemed among Persian rice dishes, chelow is is snow-white, fragrant steamed rice with light and fluffy, separate grains. To achieve this desirable texture, long-grain white rice is thoroughly washed and soaked and then parboiled for just a few minutes until it is partially cooked. The parboiled rice is then strained and returned to the pot, and it finishes cooking in the steam generated in the tightly covered pot over gentle heat.
The modest additional effort required for this method is proven worthwhile by the excellence of the results. Chelow rice is often enhanced by a bit of saffron before serving, and is typically offered alongside braises, stews, or grilled meat.
Tahdig is the delicious, buttery, golden-brown crust that forms at the bottom of a pot of chelow as the rice cooks. It is often the most coveted treat at a Persian meal and usually disappears seconds after it has been put on the table.
Traditionally, pieces of tahdig are scraped off the bottom of the pot and served either on the same platter as the accompanying rice dish or on a separate smaller plate. Often, the rice and tahdig are served with a slow-cooked khoresh (braise). A common practice among Persian food lovers is to pour some of the khoresh over their pieces of tahdig so it will soak up the braise’s wonderful savory flavors.
You'll notice that I have published two separate recipes on Serious Eats for chelow and tahdig, which may seem strange given that both chelow and tahdig are products of the same recipe. This is because there are so many important technical details necessary to create perfect chelow, and then just as many details to produce the best tahdig, that I felt it was better to split those discussions into two instead of overwhelming the reader with all the information at once—each recipe produces both chelow and tahdig, but the headnotes and recipe instructions emphasize those elements differently so that you can better learn the art of creating both.
Meat Braises and Stews
For centuries, slow-cooked meat braises have been an important and wide-ranging class of dishes in Persian cooking. The Persian word for a meat braise is “khoresh” (also khoresht). There are many types of Persian khoreshes, which incorporate different kinds of meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, and legumes in addition to regional specialties and those requiring fresh short-lived seasonal ingredients. Many of these khoreshes can easily be made vegetarian or vegan.
Fesenjān (Pomegranate and Walnut Meat Braise): Fesenjān (a.k.a. fesenjoon or khoresh-e-fesanjān) is a meat braise that incorporates ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses and has a subtle, uniquely Persian sweet-and-sour flavor profile. This type of gentle sweet-and-sour flavor is also characteristic of some other Persian dishes; in fact, there is a single word for it in Persian language called “malass.”
Despite its complex flavor, fesanjān is a simple dish to make, with only three key ingredients: pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and meat. Once everything is cooking in the pot, you merely need to let it simmer gently on the stovetop. The most famous version is made with duck, but it is equally delicious with lamb, beef, chicken, turkey, other fowl, fish, and even with tiny meatballs.
Khoresh-é-Bademjān (Eggplant Meat Braise): Another popular braise, khoresh-é-bademjān is based on chunks of lamb or beef, which are browned and then gently braised in a simple aromatic flavor base of onions, ground turmeric, and tomatoes. Halfway through the cooking process, pan-fried eggplants are added to the pot. The result is a combination of melt-in-your-mouth meat and silky eggplant, surrounded by luscious braising sauce.
Like practically all other khoreshes, khoresh-é-bademjān is best served as a main dish along with rice, such as chelow with crunchy tahdig. Some Persian home cooks garnish the serving bowl with a couple of lightly sautéed tomato halves.
Pan-fried patties—both meat-based as well as vegetarian—are a popular comfort food within the Persian culinary landscape. They require only a few ingredients, are convenient and fast to make, portable, and worth making a large amount since they reheat well as leftovers. Meat and legume based versions have been around since at least the 16th century, whereas patties that incorporate potato have a more recent history.
Kotlet (Ground Meat and Potato Patties): Made with ground meat, eggs, and potato, kotlets are relative newcomers to the family of Persian pan-fried patties. Potatoes were not introduced to Iran until sometime between the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Because of their versatility, simplicity, and deliciousness, they’re now one of the most popular dishes in Persianate societies. And because each kotlet contains almost as much potato as meat, I’ve heard this dish referred to by many Americans as the “Persian healthy hamburger.”
Kotlets are often served hot with crispy potatoes, sliced fresh tomatoes, salty cucumber pickles, yogurt, and/or flatbread. They can also serve as a hot accompaniment to plain Persian steamed white rice, or any number of flavored rice dishes, called polows, which are flavored with a wide range of vegetables, legumes, dried fruit, or nuts. In addition to being served for meals at home, they are favored for picnics and as a delicious sandwich filling.
Traditionally speaking, the concept of an “after-meal-dessert” does not exist in Persian cuisine. Iranians typically prefer to finish their meals with pieces of fresh fruit and a cup of Persian tea. At the same time, however, Iranians love sweets other times of the day or night, and therefore, there are a multitude of sweet delicacies ranging from frozen dishes to puddings, custards, cookies, cream-filled pastries, and deep-fried confections, as well as syrupy delights.
Fāloodeh (Frozen Noodle Dessert): The origins of this refreshing frozen treat can be traced back to ancient Persia where some of the oldest frozen sweets known to humanity were created. Fāloodeh is made by incorporating thin threads of starch noodles into a slushy sweet rosewater-flavored syrup which is cooled to a semi-frozen state. Served in individual bowls, it is often topped with a splash of freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice and/or a teaspoon of sour cherry syrup. It is a most fitting end to any heavy and rich meal as well as the perfect summer afternoon cooling treat.
Sholeh-Zard (Saffron Rice Pudding): Persians use rice and rice flour for an assortment of puddings and custards (both spoonable and sliceable) as well as for cookies and other confections. The queen among Persian puddings and custards, sholeh-zard is a prized delicacy, as its preparation uses more saffron than other Persian sweets that have saffron in them. Sholeh-zard is also considered a ceremonial dish in certain rituals and beliefs that are important to the Iranians.
Its preparation is simple, requiring only a single saucepan in which whole rice grains are slowly cooked in plenty of water, sweetened with sugar, delicately flavored with saffron and rosewater, and often elegantly garnished with ground cinnamon and slivers of dried nuts. It makes an excellent alternative to such well-known desserts as flan, crème brulée, or panna cotta.
Bringing It All Together: Sample Menus To Get You Started
Chelow (Persian White Steamed Rice) and the resulting Tahdig (Persian Crunchy Rice)
Khoresh-é-Bādemjān (Persian Meat and Eggplant Stew)
Māst-ó-Khiar (Persian Yogurt with Cucumber)
The overall structure of this menu (rice + stew + yogurt dish) would suffice as a complete yet simple meal in an Iranian household. Each diner’s plate is filled with a small mound of rice and several heaping spoonfuls of khoresh (either on top of the rice or right next to it), one or two shards of tahdig, and couple of spoonfuls of tangy māst-ó-khiār. Many Iranians pour a bit of the sauce from the braise over the tahdig and let it soak in for a few minutes before eating it. Small pieces of flatbread can be used to dip into the māst-ó-khiār or to wipe off any remaining braise sauce from the plate.
Chelow (Persian White Steamed Rice) and the resulting Tahdig (Persian Crunchy Rice)
Fesenjān (Persian Pomegranate and Walnut Meat Braise)
Sālād-é-Shirāzi (Persian Cucumber and Tomato Salad)
Structurally speaking, this menu is very similar to Menu #1 with a different meat braise and different side dish. Fesenjan is a richer meat braise than the khoresh-é-bādemjan, making the sālād-é-Shirāzi a slightly more appropriate side dish. Eating practices for this menu are identical to Menu #1.
Kashk-ó-Bādemjān (Persian Braised Eggplant with Kashk)
Kotlet (Persian Ground Meat and Potato Patties)
Lots of flatbread
Unlike the previous two menus, there is no rice included in this meal. A couple of heaping tablespoons of kashk-ó-bādemjān along with a few kotlets (and any of their typical accompaniments as described in the recipe) are placed on each diner’s plate. It is perfectly okay to eat this meal with your hands; use small pieces of flatbread to scoop up some of the kashk-ó-bādemjān and/or wrap slightly larger pieces of flatbread loosely around a kotlet to eat.
You can finish each of these menus with pieces of fresh fruit and a cup of black tea like most Iranians do. However, if you are used to having a formal dessert after your meals, then you should give fāloodeh or sholeh-ard a try. Alternatively, make a batch of fāloodeh and a batch of sholeh-zard and enjoy them as mid-day, mid-afternoon, or late-evening snacks, which is what many Iranians do.
Read the original article on Serious Eats.