So where does the history of Persian food start?
Persian Cuisine stretches back through the annals of time and its excellence can be found being reflected in ancient Greek texts.
The Greeks wondered in astonishment of the mouthwatering feasts of Darius the Great and Xerxes. Evidence of these lavish feasts can be found on the walls of Persepolis which is modern day Shiraz. On these walls, it depicts the Nowruz feast where citizens from across the Persian Empire would come to give the Shah gifts.
The basis of ancient Persians diet was based on wheat, millet, and barley. However as wheat prices rose during the Islamic period, barley became prominent and wheat became less popular. Foodstuffs such as saffron, garlic, onions, and chickpeas were all grown in ancient Iran. Due to the availability of complex irrigation systems since the Achaemenid dynasty in Iran, fruits and veggies were readily available and popular in ancient Iran. The spread of Quinces, apples, pears, muskmelons, watermelons, pomegranates, grapes, peaches, and mulberries are largely due to the fact that these fruits were all able to move west by way of Iran. Many fruits and veggies that were native to lands east of Iran were able to be grown in Iran, as a result, these fruits would then move west as Iran served as a hub of trade throughout ancient history. For instance, the spread of watermelon began in India (i.e. the name hendevaneh ), which in reality started in Africa, made its way to India and then it moved back west through Iran.
The type of foods people ate in Iran depended on what area people lived in. Typically, ancient Persians relied on what grew locally. This is logical as food preservation was not readily available so the transport of them across the ancient empire would not be realistic. The types of foods that were able to make their way across the country was usually dried fruits, which are still popular in Iran today.
There is not a ton of historical evidence and facts that historians can find about Persian cooking in the ancient times. What they have been able to determine is that the 8th century Abbasid dynasty that had stretched to Iran during that time showed links to the pre-Islamic past of Iran. Which makes sense right? It’s not like all of a sudden people would forget how to eat despite being conquered. These practices would remain, but the Persian cuisine that we truly identify with today probably is linked to the Mongol invasion of the 14th century and the resulting amalgamation of Central Asia that came resulted from this. All kinds of people and cultures were on the move during this time period running away from the Mongols OR being enslaved by them. Consequently, you have cooking techniques, flavors, and foodstuffs moving at hyper speed and finding roots in Iran.
Influence of Zoroastrianism on Persian Food
The Persian Empire’s main religion was one of the world’s first ever monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism. This religion has had a major influence on the three major religions in the world today. Many features of the religion have found their way into other religions such as angels & demons.
Like other religions, they too had forbidden foods. Ancient Persians believed that food was divided into two realms, good and bad. Those who ate from the bad were considered impure. Ancient texts seem to indicate that foods that were good seemed to follow the natural plane of their existence. For instance, it was remarked that the diet of the Indians which was deemed wise because it was based on rice which the cow ate and the milk of the same cow. Versus other cultures that consumed snake, cat, lizard, and other various animals that did not go together in the minds of the Persians. Interestingly, the ancient Zoroastrian texts also indicated that Ahriman, who was considered to be the creator of evil in the world, polluted the world with these bad creatures, and consequently it was the duty of the Zoroastrian priests to kill these creatures indiscriminately.
Foods that were banned were “noxious creatures”, worms, lizards, and insects. Many of these foods fell in line with the peoples who were subservient to the Ancient Persians at the time in the Middle East. Persians of this era held their diet as a status symbol and felt that it made them better than others. Ancient texts remark on the rules regarding consuming food prepared by the followers of other religions of the time (Judaism, Christianity, or Muslims). Typically, Ancient Persians were not to consume any food prepared by the followers of the aforementioned religions.
The dislike of these types of foods fell in line with the overall Persian view that denigrated the lifestyle and culture of nomadic/herding lifestyle which contrasted their agrarian lifestyle. The Persian diet was one of national pride and was used to denigrate foreign invaders prior the rise of Islam in Iran before the 7th century.
The Persian Empire was known for its remarkable wines. Ancient Zoroastrian texts remark on the importance of drinking wine in moderation. They would continue to remark on the various varieties of wine and with which type’s meat they should be consumed.
How Persian Food and the West Met
With the fall of the Persian Empire and the rise of Alexander the Great and the Seleucid Empire, the sphere of influence of Persian cuisine stretched to Greece. Persian culture has a way of assuming whatever culture has taken over the culture. Alexander the Great was said to have adopted many aspects of Persian culture and dress once he conquered the Persian Empire. This influence would in turn permeate into Rome as the Romans saw the Greeks as a major influence.
As time went on following the crusades, many European crusaders brought some of the flavors and spices back from the Middle East to Europe. Despite the fact at this time, the Persian Empire had become absorbed into the various Muslim Caliphates, the culture and cuisine of the region had distinct Persian influences.
However following the conquering of the Middle East at the hands of the Mongolian empire throughout the 13th and 14th century, the influence of the Middle East slowed. Consequently, the various cuisines and cultures of the region did not travel to Europe until several hundred years later. It would not be until European travelers in the 17th and 18th century that the world would hear about Persian food and culture.
The West Comes to Persia
European travelers who came to Persia during this time would remark about the fabulous fruits, wines, and scents that were plentiful in the royal courts.
Persian cuisine and many of the foods that Persians hale as staple dishes would begin to take shape during the 18th and 19th century in Iran. It was during this time period that Iran was a country that was constantly being overrun by European powers wanting to exploit it for its resources. As a result of this intervention, Persian cuisine and culture began to be influenced by Western cultures and norms.
Starting in the Northern parts of Iran, the Russian language and culture were some of the first elements to influence Persian cuisine and culture. Russia and the Caucasus are said to be some of the biggest western influences on Persian food. The word for small tea glass in Iran, istkan, is actually a Russian loan word.
Iran’s national dish of chelow kabob in the sense that Persians have come to know it today, comes from the Caucasus area not mainland Iran. This is possibly debatable due to the fact that so much of this area used to be considered greater Iran prior to the creation of the Russian empire. Moreover, good portions of the southern Caucasus were a part of the Qajar dynasty until 1813. However, there was no modern record of chelow kabob in the sense that we understand it in Iran prior to that time. It was said that the Qajar king Naser al-Din Shah loved the kabobs and chelow in the Caucasus so much that he ordered his royal cooks replicate it.
Where Western culture and cuisine would really influence Persian food would be in how Persians were supposed to eat. Prior to the influx of Europeans in Iran, Persians ate on the floor on a sofreh which was basically a spread of food set atop of a bejeweled cloth. Moreover, Persians did not eat with any cutlery aside from maybe a primitive spoon to eat soup. This would all begin to change by the mid to late 1800’s.
Traditionally utensils were not used; food was eaten with the right hand. Cutlery was a Western influence that was passed down from aristocracy in Europe down to their common folk. In Iran, the first use of cutlery came in the royal court. One of the last Qajar kings, Naser al-Din Shah was one of the first to try and use cutlery, but he felt that it took away from the eating experience. However, he quickly had to learn how to use these instruments though when he travelled to Europe. One minister in the Persian court said, ‘What do the forks and knifes taste like?’
Alongside cutlery came the usage of tables and chairs, which traditionally did not exist in Persian dining. One aristocrat bemoaned that Persian parties were a bore because the food would always be cold and that your body would ache from having to kneel all the time. Moreover, if you sat next to someone you didn’t know you would have no fun all night, they remarked that western ‘guests all have a good time.’ Persians including the royalty would sit on a carpet to eat, not at a table with chairs. Europeans travelling to Iran found these habits odd, “It is utterly repulsive to the European to see the master of the house…having a cup of sherbet passed around, in which a dozen men have already steeped their henna-dyed moustaches.”
Despite these harsh opinions, Table manners were very important in Persian society and cuisine, with the main purpose being that you don’t want to offend or hurt another person’s feeling, which is also the same idea behind Persian tradition of ta’rof. Interestingly, a custom that has obviously since gone by the wayside was belching as a way of showing you were satiated by the meal.
The West and Persian Food in the 20th Century
Western eating styles were finally reinforced by Reza Shah, of the Pahlavi dynasty, who wanted Iran to become a “modern society” he encouraged adopting western eating styles. In 1928, Reza Shah passed a royal decree enforcing many laws to help pull Iran into the 20th century.
- Restaurants that served Chelow Kabob had to have a table and chair to sit on.
- In every restaurant, the tables had to have a pitcher of water and containers for mustard, salt, pepper, and sumac.
- Every table had to have forks, knives, and spoons.
- Bread had to be cut into pieces and served on separate plates.
- The kabobs had to be served on a plate, not their skewers.
- It was forbidden to eat with your hands.
- Soap and water must be available to patrons to wash their hands
- All water had to be stored in Iron and have a tap.
- All drinking “vessels” had to be made of glass, crystal, or tile, no clay.
- In a chelow kabobi, no other food was allowed.
Despite all these laws and decrees to everyday Persians, these laws didn’t all exactly make sense. For instance, mustard did not (and still does not) have any function in Persian cuisine; it was merely a way to look European. One peasant remarked at the law that, ‘with one hand I take the spoon, with the other I hold the fork, which hands do I eat with?’ Eating with ones hands still survives to this day in the rural areas of Iran.
Restaurants were not common in Iran and did not become popular until the late 19th century. By the 1920’s & 1930’s, Iran was a hot bed of European geopolitical desires. As a result, it quickly had European visitors demanding restaurants. Consequently, the demand was met and as a result Persians began to experience such dishes as ‘borscht, cutlet, ragout…and shashlik’ and other food items that are popular in Iran such as Beef Stroganoff and Salade Olivier. Other western dishes would find their way into the Persian culinary lexicon as well, like Steak or biftek and makaroni (macaroni) which is a variant of Bolognese spaghetti.
The creation of the restaurants was a part of the larger plan by the Pahlavi dynasty to modernize Iran, a Persian journalist remarked that, ‘it was as though a magician had descended on the land and in a few days transformed its appearance to that of a modern country.’
After 1945 and the end of World War Two, the western influences in Iran shifted from a European influence to an American influence. American GI’s were stationed in Tehran during the final years of the war, to prevent the Nazi’s and Soviets from taking over Iran. My grandmother remembers seeing GI’s walk by her house in Tehran.
By the 60’s, Iran saw a greater American culinary influence in the country. The first major foray into “American” food was pizza. The first Persian Pizza chain was opened by Reza Raeisi, an Persian who had studied in California, “Ray’s Pizza Pantry” opened in Iran in 1969. Raeisi would then found the first Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurants in Iran, in 1973. In fact, Col. Sanders himself and his wife came to Tehran, Iran to open the first restaurant. Only six opened prior to the revolution and no others opened, but that did not prevent Persians from changing the name after the revolution to “Kabookie Fried Chicken”. Iran also saw Mexican, Chinese, and Indian food cross into its borders, this influx of foreign dishes saw a rise of meat consumption in Iran that was not traditional to Persian eating habits.
Following the revolution, many of these chains went away or adopted new names. Iran has a popular fast food chain called Boof, which is basically a McDonald’s impostor.
In present day Iran, there has been an uptick in popularity of restaurants that are considered, “traditional” where you sit on the ground and eat in an environment more accustomed to the time prior to Reza Shah in the 1920s.
The history of Persian cuisine tells a story of the human condition, where war, geopolitics, and culture all tangled to influence an ancient culture and its cuisine.
H.E. Chehabi The Westernization of Iranian Culinary Culture, Journal of Iranian Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Mar., 2003)
Touraj Daryaee, Food, Purity and Pollution: Zoroastrian Views on the Eating Habits of
Others, Journal of Iranian Studies, March 2012.
Nesta Ramazani, Book Review: Persian Cooking for a Healthy Kitchen by Najmieh Batmanglij, Iranian Studies, Vol. 28. 1995.
Encyclopedia Iranica Notes – Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, New York, 1996