Iran’s cuisine is not geographically limited to its borders; you can find similarities to its cuisine across Central Asia and the Middle East. Iran’s long reign as an ancient super power allowed for much cultural amalgamation within their cuisine. Similarly to other eastern cultures, Persian cuisine is based on the idea of “hot & cold”, which is not to be confused as spicy or not spicy, rather it’s whether the food would create a sort of energy in your body or whether it would have a cooling effect. Iran’s food has a rich and illustrious backstory that tells the tale of conquerors, explorers, and merchants all leaving their mark on Persian cuisine.
How Has Persian Food Been Influenced By Other Cultures?
This cultural stew of influences is evidenced in Iran with the prevalence of rice and noodles. The importance of rice and noodles in Persian food can be traced back to China and India. China often found itself as a trade partner with Iran along the Silk Road, meanwhile India especially Northern India was a dominion of the pre-Islamic Persian Empires.
Likewise, the West has the Persians to thank for the spread of fruits and veggies such as the apple and the eggplant. Vice versa, Persians now have the West to thank for many fruits and veggies that were foreign to Iran. For instance, the potato was brought over in the early 1800s, with its popularity only coming near the end of the century. The tomato likewise found resistance into Persian cuisine; both the tomato and potato originate from the Americas. The tomato in Farsi translates to the “European Plum” or Gojeh Farangi.
The word farangi was meant to be an epithet to the food that was being introduced, since this word means European or western. Strawberries are called tut farangi, leeks are called tareh farangi, and green peas are called nukhud farangi. Newer fruits and veggies that have made their way to Iran in the most recent centuries have just adopted Persianized versions of their names like avocado or kiwi. This is probably for the better as kiwis were originally called tukhm-e-goril (or Gorilla Testicles…Not exactly inaccurate though!)
Transitioning from the influences on Persian cuisine, we now need to examine the major components of Persian cuisine and their backstory.
Bread and Its Importance to Persians
Bread is a staple of the Persian diet. A 19th century physician serving in the royal court remarked that bread served as a eating utensil, plate, napkin, and even baking sheets. The first signs of Westernized bread came from Russia to the Northern area of Iran, Gilan, where bread was used for sandwiches. In Iran, bread is almost always eaten with cheese which is always a variety of feta cheese.
In ancient Iran there were two ways of preparing bread, it was cooked under ashes and buried, or uncovered. Bread goes back to pre-Islamic Iran, Sassanid Persian king Shapur required that bread be sacrificed at his tomb/shrine to provide the souls with nourishment on their journey in the afterlife. Bread was observed as a sacred thing only for humans, considered a sin to feed bread to dogs.
In modern Iran, Bread accounts for 70% of caloric intake of average person. Bread in Iran is often cooked in a tanoor, which is a cone shaped clay oven, often without any venting. The fire is at the bottom of the oven, the bread is then placed on the inner walls of the oven to cook. In villages where tanoors are not available, lower income areas, the bread is cooked on the ashes of the fire.
In the urban areas, there are 4 major types of bread.
Nan-e-Barbari- This is a thick yet spongy style of bread that is perfect for breakfast, sandwiches, and kabobs.
Nan-e-Lavash – This is a paper thin flat bread that goes perfectly with fresh herbs & cheese or underneath kabobs to soak up their juices.
Nan-e-Taftoon – A thicker flat bread that is similar to pizza dough. The dough is often placed on a cushion that allows the bakers to place the dough onto the walls of the tanoor without burning themselves. When it is cooked after about a minute, a metal skewer is used to remove the bread from the walls.
Nan-e-Sangak – This bread is cooked in an oven, with hot tiny pebbles (Sangak). This bread is often eaten with ahb-gusht or koobideh kabob. This bread is thicker than lavash has a nice flexible texture.
Bread’s importance to the Persian diet is critical; the only foodstuff that might be just as critical is rice. Next, we will examine rice or berenj and how it came to be of importance in Iran.
The Importance of Rice or Berenj
The importance of rice began during the 16th century where rice was being prepared in the royal Safavid court. During this time period, the practice of preparing rice as polow or chelow began here. At the same time, the practice of making khoresh (t)s and eating them with rice also became popular in the royal court. It is said that the practice of preparing these dishes stemmed from the surrounding Central Asian cultures that had meshed into Persian society by the 16th century. These influences and culinary styles would go through the Persian filter, and came out slightly more refined with an angle towards the Persian palette.
This would eventually trickle down to the masses; consequently you saw a huge rise in the popularity of rice across Iran. To meet this demand, the cultivation and growth of rice in Iran spread across the Caspian region of Iran. Interestingly, the prevalence of noodle and pasta dishes that had become popular in Central Asia and Afghanistan, as a result of China’s influence on these regions, decreased as rice became a mainstay of everyone’s diet. There is evidence that rice came to Iran from India and Southeast Asia. Rice cultivation in Iran is in the northern Caspian region, this region has enough water to cultivate the rice.
Moving on from the carbohydrate component of the Persian diet, we now move to the proteins. Persians love meat and it plays an important role in many of their major dishes, in this next portion we will examine the backstory of meat in Persian cuisine.
The Role of Meat in Persian Cuisine
In ancient Iran meat varied from pork, poultry, lamb, beef, and fish. As Islam came to Iran, pork obviously went by the wayside. Meat as it is now in Iran was more prevalent for those in the upper classes.
The primary meat that is consumed in Iran is lamb. Beef was not popular in Iran or the Middle East traditionally. In fact, Persian royalty would look down upon the Europeans for having to eat such a poor meat.
By the mid-20th century, the spread of beef became prevalent in Iran and spread across the country. Pork is not popular in Iran due to it not being allowed in Islam or Judaism. That is not to say it did not exist in pre-revolutionary Iran, as Iran’s Christians were in fact allowed to have pork and produced sausages, cold cuts, and other pork products. But its high price prevented its popularity from spreading.
The words for pork products in Farsi come entirely from their European roots such as kalbas for mortadella bologna (Russian), susis for Sausage (French), initially, eating processed sandwich meats was a status symbol, but it quickly became popular in Iran and favorite of teenage Persians growing up in the 1960s. After the revolution, the deli meats were preserved only in the sense that any pork products were replaced by non-pork substitutes.
Chicken in Iran was a delicacy, but with the influx of Western culture, the farming of chickens became more common and as a result, the eating of chickens grew in popularity. The popular jujeh kabob as we know them today, with chicken breasts, was not common in Iran until after the Persian diaspora popularized it in the West. It then made its way back to Iran. In Iran jujeh kabob was primarily done with Cornish hens.
Fish was not traditionally popular outside of the coastal areas of Iran other, but this has changed over time and it is now popular in Iran.
Persians will often include meat into stews rather than eating the meat by itself. These dishes are called khoresh. Next we will look into this dish and how it came to be in Persian cuisine.
The Backstory and Importance of Khoresh
Khoresh(t)s have roots that go back hundreds of years, the cuisines of Central Asia trickled down into Iran and melded with the Persian flavors to create the khoresh(t)s Persians eat today. Travelers during the Safavid era attested to the lavish dinners that featured these food items. It is actually pronounced khoresh but you will often times hear Persians just call it khoresht; it doesn’t really make a difference. The meaning of the word comes from the Farsi verb khordan which means to eat.
The first modern evidence of khoresh comes from texts from the Safavid court, which highlights 13 different types of khoresh. That number has since increased over time with the arrival of new ingredients to Iran.
Khoresh(t)s are the most frequent food prepared in Persian cuisine and in Persian households. It is essentially a thick stew that consists of pieces of meat with fried (sautéed) onions/garlic, veggies, and herbs.
In the southwestern part of Iran, fish is often substituted in place of beef. Khoresh is always eaten with rice (berenj). The khoresh is served over the rice and eaten with yogurt. The way you eat it is by either taking a spoonful of khoresh and rice together, or just mixing it on your plate and chowing down.
The Backstory on Kabobs
Persians typically do not eat meat by itself, it’s usually paired with something, and the one exception to that rule is with kabob. This dish which involves grilled meat on skewers is widely regarded as Iran’s national food despite the fact that it may not have started in Iran. We move on to examine this tasty dish and the different types
Meat on a skewer is not something new to human history. I think it’s practically impossible for any one nation to truly own the invention of the kabob. Why? Because I’m pretty sure everyone at some point as cooked meat on a stick. The Persian version is cooked on a metal skewer called a sikh. It is then cooked over an open flame and served typically with fresh bread or rice.
Kabob has been a part of Persian cuisine for centuries; it was mentioned in a cookbook during the Safavid dynasty of Iran during the 18th century. There was no modern record of chelow kabob in the sense that we understand it in Iran prior to that time. It was remarked that the Qajar king Naser al-Din Shah loved the kabobs and chelow in the Caucasus and ordered that his court replicate it.
There are various types of kabob ranging from ground beef, filet mignon, sirloin steak, chicken breast, liver, and fish. Restaurants that serve kabob and specifically the dish chelow kabob are called chelow kabobis. Their importance has risen in the Persian diaspora after the revolution as they serve as a reminder for many of their homeland.
Dairy in Iran
Transitioning from meat, we now move on to dairy and its role in the Persian diet. Typically, Iran’s dairy comes less from a cow but rather from a ewe or female goat.
Iran’s preference in yogurt and methods of cultivating their dairy stems from their ancient nomadic routes where the ancient Persians roamed the plateau of Iran. This dairy however was not based originally in cows, but rather in ewe’s milk. This makes sense, because the goat is the lifeblood of a nomadic tribe, not so much cows which require way more land and grass to survive. As a result ewe based dairy, was and still is, popular in Iran.
In the Persian diet, yogurt or maast is of critical importance to every table in the Persian household. Persians will often make it from scratch in their own home; my grandmother would always make her yogurt from scratch in her kitchen. It involved baking milk in the oven and later on allowing it to settle in the refrigerator. Persians attest to yogurt’s health benefits and its cooling effect on foods. They will often pour it atop their dinner dish, which adds a nice tang to their food. (Persian mom’s will also claim that it pretty can heal any physical ailment too!)
In Iran the popular cheese is a domestic cheese that is similar to feta cheese. Cheese production occurs mostly in the city of Tabriz. Cheese is often spread on bread and eaten with fresh herbs, walnuts, and or cucumbers.
Now that we have covered the carbohydrate and proteins in the Persian diet, we now move on to tea or chai which is the most important drink in the modern Persian diet.
Tea in Iran
Tea or Chai (pronounced chuh-yee) is the most popular drink in Iran. Throughout Iran you will always be able to have a small glass of tea no matter where you are.
The spread of tea to Iran has some conflicting information some say it came from India others say it comes from China. The spread of tea is said to have started with the Mongols in the 13th century. However prior to the 19th century, coffee not tea was the most popular drink in Iran.
Iran was importing up to 2 million pounds of black tea from India by the late 19th century.
Legend has it that the mayor of Tehran Prince Mohammad Mirza wanted to bring tea cultivation to Iran in the late 19th century. Prior to these wishes, Iran had been unsuccessful in producing and cultivating tea. As an ambassador to India, Mirza snuck onto a tea plantation acting as a French laborer in India. He then snuck back tea leaves with himself to Iran avoiding seizure by custom officials who had to respect his diplomatic immunity.
He brought the saplings to his native Lahijan and the rest is history, Gilan the southern area near the Caspian Sea is a hospitable area for tea growth. It is the primary area for tea production in Iran. The first tea factory in Iran was started in 1932.
Persians drink tea several times a day, often with each meal. Typically earlier in the day people will drink their tea darker or por rang while at night they will drink a lighter tea or kam rang. Tea in Iran is often accompanied with a sweet of some sort. It’s typically with a date, saffron rock candy, or sugar cubes. Sometimes, people will also eat it with a sweet or pastry like baklava. A survey in Iran showed that Persians on average drink 8 or 9 cups of tea a day.
This is a brief look into influences and backstory of Persian cuisine. Iran has a rich and illustrious history that spans thousands of years. During that time, they have been conquerors, been conquered, and served as a throughway for the East meeting the West. Consequently, Iran’s cuisine has a complicated backstory that has twists and turns like any great mystery novel. That novel is still being written as the twenty first century influences modern day Persian cuisine.
Encyclopedia Iranica Notes – Encyclopedia Iranica, online edition, New York, 1996.