For Persians, especially in the West, Persian cuisine has become part of their lost identity. It serves as a way to hold onto the last bits of who they identified as, back in their homeland. It is also a way of teaching their children about their culture and cuisine. Using food to help separate a group of people from another is not unique to Persians. Early texts show that early Christians were encouraged to eat pork to reflect their difference from the other religions
Despite Persian cuisine being heavily influenced by its Central Asian and Northern Indian neighbors, Iran has almost always resisted being influenced by Western diets and cuisine, for the most part. Some practices and foods have spread (like cutlery and tables), but as far as the food truly shifting Persian diets, that has never been the case.
Persian cuisine is fascinating and has influenced and has been influenced by western cultures. Similar to Chinese and Thai restaurants, Persian restaurants in the West have adopted a cohesive menu to ensure that you can expect the same menu items whenever you go to an Persian restaurant.
Persian restaurants in the West are typically Chelow Kabobi , this is where they serve Iran’s national dish Chelow Kabob amongst other dishes. Outside of this, they will also typically provide khoresh(t)s which is a stew, kuku which is a soufflé, and or koofteh’s which are often stuffed veggies.
In recent years, Persian food has come more and more to the forefront of the culinary world. Or at least the flavors have. Ingredients like pomegranate and saffron have become more prevalent. My goal is to give you a quick lesson on the backstory behind Persian food and to provide you with guide that you can rely on for Persian food. You’ll know what to order when you go to a Persian restaurant so you’ll be able to impress all your friends.
In Iran prior to Western Culture influences, breakfast was primarily comprised of bread, butter and jam. I can remember growing up we would always have some lavash or barbari bread with a seasonal jam, butter, feta cheese, and walnuts.
Moraba is Farsi for preserve or jam.
Morabah Beh – Quince or Beh. Quince is in the apple and pear family. It has a tough chewy texture and tart flavor when eaten raw. It’s been used throughout time in cooking and originates in Iran, Turkey, and Southwest Asia. In Persian cuisine, Beh is used extensively in a variety of ways. Predominately you can find it in stews or preserves. Every winter, my Mom and Mommon Joon would make jars upon jars of Moraba Beh and we would have it for the rest of the year.
Other popular jams are made from apple, pumpkin, and sour cherries.
**Joon in Farsi means “dear” so it’s added to words like Maman (Mom) or Baba (Dad) for our grand parents often times as a term of endearment. *
With Iran’s often oppressively hot climate, there was has always been a cultural demand for refreshing drinks throughout Persian cuisine.
A popular drink in Iran is sharbat, which is a drink that includes thick syrup that is typically made from a concentrate of fruits (usually cherries or berries). This syrup is then poured over ice and diluted with water for a refreshing drink.
Sharbat-e-Albaloo– This is a classic sharbat, the sour cherries are cooked down to create a preserve and the juice/liquid of that preserve is saved and is used as a drink starter. You pour the concentrate over some ice and then dilute it with water. You are left with a refreshing treat that will instantly satisfy your thirst on a summer day.
Sekanjabin – This is another summer time drink that dates back hundreds of years in Iran. The ancient usage mostly stems to the fact that the primary ingredient in this drink is vinegar. You make syrup with water and sugar (or honey); you then add vinegar to the mixture as it heats. As the vinegary flavor cooks off you are left with a nice refreshing summer drink. It’s often garnished with lime and mint.
Chai-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.
Tea in Iran is drank a entirely different way than what most people in the West associate with tea drinking, i.e. tea bags.
First, the water is boiled in a large teapot or a quri then a tablespoon of tea is mixed with the boiling water in a small teapot or ketri. The tea is then brewed atop the large teapot. Once the tea is ready, a small amount of the tea is poured in a small tea glass called an estakan and the boiling water is then poured over it. Depending on how much water to tea is poured in the glass is dependent on the drinker. The tea is then placed on a saucer called a nalbeki.
Persians prefer to have their tea sweetened, but sweetened by drinking the tea with a sugar cube placed in your mouth, not mixed into the tea itself. The only time people drink sweetened tea is when a person is ill and Persians will prescribe Chai ba Nabat which is tea with some rock candy mixed in. The super sweet tea helps calm an upset stomach.
Doogh– This is a popular drink at chelow kabobis, it is a carbonated yogurt drink. It’s thought to quench the thirst during the summer time and helps clean your palette with a heavy meal like chelow kabob.
The earliest indication of doogh comes from 11th Century in Persia. Traditionally doogh was made from putting milk and yogurt into a sheepskin and it was shook until it separated. And then the liquid was consumed. Today dried mint and other spices are added to the drink.
Kashk-e-Bademjan- The eggplant is a very popular ingredient in Persian cuisine. It is native to South Asia and India. However, it made its way to Iran during the pre-Islamic period of Iran and it has been an important component in a variety of Persian dishes since. Eggplants are adaptive plants and found Iran’s climate hospitable.
Historical evidence indicates that people believed that special preparation was necessary to avoid the “poisonous” nature of eggplants. The primary technique to resolving this problem was by salting and cooking the eggplant. This would remove the bitterness from the eggplant which was believed to cause a litany of health problems in the human body.
Eggplants are used in a very popular party dip in Iran, called Kashk-e-Bademjan (or bademjoon depending on who is pronouncing it). It translates to eggplant and kashk (which is a type of yogurt whey). It’s a simple dish that is a huge party pleaser, when executed well. If you don’t have kashk (or don’t have access to it), don’t fret. You can use a whole fat Greek yogurt and achieve similar results. This is the go to dip for all the parties my mom ever hosted. Americans & Persians both went nuts for this dish. It’s so satisfying and when it’s done well, you can eat it by itself.
Noon-e-Panir va Sabzi- This translates to bread, cheese, and fresh herbs and it is a staple of almost any Persian gathering. Persians will always eat this, and it’s often the food of choice for those who don’t have many other options. Think of it like the peanut butter and jelly for Persians.
I remember eating this all the time as a kid for almost any meal with some fresh herbs on some bread. Persians will often sub in cucumbers or walnuts in place of the fresh herbs. Sometimes they will eat all of those items in addition to the herbs.
Maast o Khiar & Maas o Musir- This is a yogurt dip that is typically served on top of rice. It is shredded or finely diced cucumbers (Khiar) and it is mixed into yogurt (maast). It is a cool refreshing dip that can be eaten by itself if you want. This is a must have at any Persian chelow kabobi. Maast o Musir is the same yogurt dip but with shredded shallots mixed in, not cucumbers. It’s like super ranch, way better than ranch dressing. Yogurt in general is served with everything in Persian cuisine and is on every Persian’s dinner table.
Torshi– Persians love things that are sour, so it should be no surprise that they love pickled vegetables or fruits. These are called torshi(s) for their sour taste. Torshi is a very old dish and is no stranger to the Eastern world. Koreans have kimchi, Persians have torshi. The process is very similar; you soak the vegetable in vinegar and salt with a variety of spices. It is then stored in a cool dark place for a long time and the end result is a delicious treat for those of us who like pickled foods. If you are a kid, this typically just grosses you out and you want no part of this.
Cucumbers or Khiar – Cucumbers are very popular in Persian cuisine and culture, it has appeared in poetry and books for centuries. The cucumber was said to have medicinal purposes, it served a cooling purpose and helped with excess heat. Cucumbers are typically eaten raw with the skin or without. They are also eaten pickled. A popular dish is shredded cucumber in yogurt, or diced cucumbers with tomatoes. It is also put in a sugar and vinegar drink where the cucumber is shredded and added to the syrup.
Ash- (sounds like ush) is a traditional soup that is of cultural significance to Persians. It is a soup that typically consists of various beans, fresh herbs, broth, and yogurt. Ash is a traditional dish to Iran and it has been very important to Persian cuisine and linguistics. You can find its importance by its usage as a root in various words like Kitchen or Cook (Ashpazkhoneh or Ashpaz).
Ash is a very common dish and is served to the lower classes and is served to people at large public gatherings where food is handed out. It is cheap to produce and nutritious.
There are a variety of Ash’s and depending on the occasion often times a particular ash is served.
My Mommon Joon would always make this for us in the winter time; she would dole out a gigantic bowl of this every weekend we would come over in the winter time. It’s super delicious and freezes perfectly. It’s also very nutritious and vegetarian friendly.
Ahb Gusht- Literally translates to “water-meat” or ahb-e-gusht which means juice of the meat popular soup in Iran. The name of ahb-gusht didn’t come into the Farsi lexicon for this kind of soup until the late 19th century.
Typically this soup is comprised of a lamb shank, white beans, potatoes, turmeric, cumin, and dried lime. The soup can then be eaten two ways. You can either eat it traditionally like soup with bread. Or another popular method in Iran is removing the beef, potatoes, and beans from the broth and then mashing them with a pestle. The meat makes a paste and is then eaten with bread.
Prior to arrival of potato and tomatoes to Iran, this soup was eaten with other ingredients.
Ahb- gusht is incredibly popular amongst the poor in Iran. Often times poorer Persians will get cheap cuts from a butcher and cook the soup. Chickpeas and other beans are often added to the soup. Ahb-gusht is also easy to cook and only requires time to cook. This is optimal for poor people in Iran, because it allows people to set the soup on the stove and then go work in the fields and then come back (think slow cooker). Often times this food is provided to the masses if free food is given out.
Every winter, my Dad would make this for us and we loved it. It was one of the few things he knew how to make, but the whole house would be filled with the delicious aroma that comes from this soup.
Rice or Berenj
The most basic Persian rice dish is kateh, which is just basmati rice cooked normally. It involves no straining of the water or soaking of the rice. It’s one of the first things you learn how to cook when you learn Persian cooking. It’s also a form of comfort food for many Persians; it’s so simple yet so satisfying. Many Persians will top this with some yogurt and may be a sunny side up egg and eat that for dinner. My dad would always make this when he wasn’t interested in what my mom had made for dinner or if we didn’t have anything in the fridge. Many Persians will also give this to their kids when they are getting over a stomach bug, because they think that the starchiness of the rice will calm their system down.
The next important component of Iranain rice is tahdig, which literally translates to bottom of the pot. Persians live for tahdig; it’s always the first thing to go at an Persian party. There is nothing really to it, it’s just the crispy part of the rice that sticks to your pot, but perfecting it is an art form. Many have tried to perfect this and they’re left with either a burnt crisp or no tahdig at all. The most important trick to it is paying attention. The second you move to something else or focus on something else your tahdig is burnt and now you have no friends. Just kidding, but you will not have any tahdig which is just as bad really.
Tahdig can be amped up with bread or potatoes. I love potato tahdig, it’s like a rice french fry. It’s super easy to make, it requires you to strain the rice and place the potatoes at the bottom of the pan. You then add back your rice and cook it slowly for about 30 to 45 minutes.
There are so many amazing polow dishes in Persian cuisine that trying to pick the best is like choosing your favorite child. Wait…don’t answer that. Some of you may have a favorite. I may not have a “favorite” but I definitely have a preferred list.
A quick note for the reader about polow, Persians call every rice dish polow sometimes, even if it’s chelow or kateh. But technically polow is when the rice is mixed with other dishes to basically make a pilaf.
Now since that’s out of the way, let’s move to the varieties. The three biggies I would say are sabzi polow (which is herbed rice), loobia polow (which is a tomato and green beans based rice) , and saffron based polows (shirin polow, tahchin,and zereshk polow)
Sabzi Polow- So the reason why they are called “sabzi” polows is the fact that a variety of dried herbs are incorporated into the rice. Typically this is a variety of dill, fenugreek, and fresh parsley. This dish is often eaten with either braised lamb (shank or shoulder) or fish (typically a white fish, like rockfish or sea bass). The light and aromatic flavor of the rice balances perfectly with the richness of a lamb or rockfish. This rice is particular popular in the spring time for the Nowruz holiday, where Persians all over the world eat sabzi polow ba mahi or herbed rice with fish. It’s supposed to symbolize new life, and what better way to symbolize new life than by eating a fish.
The other big sabzi polow dish is baghali polow (Baw-Ghaw-Lee). I’ve featured this dish before; basically it’s herbed rice with fresh fava beans. It is then best paired with braised lamb shanks to make a perfect combination. The best I’ve ever had was from a delivery place in Tehran, where they delivered this stuff to you. It was perfect.
Loobia Polow- Next in line, in the polow triumvirate is loobia polow, which translates literally to bean rice. However, in this rice the beans are always green beans. This dish is basically made by making a tomato base with cut green beans and pieces of cubed beef.
I can remember sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table cutting green beans for her while we watched daytime soaps together as a kid (I knew Kelly Ripa before she was a star, when she was just a young actress trying to woo Mark Consuelos on All My Children…don’t judge me.”
My half-Persian cousins would call this orange polow because the rice takes on an orange color when you mix in the tomato base into the polow. It’s so good, but the tahdig tends to burn easily on this dish, so beware.
The Saffron Polows- The Julius Caesar of this polow triumvirate has to be the saffron polows, which are by far the most iconic in the polow family. The golden color of the rice captivates all diners, and then the hypnotic aroma of the saffron seals your fate. You are going to just shovel carbs into your mouth, because this is so good. The three major saffron polows are zereshk polow, tahchin, and shirin polow.
First with zereshk polow, you have a beautiful dish which is topped with brilliant red barberries (zereshk) that are ultra-tart. They typically are fried in some butter and sugar and then poured atop a saffron rice that has a nice tahdig. Oftentimes, they will mix in some pieces of boiled chicken into the rice to make it more of a complete meal.
Next we have tahchin, which is as my mom calls the Persian version of Lasagna. Probably because you sort of have to layer it, I guess? Mom and her analogies. It’s basically a saffron rice that is then mixed with a yogurt and egg mixture. It is then spread into a large Pyrex dish, where it is baked in the oven. You’ll typically find pieces of chicken breast intermingled into the rice as well. The end result is a delicious golden brown rice pie almost, where the sign of success is if your tahdig holds all over the dish and you can successfully flip the Pyrex to serve your tahchin, whole.
Finally, you have shirin polow, which translates literally to “sweet rice”. The rice is typically a saffron based rice that will then have pieces of candied shredded carrots, candied julienned orange peels, and slivered almonds. You have the obligatory braised chicken breast intermingled again, like you have in all the saffron polows. I think Iranians like to remind you that you should always have protein with your carbs. The end result of this dish is an addicting sweet and tangy flavor combination; it’s sort of like eating duck a l’Orange but Iranian style. It’s one of my favorites.
Those are the major polow players, the kingmakers if you will. The polows that will win you the adulation and respect of your Persian peers if you can execute these dishes.
But, what if I told you the best polow of them all didn’t sit in the polow triumvirate? What if I told you, that like, Cato the Younger, this dish stands by itself with no polow peers. Immune to bribery and cheap fixes, Albaloo Polow is a one of a kind dish (UHL-BAH-LOO). It translates to sour cherry rice. This dish is perfection on a plate.
It requires a rare ingredient that is so dependent on the season that Iranians on the East Coast of the USA will come in droves to sour cherry fields with 5 gallon buckets to fill so they have enough for the entire year to follow. I still remember my Mommon Joon, Mom, and Khaleh would all go to the cherry field and bring back buckets upon buckets of sour cherries. They would then freeze some, turn others into preserve, and then use the rest to make syrup for sharbat, which is a Persian drink.
The star was always the albaloo polow, you make this dish by making your basic chelow, then you mix in the sour cherries (pitted), little meatballs or braised chicken, and some of the cherry juice. You get a beautifully red polow that is sweet and tangy. You can sub in regular cherries, but it’s not the same and the color turns more purple than red. If you ever have a chance to eat this, run don’t walk to the table and eat as much of this as you can.
Beyond those major polow dishes, you also have adas polow, which is a favorite of many but not of mine. I don’t have an aversion to it; it just never does anything for me. But many people love it, so I encourage you to try it and judge for yourself. My Mommon Joon would make this dish all the time, and I would typically take a pass. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t taste good, typically it incorporates lentils, split peas, and dates to make a very healthy and filling meal.
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 (sauted) onions/garlic, veggies, and herbs.
The order of process always goes frying the onions and garlic in oil with some salt, pepper, turmeric, and cumin. Once the onions are fully browned, you then add your meat (typically a cut of beef or lamb that has been cut into small pieces). Once they are also browned, you will add your fresh herbs, veggies, legumes and broth. Typically you will also add a dried lime or two to this mixture also. You then cook for hours until the meat is so tender that it requires no cutting utensil at all to break it apart.
Khoresh-e-Fesenjan– Note even though this is spelled with a “jan” at the end it’s almost always pronounced with a “joon”. This is a walnut and pomegranate based stew that often has chicken in it or beef meatballs. This is a very popular dish and is a favorite of non-Persians. It’s served frequently at parties and holidays. Fesenjan originates from the area of Gilan in Iran. It originally had several varieties, but now it is universally known for the version of fesenjan that is comprised primarily of walnuts in the base of the sauce.
Khoresh-e-Alu-Esfenaj – This is a spinach (esfenaj) and prune (alu) stew that is often cooked with beef. It has sort of a tangy and sweet flavor which is brought on by the prunes. I recommend removing the pits from the prunes, for the sake of your eater.
Khoresh-e-Gheimeh– This is one of the most traditional Persian khoresh(t)s, and it’s one of my favorite. People will also mix this with rice to make gheimeh polow. It’s a tomato based khoresh with yellow split peas and cubed lamb or beef. This is a protein packed dish that scores high on all the good categories (high in fiber, high in protein, and low in bad fats). You can find this dish anywhere in Iran or on any dinner table in a Persian household anywhere in the world. Typically it’s served with rice, or you can get it as an appetizer in Persian restaurants where they serve it on top of Tahdig. Many will also fry some potatoes and serve them on top of the dish.
Khoresh-e-Gheimeh Bademjan (really just a combination of Gheimeh and Bademjan)
Khoresh-e-Bademjan – This has a very similar flavor to khoresh-e-gheimeh. The eggplants are typically baked or fried and then added near the end of the cooking process for this dish. It’s delicious and the ingredients go well together. The almost buttery flavor of the eggplant accents the beef brilliantly.
Khoresh-e-Ghormeh Sabzi– This dish is probably the MOST famous khoresh out of all the khoreshes. It’s also the best in my opinion. It’s been my favorite since I was a little kid. If you can make this dish well, you’ve typically mastered Persian cooking. It combines ingredients from the North of Iran (fresh herbs) with other Persian staples like dry lime.
This dish is primarily comprised of fresh herbs (fenugreek, coriander, and parsley), fried onions, garlic, dried limes, and beef cubes. Near the end of the cooking process you add cooked red kidney beans. This dish is very similar in flavor to Khoresh-e-Karafs (Celery Stew). The flavor is savory but also citrusy from the dried limes, it has savory and sour flavor that goes very well together. It’s healthy and like all Persian stews, Gluten-Free 🙂
Khoresh-e-Karafs–This is a similar construction to Ghormeh Sabzi, except you add celery and you don’t add red beans.
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? I’m pretty sure everyone at some point has cooked meat on a stick.
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 Nasir al-din Shah loved the kabobs and chelow in the Caucasus and ordered that his court replicate it.
Kabob in the Persian culture has a huge significance. Because of this, Persians and Persian Americans are snobs, kabob Snobs, to be more specific. We scoff at the mere notion of kabobs on a stick. Kabob should be cooked on a metal skewer or “Sikh” (see-kh, emphasis on the kheh no keh). You can use the wood skewer if you are in a jam or don’t have enough metal skewers
Why are Kabobs so important to you and your crazy people?
Kabob is a form of national pride for Persians & Persian Americans.
As a first generation Persian American, I can attest to the fact that kabob would bring my family together in the summers growing up. I can vividly remember my Mommon Joon, slaving away for hours getting everything ready to be grilled. She would give my Dad a tray of 30 to 40 skewers and have explicit orders to not dry out the meat on the grill. Juiciness in meat is of critical importance to Persian Chefs/Moms/Crazy People/whatever you want to call them =).
Once everything was done, we would all sit around the table, and enjoy a great meal together. Kabob represents everything that we longed for in America at the time, but couldn’t find. My Parents, Aunt, and Uncles were all immigrants who came before and after the Revolution. America accepted us with open arms, but in a strange and far away land, food often gives you that brief respite that takes you back home.
So whoever invented it, that doesn’t matter to Persians. They took the ball and ran with it. I will stack an Persian kabob to any other kabob in the world, when done well, it’s the best. Game. Set. Match.
Kabob-e-Koobideh– This literally means kabob that has been grounded or pounded. Koobideh means grounded/pounded, so technically it does not necessarily need to be beef/lamb but you won’t have much luck with another meat. Typically you want to use a 50-50 blend of lamb to beef, with fattier cuts. Think of a delicious hamburger, a cut of lean meat will dry out on the grill, so the fat helps the meat stay juicy.
It is the holy grail of kabob grilling, if you have a good koobideh, you are known throughout the lands as the Kabob Master.
Kabob Barg– The traditional kabob-e-barg (Leaf Kabob (shaped like a leaf), is traditionally done with Filet Mignon, but I’ve seen it done with Sirloin too.
Jujeh Kabob– Jujeh kabob (chicken breast kabob) is typically cubed chicken breasts placed on a metal skewer. Jujeh is supposed to mean baby chick, sorry for the imagery there, traditionally in Iran they used a Cornish hen and cut up the pieces and then placed them on skewers. Later on with Persians moving to the West, the Persian Americans popularized the use of chicken breast for jujeh kabob. This has taken off and is typically the version of jujeh kabob found in all chelow kabobis. But you can usually ask for chicken with bones too if you want. People feel that the chicken with bones can be juicier and more flavorful than the chicken breasts.
How to Eat Chelow Kabob
When you go to a chelow kabobi ask for the tahdig (crispy rice), maast-e-musir (yogurt with shallots), noon-e-panir ba sabzi (bread with cheese and fresh herbs), and then get a Soltani. The Soltani, which is ubiquitous in chelow kabobis across the world, translates to the dish for a sultan; it’s a hefty portion of saffron basmati rice, a serving of koobideh and barg kabob. If you are a true pro and aficionado, you’ll eat this entire meal with a nice wedge of onion that you take a bite of each time you take a bite of your food.
Kuku-This is the Persian version of the omelet or frittata. It typically involves a slew of veggies, eggs, and flour. It is then baked or fried and served.
When I was a kid, I would spend hours upon hours at my Mommon Joon’s house. Often times, I remember while I was upstairs watching cartoons, she would be toiling away in the basement prepping sabzi (Farsi for Leafy Greens) for a party she was throwing that night.
(Persian women are notorious party throwers/party animals/the world’s greatest hosts.)
When I would march downstairs to see what she was doing, and why she wasn’t giving me attention (8-year-old Persian boys are like tyrants), I would see that she was chopping and chopping and chopping and chopping the sabzi for a dinner item that night.
Her work ethic/patience/passion to make sure her guests ate well was really astounding. No one knew how to rage harder than my Grandma! That dinner item she was preparing is called kuku sabzi.
I would describe it as a vegetable frittata. Specifically the veggies in it are: curly leaf parsley, coriander, scallions, fenugreek and chives. Persians will often use this dish as a fridge clean out for their veggies. I’ve seen my mom put lettuce and/or spinach it as well.
Once you have all the veggies processed, you mix it with an egg and some flour. You’ll then have almost a veggie cake batter on your hands. You then have 2 options, you can fry them or bake them. Depending on whether you have fallen off the diet wagon or are firmly on it, you can choose whichever cooking method you prefer.
Cutlet or Kotlet- The creation of this dish is most likely to our very own European Invasion of the late 19th and early 20th century in Iran. During this time, Iran was crawling with Europeans from all over who craved some sort of reminder of back home. The Persian people being great hosts, love being hospitable to their guests no matter who they are, consequently, the Persian take on the Cutlet was born. The Persian version aptly named kotlet is a blend of ground beef or lamb mixed with cooked shredded potato, onion, and breadcrumbs. It is then fried, after that it is typically served with bread and eaten either hot or cold.
I have vivid memories of my Mommon Joon always making these for us throughout our childhood. She would roll and flatten kotlets for hours on end, once they were made we would all just make our trips to her counter and take one, we would then go back on our merry way downstairs to the basement to play video games and horse around.
When we would go on road trips as a family, we would never be allowed to stop at a fast food restaurant no matter how bad we kids wanted. Why? Persian parents (at least first generation immigrants) do not cater to the frivolous wants and needs of children. We would have cold kotlet sandwiches with sabzi at a rest stop. At the time I hated it, but now I look back and realize I had it too good. Kotlets are addicting and so good cold that you can just go into your fridge in the middle of the night and snack on one if you are hungry.
Gheymerzeh or Gheymeh Rizeh Nokhodi –These are meatballs made from ground lamb or beef, which are then mixed chickpea powder and a variety of spices. They are then cooked in a tomato sauce/broth alongside potatoes. They are so good. They are light yet filling, and they go really well on sub bread. You can make a Persian Meatball Sub with these and not miss a beat. It is a dish that is native to Esfahan, and my Mommon Joon who hailed from Esfahan would always make a pot of these for us kids growing up. I remember one day she dropped it off at our door and by the time my mom had come home, I ate all the meatballs. #FatKidLife.
Pirashki – During the 19th and early 20th century, Europeans were all over Iran. The Russians were prominent in the north of Iran near the Caspian Sea. As a result many of their dishes made their way into the culinary lexicon of Iran. The Pirashki is a take on the Russian equivalent, it’s basically bread stuffed with ground beef and potatoes or a sweet feeling. When I was a kid, my Mommon Joon would make these very simply by just tortillas and filling them with spiced ground beef. She would then fry the tortillas in a pan and feed it to us kids. It wasn’t exactly correct in the sense of being a traditional Pirashki , but it didn’t matter. They are very satisfying, sort of like an Persian burrito as they would call it.
Mirza Ghasemi– This is a dish from the northern region of Iran that is primarily comprised of tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, and eggs. It’s delicious and is often paired with a nice piece of bread. This is often a go-to dish on a weeknight for Persians who don’t feel like cooking. It’s very filling and it’s even more decadent with some fresh kateh.
Biryooni -This varies greatly from Indian or Pakistani Biryani. This is another specialty of Esfahan, it is cooked lamb that is minced and then spiced with a touch of cinnamon and then eaten with lavash or nan-e-sangak.
Kaleh Pacheh -This is a dish that is comprised of a sheep’s head and it’s feet, it’s slow cooked often overnight and served in the early mornings at some specialty restaurants. The other parts of the lamb like the brain, tongue, eyes, and other body parts are usually tossed in the pot to be cooked alongside the main portions of the sheep.
In Persian Cuisine, Lamb Tongue is typically a part of a larger dish called kaleh pahcheh, which translates to Head & Hooves. This is a Persian delicacy, especially in the winter. In Iran if you can find a good kaleh pahcheh place you have to get their super early like 3AM or right before dawn to get some. Persians love this dish. Not all of them, many Persian Americans that are my age are grossed out by it. But I love it.
So traditionally they take the whole lamb head, tongues, and the hooves and boil them in a pot with lemon and cinnamon. As you cook it down, the tender meat falls off and you have a delicious pot of horrors (haha). Literally I remember walking in my grandmothers kitchen as a kid, I always opened the pots, so one fateful night I opened one of the pots and BLAM! LAMB HEAD staring me right in the face. I had determined that Mary’s little lamb, ended up in my Maman Joon’s kitchen pot.
I still can’t face preparing the whole shebang of the head and the eyeballs and the brain. BUT! I do love lamb tongue, and I can stomach the preparation.
Lamb tongues, or zaboon in Farsi, are high in fat, vitamin B, and protein, so you really only need one or two to be full. But I can never eat just one or two, they are so good! In my opinion they are far superior to Beef Tongue, which is not as flavorful and has an unappetizing consistency.
Sholeh Zard,-Persians being a bunch of versatile fun loving folks love it when an ingredient can go in a dessert or dinner. So why not rice? A Persian dessert that is a staple of any traditional setting is sholeh zard, or saffron rice pudding. This dish is served warm or cold, it is very sweet and aromatic. It is typically topped with Cinnamon and laced with rose water and cardamom. For many, sholeh zard, also has a sentimental value. The reason being is that whenever someone experiences a death in their family, loved ones will bring this dish to your home. I can remember my grandmother making this growing up for friends who had just lost a loved one. Part of it serves as comfort food and the other part of it shows that you care.
Baklava- This is very popular in Iran but not in the sense that you know it. Baklava that is popular throughout the Middle East is made with walnuts. In Iran it is typically made with almonds and or pistachios. They usually are much smaller than what you expect throughout the rest of the Middle East. Iran’s best baklava comes from Yazd, where it packed into small tins and given as a gift to folks during the holiday season. Baklava is often eaten with a nice glass of tea.
Zoolbia Bamieh- These are staple desserts at any Persian party; these are two pieces of fried dough that are always served together. They are very sweet, but they are highly addictive. The zoolbiahs look like little fried pretzels and the bamiehs look like tiny little fried dough balls.
Persian Ice Cream or Bastani Irooni- Ice cream can find its roots in the Ancient East. Some two thousand years ago, the ancient Persians were said to treat themselves to syrup frozen by the snow from the nearby mountains. This was a precursor to ice cream. They also created a delicious treat called faloodeh which involves frozen ice, rosewater, sugar, and vermicelli noodles.
Today, Iran has one of the best ice cream flavors in the world which is saffron and rose water. This gives it a beautiful golden yellow color; it’s sprinkled with pistachios so it has beautiful flecks of lime green. They call this ice cream, bastani askbar mashti which translates to ice cream from Akbar Mashti, who is said to be the creator of this in Iran.
Sohan – This is Persian toffee brittle (Fard Sohan Candy with Saffron, 1 Pound ), it’s a perfect blend of sweet and salty. It comes covered in pistachios and goes very well with some Persian tea.
Gaz- Gaz (Fard Pistachio Nougat, 16oz ), is a pistachio and nougat dessert that many people love.
Koloocheh –These are cookies sold in Iran that have crushed sweet walnuts in the center. They are always soft and light with a delicious filling. Whenever I can find fresh ones, I eat as many as I can. The best koloocheh come from the town of Fuman in Iran, they are thinner and adorned with these magnificent spirals. It’s lighter and more airy than the widely available style of koloocheh which comes from Lahijan in Iran.
Halvah -This is a very popular dessert in Iran that is often served during funerals. Why? Because it’s homemade and shows you put time and effort to show you care. It’s also a bit of a comfort food, it’s simple it’s just flour, sugar, butter, and some saffron. This is delicious and very addictive. My grandfather would make the best halvah, whenever he would stay with us he would make this for me. This kind of halvah varies from the sesame seed based halva many are familiar with.
Noghle-This is my favorite; these are slivered almonds that are covered in sugar and rose water. When they are fresh, they are these tiny little pieces of heaven. I highly recommend them. (Fard Sugar Candy, 8 Oz. ).
Roulette– This is a common cake made in Iran, it’s basically a copy of the French roulade cake. At every party, my Mommon Joon would make this dish.
So there you have it. You now have a surface level understanding of the basics of Persian food. This is by no means comprehensive, but it does give you the necessary information to truly experience Persian food. Hopefully, by tasting this wonderful food you will gain a better understanding of the Persian people and their diaspora.