Iran is home to a diverse and distinct cuisine that has evolved over three millennia, influenced by both the arid environment and the changing cultures that have swept through the country. Iranian culinary traditions are based on a once-vigorous nomad pastoralism in the semi-arid steppes and a rich agriculture in the few well-watered areas of oases, rivers and the mountain valleys of the Alborz and Zagros ranges and the coastal areas along the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Iranians remain hospitable and courteous, and good food, though harder to find, is still there when the doors of hospitality open to travellers: the traditions of Iranian javanmardi (generous and chivalric behaviour) and of Islamic hospitality survive in spite of social and economic pressures. The discriminating and persevering traveller will find his/her way beyond impoverished modernity to a still-living tradition of fine eating and generous entertaining.
American-style convenience food, with its attendant evils of flatulent obesity, is all the rage. In Tehran, there are some reasonable restaurants serving an approximation of the varied traditional domestic cuisine, but even there the fashion is for greasy hamburgers or dimly-lit preparations that might pass as Mexican. The situation is little short of a catastrophe. In local restaurants and cafes, the portions are geared to the pockets of the locals while, in luxury hotels, the portions are usually very generous and some Western dishes will be on the menu.
The lone traveller may be fortunate enough to be invited to Iranian homes where traditional food is still prepared, as Iranians continue to be gracious and hospitable. If accepting an invitation to visit a family home, it is usual to take a small present. The tourist in a group will have to rely on his/her guide negotiating with the hotel chef to produce something a little better than the usual carelessly repetitive one-night-stand fodder. Group tourism alas, like factory farming, seldom if ever encourages gastronomic excellence!
Although many Iranian families will not have meat every day, restaurant vegetarian food is extremely difficult to find because eating outside the home is equated with eating meat or fish. All the meat served is halal (slaughtered according to Muslim law); pork products are not available except to Armenian Christian families resident in Esfahan, so all sausages, salami or mortedella are made from beef or lamb. Forks and spoons, but not knives, form the usual table cutlery and, as in other Muslim countries, the right hand is used for taking bread etc. In town and village restaurants, ladies or mixed company will be directed to the 'family' area, whereas men without female companions will sit in a male-only section. Whether in a cafe or family house, men and women tend to sit according to gender rather than relationship. In a private house in villages, you may eat at floor level rather than at a table, so prepare for aching leg muscles. The kitchen is considered as the women's domain so men should not enter unless invited.
One of the problems is that non-elite public eating in Iran derives from the bazaar cook-shop tradition, which never was intended to give a complete diet, only to provide essential protein and carbohydrates to the workforce: hence the endless kebabs and flat-bread or rice, with barely a sprinkling of sour red sumac seed or strained yoghurt with mountain garlic 'mast о musir' to enliven them, let alone a relish of pickled vegetables 'torshi' (home-made they can be superb, especially matured garlic pickle often 20 years old: the quality of the vinegar is crucial - much factory-made pickle, as in England, is inedible because of the cheap chemical vinegar used).
Kebab is still regarded as the main form of public eating. Simple kebabis tend to be found around major meydans (squares) and serve kebabs. Fast food is popular and begins with places selling bread-roll ‘sandwiches’, with tomatoes and pickles over one of sausis (sausage), ‘hamburger’ (minced meat), felafel, jegar (liver), zaban (tongue) or maghz (brain).
Even carnivores will tire of the over-use of chemical tenderiser on low-grade over-refrigerated meat smothered in passe-partout saffron - at home or for picnics, the freshly-slaughtered local lamb or mutton is marinaded overnight in onion and lime juice or in yoghurt and garlic before being roasted on skewers sikh over a charcoal fire - and the result is delicious. In Ramadan, a meat and wheat porridge called halim is served in the market at dusk; a thick broth ash is traditionally served on Thursday evenings, based on grain and pulses, with herbs and dried whey kashk and fried onions with dried mint; a traditional workman's breakfast is kalleh-pacheh, boiled sheep's head and feet, too strong for the uninitiated, and a delicious lunch ab gusht cooked and served in stone pots dizi: a liquid stew of mutton, onions, chick peas and dried limes, eaten with bread, accompanied by a raw onion, and a fresh yoghurt drink dugh - the pre-bottled variety almost always tastes of preservative, so is best avoided, as also the sickeningly sweet fizzy drinks that are routinely offered.
Iranian khoresht, dishes of meat and fruit, may sound uninspiring but wait until you have tried duck or chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce, lamb in morello cherries or apricots, beef or lamb with spinach and prunes and chicken and zereshk barberries etc. Delicious.
Almost every meal in Iran is accompanied by nun (bread) and/or berenj (rice). A delicious change is rice with butter slowly steamed until a crunchy, caramelised layer is formed. Nun is cheap and usually fresh. There are four main varieties:
- Barbari crisp and salty and more like Turkish bread, and often covered with sesame seeds.
- Lavash Common for breakfast and is flat and thin; it's mouthwatering when fresh but soon turns cardboard-like.
- Sangak The elite of Iranian breads, long and thick and baked on a bed of stones to give it its characteristic dimpled appearance - check carefully for rogue chunks of gravel.
- Taftun Crisp with a ribbed surface.
Chelo (boiled or steamed rice) forms the base of many an Iranian meal, and especially at lunch is served in vast helpings. Rice cooked with other ingredients, such as nuts, spices or barberry (small, red berries), is called polo and is worth asking for specifically. Za’feran (saffron) is frequently used to add flavour and colour. If rice is served with a knob of butter on top, blend this in as the Iranians do. Tahdig, the savoury crust from the bottom of the rice pan, often including slices of potato, is a national favourite.
Fresh fish such as trout from the many farms, prawns and shrimps from the south coast, and sturgeon from the Caspian Sea are flown in daily to the major cities. As for world-famous Iranian caviar, it is easiest to find and purchase at airport duty-free shops on departure: the best and most expensive is Beluga, with asetra and sevruga (also called daraktil) less expensive.
Even in a restaurant with a long menu, most main-dish options will be kebab. These are served either on bread or as chelo kebab (on a vast mound of rice), and in contrast with the greasy doner kebabs inhaled after rough nights in the West, Iranian kebabs are tasty, healthy and cooked shish-style over hot charcoals. They are usually sprinkled with spicy sumaq (sumac) and accompanied by raw onion, grilled tomatoes and, for an extra fee, a bowl of mast (yoghurt).
Common kebab incarnations include:
- Bakhtiyari kebab Lamb chops and chicken, the king of kebabs.
- Chelo kebab Any kind of kebab in this list served with chelo (boiled or steamed rice); the default option will be kubide if you don't specify.
- Juje kebab Grilled chicken pieces marinated in somaq.
- Kubide kebab The cheapest, most common version made of minced mutton, breadcrumbs and onion ground together.
For a change from kebab it’s worth asking for common stand-bys zereshk polo ba morgh (chicken on rice made tangy with barberries), ghorme sabzi (a green mix of diced meat, beans and vegetables, served with rice) or various mouthwatering vegetarian dishes made from bademjan (eggplant). Most restaurants will also serve one or another variety of khoresht (thick, usually meaty stew made with vegetables and chopped nuts, then served with rice and/or French fries). Dolme (vegetables, fruit or vine leaves stuffed with a meat-and-rice mixture) makes a tasty change. Dolme bademjan (stuffed eggplant) is especially delectable. The Persian classic fesenjun (sauce of pomegranate juice, walnuts, eggplant and cardamom served over roast chicken and rice) is rarely found in restaurants, but you might get lucky and be served fesenjun in an Iranian home, which is quite an honour.
In western Iran and on the Persian Gulf coast chelo mahi (fried fish on rice) is quite common in season, while on the Caspian coast it's relatively easy to find mirzaghasemi (mashed eggplant, squash, garlic, tomato and egg, served with bread or rice).
Dessert & Sweets
While after-meal dessert is often a bowl of fruit, Iran produces such a head-spinning array of freshly made shirini (sweets) that sweet-toothed travellers might remember the country by its regional specialities.
- Esfahan - Gaz, rosewater-flavoured nougat, often with pistachio.
- Kerman - Colompe, a soft, date-filled biscuit.
- Orumiyeh - Noghl, sugar-coated nuts.
- Qom - Sohan, a brittle, toffee-like concoction of pistachio and ginger.
- Yazd - Baghlava, like Turkish baklava but thicker, and pashmak, candyfloss made of sugar and sesame.
Other widely available sweets worth trying include refreshing paludeh or falude (a sorbet made of rice flour, grated fresh fruit and rose water) and bastani, Iranian ice cream.
Vegetarianism is growing in popularity but for most Iranians, it remains a foreign concept. Vegetarians, however, can enjoy eating felafels, samosas and potatoes sold in street stalls, and Persian mastery of all things bademjan, especially the meatless Caspian dishmirza ghasemi. The various kuku (thick omelette dishes) make great snacks, served hot or cold. Varieties include kuku-ye sabzi (with mixed herbs), kuku-e-ye bademjan (with eggplant) and kuku-e-ye gol-e kalam (with cauliflower).
The repertoire of Iranian food is greater than what has been sketched here, and its influence reaches into the Caucasus, Mesopotamia, Central Asia and even India, areas with which Iran shares much history and many traditions - even the Spanish and South American dish escabeche has a distant Iranian origin via Abbasid Baghdad and the Arab advance across North Africa to Andalusia. All food is not only a necessity but also a luxury, its study is a prism for studying the health and history of a nation, its cultural and agricultural imports and exports through time. The Iranian tradition of food is a great tradition, but now beleaguered and endangered, threatened by a tragic loss of quality and authenticity, which in turn threatens the health and even the identity of the nation.
There are enormous difficulties finding a cafe or restaurant open during the daylight hours of Ramadan, when it is very important not to be seen in public smoking, drinking or eating.
Alcohol is banned in Iran although the Christian communities, as in Esfahan, are allowed wine strictly for communion use. Brace yourself for plenty of tea - socialising in Iran almost inevitably involves chay (tea). Tea is drunk black and is usually served with a bowl of ghand (chunks of sugar).
Happily, Iran's famous vineyards are now being recultivated after most were uprooted in revolutionary zeal; the grapes are for eating, and the production of grape juice, syrups and vinegar. Iranian (non-alcoholic) beer is terrible. A very passable non-alcoholic 'lager' is Bavaria, now imported from Dubai. It's available only in large centres but more in restaurants and hotels - just slightly more than the Iranian bottled beer but worth every rial.
Local carbonated soft drinks tend to sweetness, and the fruit juices, either freshly pressed or in cartons, are more thirst quenching, such as pomegranate juice, talebi (cantaloupe melon) juice, and carrot juice with a scoop of ice-cream from fruit-juice shops. The refreshing, pressed-lime sodas of pre-revolutionary Iran are unfortunately no longer available (presumably because the soda isn't) but another refreshing drink, doogh (yoghurt and water, like Turkish ayran or Indian lassi) is available. You will never be too far from a delicious fresh fruit ab (juice) and fruit shir (milkshake). Popular shakes include banana (shir moz), pistachio (shir peste) and strawberry (shir tut farangi). Shakes are often loaded with sugar.
Tap water is drinkable almost everywhere, and bottled water is widely available. Despite the USA embargo, Coca-Cola is bottled under licence and competes with local soft drinks Zam Zam, Parsi Cola and others. Canned drinks cost multiples of the same drinks sold in bottles.
Persian food philosophy: 'Hоt & 'Cold'
Ancient Persians believed good diet was light on fat, red meat, starch and alcohol - these transformed men into selfish brutes. Instead, fruit, vegetables, chicken and fish were encouraged as the food of gentler, more respectable people. In practice, this philosophy was governed by a classification of 'hot' and 'cold' foods, which is still widely used today.
Similar to China's Yin and Yang, the belief is that 'hot' foods 'thicken the blood' and speed metabolism, while 'cold' foods 'dilute the blood' and slow the metabolism. The philosophy extends to personalities and weather, too. Like foods, people are believed to have 'hot' and 'cold' natures. People with 'hot' natures should eat more 'cold' foods, and vice versa. And on cold days it's best to eat 'hot' foods, and vice versa.
So what's 'hot' and what's not? The classification has nothing to do with temperature, and regional variations exist, but it's generally agreed that animal fat, wheat, sugar, sweets, wine, most dried fruits and nuts, fresh herbs including mint and saffron, and most meats are 'hot' (but not beef). 'Cold' foods include fish, yoghurt and watermelon (all 'very cold'), rice, many fresh vegetables (particularly radishes) and fruits, beef, beer and other nonwine alcohol. Some foods are hotter or colder than others, and some, such as pears, feta and tea, are neutral.
As you travel, you will see the balance in dishes such as fesenjun (sauce of pomegranate juice, walnuts, eggplant and cardamom served over roast chicken and rice), where the pomegranate (cold) is balanced by the walnuts (hot). On the table, mast (yoghurt), cheese, radishes and greens - all cold - are balanced with 'hot' kababs, chicken and sweets. Getting the balance right is what is most important. Too much 'cold' food is thought to be particularly unhealthy, so be careful of eating watermelon and dugh (churned sour milk or yoghurt mixed with water) with your fish meal, unless the dugh comes with chopped herbs to balance it out. 'Hot' foods are apparently not so dangerous: too much 'hot' and you might end up with a cold sore, if you are prone to them.