Iranian food is often used interchangeably with Persian cuisine, though that may be a bit of a misnomer. Persia was a larger region than is controlled by present day Iran.
A variety of cuisines – including dishes now common in Indian, Afghani, Azerbaijani, Turkish and Iraqi food is often broadly referred to as Persian cuisine. It is one of the richest and most flavorful cuisines in the world, with influences on over a third of the world’s population. Let’s see how.
The History of Iranian Food Culture – Origins, Influences and Traditions
Iranian cuisine has evolved for over 3500 years, from the times of ancient Persia. Due to a thriving trade in spices with India and later China, Iranian cuisine evolved in distinctive ways.
In general, Iranian cuisine does not overuse spices – instead, the focus is on presenting food in its freshest form with mild spices and flavors enhancing the natural taste of the core ingredient of each dish. Spice pastes and dips are often presented on the side, as dipping sauces or condiments that can be added to enhance the taste as needed.
This tradition has evolved differently in areas outside Iran, among the most prominent among which is the Indian subcontinent. There have been at least three major waves of migrations from the Persian region to India – the Indo-Aryans around 3000 years back, the Zorastrians (known as the Parsi community in India) around 1200 years ago and the Great Mughal Dynasty in Delhi, India which began in 1526 AD.
The Parsis and the Mughals, especially, have made their niche in terms of Indian cuisine, with the Moghlai (North Indian) cooking being a prime example of how Indians have blended the spicy cooking of the subcontinent with the milder flavored dishes from Iran.
The result is a plethora of kebabs, curries and stews that are presented as Indian – though many of those dishes have Iranian origins. The distinction can be stark at times. For example, using heavy cream sauce has become a staple of many curries prepared in Indian restaurants, a practice which is rare in the original Iranian dishes.
Other regions where Iranian cuisine dominates include the Caucasian regions (such as Azerbaijan), parts of Turkey and modern-day Afghanistan.
Traditional Iranian Foods are Influenced by Many Factors
The rich variety of foods coming out of Iran goes far beyond the popular dishes. As described above, foods have evolved region by region, based on the geography, culture, customs and habits endemic to the area. Over time, many regional cuisines have become popular nationally and spread to other parts of the country, then on to other parts of the world.
Here are brief reviews of a few factors that have helped influence Iranian cuisine.
Geography, Regionalism and Seasonality
Iran has a large land mass with many regions, dialects, climates and cultural influences. The Northern part of the country, close to the Caspian Sea, is lush green and known for a rich variety of fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables that were available year-round. The Southern areas, around the Persian Gulf were dryer, with shorter growing seasons, and the variety was not as good as that found up north. However, there was a lively spice trade with India over sea routes. All told, the food from the southern parts of Iran tended to be relatively spicier and consist of dried fruits and vegetables as ingredients.
Influences/Imports from Other Cultures
Iranian cuisine is one of the oldest in human history. Persia had a rich tradition of back and forth with many of the premier cultures of the ancient world, including Greece, Babylon, Egypt, China and India. A lively trade in spices with India and China along the Silk Route, by road and by sea, enhanced the cultural exchanges and introduced the richness of Iranian cuisine. As mentioned above, Iranians that migrated strongly influenced other cuisines, especially those in the Indian subcontinent (modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh).
Meals for Special Occasions: Traditions, Customs, Cultures and Habits
Traditions, customs, cultures and habits have played a significant role in how Iranian food is prepared. The major influences can be traced to regions, religious and cultural celebrations and the directives/patronage of the Imperial Palace through the various prominent dynasties. These have all been captured throughout this piece.
Six of the major festivals observed in Iran are listed below, along with the traditional food Iranians eat on such occasions:
- Norouz (Persian New Year) is one of the biggest celebrations in Iran. Traditional dishes served on Norouz include Sabzi Polo ba Mahi, Reshteh Polo and Dolmeh barg, all described below. It is often served with Fried Fish. Other traditional foods on this occasion include Kookoo Sabzi (Herbed Omelet) and Shirin Polo (Sweet Rice Pilaf).
- Sizdah Be-dar (Nature Day, held on the last day of the Persian New Year) is celebrated with an outdoor picnic. While smaller portions may be used, many of the foods described in later sections can be used during this festival of greenery.
- Mehregan (Festival of Thanksgiving, held on October 1st or 2nd usually): The Festival of Mehr or Mithra, when Iranians show the love and respect they have for each other, is one of the most important days of the year. Participants wear new clothes and congregate at a ceremonial table outdoors. A copy of the Khordeh Avesta, a mirror and eyeliner (kohli) are placed on the table. Iranians celebrate with fruits such as pomegranates and apples, nuts like almond and pistachio, sweets (such as Qottob, Kolompeh and Baklava) and fresh vegetables.
- Jashn-e Sade (Mid-Winter Feast, held on 10th day Bahman, the 11th month of the Persian calendar): Iranians will gather around an open fire, which symbolizes the defeat of darkness and reemergence of light. They will give their imperfections up to the fire and receive blessings in return. Iranians celebrate this occasion with traditional soups, fruits and nuts.
- Chaharshanbe Suri (Festival of Fire, held on the last Wednesday night of the Iranian Calendar Year) marks the end of darkness and the emergence of light, a time for revival used to celebrate the arrival of Spring. This festival has similarities with the Western celebration of Halloween – especially the trick-or-treating part. Participants, usually children, will bang on neighbor’s doors with spoons and be rewarded with sweets, pastries, fruits and nuts.
- Iranian Wedding Ceremonies often feature elaborate food with luxurious stews, soups and pilaf. One of the primary dishes will likely be Khoresht-e Fesenjan, the iconic stew dish described below.
Iranian Cooking Styles and Techniques
Iranian food styles have evolved over thousands of years. As mentioned before, there have also been significant assimilation of Iranian dishes into other cultures, such as India, which have created hybrid dishes with their own cuisines.
A few examples follow:
- Grilled Dishes (Kebabs): Kebabs, now popular in cuisines the world over, originated in Persia/Iran. There are a wide variety of kebabs from Iran, such as Chelo Kabab Koobideh, Kebab-e Berg, Joojeh Kebab and Jigar, described below.
- Khorest and Ghormeh (Stews): Iranians enjoy a wide variety of thin and thick soups and stews. Some of the famous ones include the Khoresht-e Fesenjan, Khoresht-e Ghormeh Sabzi and Khoresht-e Gheimeh, all described below.
- Aush or Ash (Thick Soups): A variety of thick soups are common in Iran, especially in the cold Northern climates. Examples such as Ash Reshteh, Aush-e Doogh and Ash-e Anar are described below. Soups in the south are lighter.
- Fruits and Nuts: Iranians prefer fresh fruit and nuts as snacks and on many traditional occasions. Some classic items that Persian cuisine helped to popularize around the world include anar (pomegranates), almonds and pistachio nuts.
- Vegetables and Salads: A wide variety of vegetables, such as potatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, tarragon, spinach, leeks, parsley, cilantro, green peas, lima beans and assorted leafy and salad greens are common for use in Iranian dishes, either as core ingredients or garnish. Lemon juice and olive oil, along with feta cheese, are frequently used in salads.
- Polo (Rice): Traditional Iranian rice dishes feature basmati rice. Brown rice is used on rare occasions.
- Nan (Bread): Iranian bread making styles are famous in many parts of the world, including India and Turkey. The main types of bread found in modern day Iran include Sangak, Taftoon, Lavash, Sheermal and Barbari. Indian naan bread and rotis originated in Persia. For example, the Nan-e Barbari is a wheat-based, leavened flatbread found currently in Iran. Most of the breads are flatbreads, usually made with whole wheat or whole wheat flour, with milk, eggs and yogurt added to certain recipes. The main exception to the rule is Nan-e Sheermal, which is made with maida (white) flour, saffron and yeast.
- Legumes: Iranian cuisine uses a wide assortment of beans and legumes, including lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans and split peas.
- Desserts: Iranians are known for desserts that feature fresh dairy products or yogurt, often lightly garnished with nut (e.g. almond or pistachio) flakes, lemon juice and certain herbs. Two of the most popular desserts, Feludeh and Zulbia, are described below. There are dozens upon dozens of other items, including Pashmak (Iranian Candy Floss), Kachi (Persian Halva Pudding), Sholeh Zard (Persian Saffron Rice Pudding) and Ranginak (Date and Walnut Pie).
- Pastries: Iranians are famous for their flaky, honey sweetened pastries. The famous baklava. Two popular pastries, Qottob and Kolompeh, are described below. Dozens of others exist, including the popular Bamieh (Persian Doughnuts with Saffron and Rose Water) and Koloocheh. Incidentally, Baklava is hugely popular in modern day Iran, along with the rest of the Middle East. But this pastry originated in the Ottoman Empire, it is not a Persian creation.
Popular Iranian Spices, Ingredients, and Condiments You May Need
Iranian food uses condiments and sides that have been popularized the world over by Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine. Most people may not know that some of these spices originated in the region now marked as Iran. The spices below ONLY count those that are specific to Iran, as opposed to ones that Iranians use along with the rest of Asia Minor and South Asia.
- Common Herbs and Spices: Common herbs and spices used in Iran include turmeric, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, parsley, dill, garlic, ginger, onions, nutmeg, black pepper, mace, sesame and coriander. These are used by themselves, or in combinations or pastes, as illustrated on this list. Some specific and unusual spices are highlighted below.
- Saffron: This distinctive feature of Iranian cuisine has been exported to many other cultures around the world, prominently the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean countries such as Lebanon and Turkey. It is produced from the Saffron Crocus flower.
- Advieh: Advieh means “spice” in Persian. It is a mixture of many spices that is used in rice, chicken and bean dishes. The composition may vary between different regions (especially from North to South), but common ingredients include turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, rose petals, cumin and ginger. Coriander, sesame, black pepper, saffron, mace, nutmeg and golpar is also used at times, based on local tradition. There are two variations, Advieh-e polo, used on rice dishes and Advieh-e khoresh, used in stews.
- Arde: This spice, made from toasted ground hulled sesame seeds, is used to Tahini, a common condiment used as a dip or a spread on other dishes, sometimes in combination with yogurt.
- Delal Sauce: Also called Namak Sabz, this heavily salted paste – using ground cilantro, parsley and basil – is commonly used in the cold Northern parts as a spread used on fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Rice (Polo/Pelow and Dami): Traditional Iranian rice dishes, feature basmati rice, often flavored with saffron and sometimes rose water. Served in a variety of styles and flavors, with an assortment of main dishes, rice is a staple of Iranian cuisine. Some popular rice dishes are listed below.
- Rose Water: Rose water, made by seeping rose petals in water, is used widely in Iran and other cultures (e.g. India) to flavor certain dishes (e.g. pilafs) and also ceremonial purposes.
- Golpar (Persian Hogweed): A garnish used in soups and stews, Persian hogweed is a wild plant that grows in high and humid areas of Iran. It can be made into a dipping sauce when mixed with vinegar.
- Shevid (Persian Dill): Dill is a vital ingredient of Persian cooking. It is used in many dishes, such as the Polo Shevid Baghali described below.
- Mahleb: This is an aromatic spice made from the seeds of the Prunus mahaleb cherry. The stones, which are ground to a dust before use, impart a unique flavor, a combination of bitter almonds and cherry.
- Limu Amani (Dried Black Lime): Limes dried out in the sun till they are dehydrated are a popular ingredient in Iran and Iraq. They can be used sliced, diced or as ground powder.
- Olive Oil, Ghee, Butter, Jam and Cheese: Olive oil is the lifeblood of Persian cuisine, exported to all of the Mediterranean including Greece, Italy, Turkey, Israel/Palestine and the Levant. Olive oil is used as a dipping sauce, sprinkled on salads and used to make dressings or bases. Ghee (clarified butter) or regular butter is often used in rice and other dishes for flavor or slathered onto hot bread for breakfast or other meals. Iranian naan bread also tastes great with jam. Cheeses such as feta are sometimes used for garnish on salads and certain dishes.
All of the ingredients above are condiments to be used in the preparation of, or used as garnishes, or served mixed in with the following dishes.
20 Popular Iranian Dishes Around the World
A guide to traditional Iranian food culture would hardly be complete without a sampling of the following dishes. Variations in taste and style may occur, but many of the basic recipes have stayed the same for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Some of the dishes mentioned below are ones that have developed within Iranian diaspora in foreign countries. Given the hundreds upon hundreds of dishes to select from, it’s possible that your favorite dish may not be on this list. But the ones below are staples of any good Mediterranean kitchen.
1. Persian Meat Stew (Fesenjan)
All discussion of Persian food must start with this iconic stew. Traditionally made with duck (or fish in the north of Iran), this dish is often served with lamb or chicken. Cooked slowly to allow flavor to develop, the stew will appear thick (creamy) and dark (brownish-black in color). Distinctive undertones include the sweet and sour taste of pomegranate syrup and nuttiness of ground walnuts.
2. Persian Herb Stew (Ghormeh Sabzi)
A stew made of various herbs, Ghormeh Sabzi is hugely popular in Iranian cuisine. Often served with Rice Pilaf, the distinctive taste of fenugreek makes the slightly sour and bitter taste linger on the tongue. The main ingredient varies – though many prepare beans as the base, this is sometimes called the Azerbaijani version. The Shiraz region prefers to use potatoes instead.
3. Minced Meat Stew (Khoresht Gheymeh)
This style, which has now spread all over the world and given rise to the famous Keema dishes found in Indian cooking, was primarily adopted in the cold north to preserve food longer. The stew is made out of minced meat, onions, tomatoes, split peas and dried lime. The stew is often garnished with saffron flavored fried diced potatoes.
4. Minced Meat Stew with Eggplants (Khoresht Gheymeh Bademjan)
This is a variation of the Khoresht-e Gheymeh dish above, with Bademjan (eggplant or aubergine) used as the principal garnish instead of potatoes.
5. Minced Meat Kebab (Chelo Kabab Koobideh)
Lamb or beef with 20% fat is minced twice to make Chelo Kabab Koobideh. The meat is prepared with salt, black pepper and finely grated onion. An egg yolk per pound of meat may be added to firm the texture. The ingredients are mixed and left sitting overnight to marinate. They are grilled side by side over hot coal on wide, flat skewers and served with rice pilaf (usually plain polo or polo shevid Baghali – sometimes half and half of each), grilled tomatoes and onions. Garnishing sauce options include tahini (yogurt sauce) and sumac.
6. Sliced Lamb or Beef Kebab (Kabab Barg)
Meats used for Kabab-e Barg include thinly cut strips of beef tenderloin or lamb shank (very occasionally chicken), marinated in olive oil, onions, saffron, garlic, salt and black pepper and then grilled on flat skewers over hot coal.
7. Chicken Kebab (Joojeh Kabab)
This traditional chicken kabab dish can be made with or without bones. Chunks of chicken marinated in olive oil, onions, saffron, garlic, salt and black pepper are grilled on an open flame on flat, wide skewers. It is often served on chelo rice or wrapped in lavash bread and served with grilled tomatoes, fresh lemons and bell peppers (grilled or raw).
8. Lamb Liver Kebab (Kabab-e Jigar)
Lamb liver is considered a delicacy. The pieces are marinated in lemon, basil and fresh basil, which nicely balance the slightly metallic flavor of the liver and grilled over hot coals. The skewers are served with minimal accompaniments, the main ones being fresh basil leaves and lemon slices. It may be served with the usual rice pilaf and grilled tomatoes in some restaurants.
9. Herb Rice with Fish (Sabzi Polo ba Mahi)
Traditionally served with fish (either smoked or fresh), this saffron flavored basmati rice is often served with a side of vegetable stew. In the North, the fish is often marinated with lemon and saffron, then fried. In the south, it can be stuffed and baked. This is a traditional dish to be served for Norouz (Persian New Year).
10. Persian Noodle Rice (Reshteh Polo)
Traditionally served at Norouz, Reshteh Polo is a fragrant and spicy rice and noodle dish made with saffron tahdig rice (crispy rice from the bottom of the pot), with crispy onions served on top and saffron tinted roasted potatoes lining the edges of the dish. This dish is thought to bring good wishes for the New Year.
11. Persian Dill Rice (Polo Shevid Baghali)
A staple of most Persian restaurants. Basmati rice is prepared with dill and lima greens in this pleasing green pilaf, which may be served with a contrasting portion of traditional polo garnished with saffron. The traditional Polo Shevid Baghali is served with flat wheels of potato, fried in a buttery saffron mix till the crusts are golden brown.
12. Stuffed Grape Leaves (Dolmeh Barg)
This is a popular dish, with a rich variety of herbs and spices. Ground beef is usually the meat of choice (though chicken or lamb can be used) and rice is mixed with leek, chives, minced onions, cilantro, dill, garlic, parsley, black pepper, turmeric, ground chili powder, lemon powder and Advieh, cooked in vegetable oil and wrapped in grape leaves.
13. Persian Noodle Soup (Ash Reshteh)
This soup, made with beans (chickpeas, black eyed beans are popular options) and lentils, mixed with various herbs and turmeric, is a popular staple in Iran and Azerbaijan. Reshteh (Noodles) and Kashk (dairy product made from yogurt) are added to make the dish into a full meal.
14. Pomegranate Soup (Ash-e Anar)
This soup is made with anar (pomegranate) juice and seeds, yellow split peas, mint leaves, spices and other ingredients. Chunks of meat may be included.
15. Yogurt Soup (Ash-e Doogh)
This soup is made with doogh (yogurt) that originated in the Azeri region of northwest Iran. It can be vegetarian, made with different herbs (coriander, leek, tarragon, mint and parsley), vegetables (chickpeas, spinace, onion and garlic), eggs, rice and extra salt. Lamb meatballs may be added. The soup is topped with fried mint and oil (and sometimes garlic).
16. Rose Sorbet (Faloodeh)
This summer dessert from Shiraz is thought to be nearly 2500 years old, this was one of the earliest sorbets ever conceived in the world. The base is frozen sugar syrup which has been infused with rose water and mixed in with thin vermicelli noodles. In modern day Iran, it is often drizzled with fresh lime juice, chopped pistachios or sweet cherry syrup.
17. Persian Funnel Cakes (Zulbia/Jalebi)
This sweet dessert is also found across the Middle East and India these days. It consists of creating a batter created by mixing flour with yogurt or ghee, adding baking soda or yeast, and then frying in sizzling oil. Piping hot zulbia is a sweet treat to be treasured and remembered.
18. Persian Cookies (Qottab)
This pastry is a party favorite at Iranian gatherings, including parties and many outdoor celebrations on special occasions. The outer shell is made of flour, the stuffing inside has walnuts, almonds and cardamom. After frying in vegetable oil, the pastry is usually served sprinkled with powdered sugar.
19. Minced Date Cookie (Kolompeh)
This pie from Kerman is made with minced dates, wheat flour, cardamom powder, walnuts and cooking oil. Pistachios or sesame powder are often used to decorate the surface.
20. Persian Mutton Curry (Dhansak)
A gift from the Parsi diaspora in India, this popular western Indian dish was created by the community who migrated there some 1200 years back. The main dish consists of a mixture of lentils and vegetables, with chunks of mutton or goat meat simmered and cooked in it. It is traditionally served with “brown rice”, which is actually white rice prepared with caramelized onions and various spices.
There are variations of many of the dishes outlined above. But enjoying them in their original forms is something that will allow you to savor the essences of Iranian cuisine.
Conclusion … Iranian Food is Everywhere!
It’s impossible for practically anyone to have not tasted Iranian food. If you’ve ever had a kebap, baklava, or certain Indian dishes then you’ve had Iranian food. Many of the foods listed above will be familiar to aficionados but a few could be new ideas for what to order when you visit your favorite Persian restaurant the next time. Try them out, it’s hard to go wrong with Persian food!