Iranian Culture (Part IX)
Persian cuisine is ancient, varied and cosmopolitan. Eating habits and products from ancient Greece, Rome and many Asian and Mediterranean cultures have influenced and are affected by this unique cuisine.
The cuisine of Iran is diverse; each province has its own dishes as well as its culinary styles and traditions, distinct according to their regions.
This includes a wide variety of dishes such as chelow kabab (rice pilaf with meat skewers), chelow khoresht (white rice served with stew) like ghormeh sabzi, gheimeh, and others, aash (a kind of thick soup) koukou (a kind of pie with vegetables and / or meat), polow (rice cooked with meat and / or vegetables and herbs, including loobia polow (rice with green beans), albaloo polow (rice with sour cherries), addasse polow (lentil rice and raisins), baghala (baghali) polow (rice with beans and dill served with meat or chicken), zereshk polow (saffron rice with berries) sweet goji, often served with chicken).
koufteh (various meatballs with herbs) and a wide variety of condiments (torshi), salads, pastries and drinks specific to different regions of Iran. The list of Iranian recipes, appetizers and desserts, is extensive.
Herbs are used extensively, as are fruits such as plums, pomegranates, grapes, quinces or others. Most dishes are a combination of Iranian-cooked rice with meat, chicken, lamb or fish and lots of garlic, onion, vegetables, nuts and herbs. Spices such as saffron, dried limes, cinnamon and parsley are delicately mixed and used in special dishes.
The traditional Iranian table
The traditional Iranian table setting involves first the tablecloth, called sofreh, which is laid out on the floor on a Persian rug or table. The main dishes are concentrated in the center, surrounded by smaller dishes containing appetizers, condiments (torshi), accompaniments and bread (naan), all of which are brought close to the guests. These last dishes are called mokhalafat (accompaniments). When the food has been brought, all the guests sitting around the sofreh are invited to serve.
Some accompaniments are essential for every Iranian at lunch (nahaar) and dinner (shaam) regardless of the region. These include, first of all, a dish of fresh herbs, called sabzi (basil, coriander, tarragon, parsley ...), various flat breads called nan or noon (sangak, lavash, barbari), cheese similar to feta, cucumbers, onions and tomatoes peeled and sliced, yoghurt and lemon juice. Pickles (khiyarshur for pickles, torshi for other mixtures) are also considered essential in most regions. Torshi is a specialty of fresh vegetables cut into thin pieces, seasoned and preserved in vinegar.
Tea (chai) is served at breakfast and immediately before and after each meal at lunch and dinner but also throughout the day. The traditional methods of preparing and tasting tea differ from region to region and from people.
There are four main types of Iranian unleavened bread:
• Nan-e barbari: thick and oval-shaped.
• Nan-e lavash: thin, crisp and round or oval, it is also the oldest bread known in the Middle East and Central Asia.
• Nan-e sangak: bread of oval shape cooked on small stones (blood meaning "stone" in Persian).
• Nan-e taftoon: thin, supple and round.
Other kinds of bread include:
• Nan-e shirmal: done just like the barbari, except that milk is used instead of water, a little sugar is added and is eaten at breakfast or with tea.
• Nan-e gisu: a sweet bread of Armenian origin, also eaten in the morning or with tea during the day.
Kateh is the traditional dish of the Gilan, and is a simple Iranian rice cooked with water, butter and salt until the water is completely absorbed. This method gives a rice in block form and is the dominant style of rice preparation in the Caspian Sea region. In Gilan, Golestan and Mazandaran, kateh is also eaten at breakfast, either with milk and jam, or cold with Iranian cheese (panir) and garlic. Kateh is not commonly used in other parts of Iran, but it is commonly used as a remedy for those who have caught cold or who are suffering from the flu, but also for those who suffer from ulcers.
The variety of rice originating from Gilan, Mazandaran and Golestan, where it has been cultivated since the 4th century BC. AD, is considered the best kind of rice in Iran.
The typical dishes of the Gilan are often based on molasses of pomegranate which gives them a sweet-sour taste.
One of these specialties is zeytoun parvardeh (olives filled with pomegranate molasses, garlic and crushed nuts and herbs). It is served as an aperitif or accompaniment.
Tahchin is a special way to prepare rice, originally in the Azeris. In this case, the dish is prepared in the oven with a mixture of yogurt and spices. This dish was taken over by all Iranians. Koufteh tabrizi is a traditional Azeri dish. It is in the form of a large sphere of minced meat filled with spices and fine herbs; it includes a hard-boiled egg in the middle and other added elements, such as plums.
Varieties of kabab
Kabab barg: skewer of lamb fillet.
Kabab koobideh: skewers of minced meat.
Chichlik: lamb chops skewers.
Joujeh kabab: chicken skewers marinated in saffron and lemon juice.
These dishes are festive dishes that are not eaten by all layers of the population, nor for all occasions:
• Tahchin is a Azerbaijani dish most commonly composed of chicken (or other meats) and spices, the consistency of which is made unique by adding yoghurt and optional sprinkling of tiny red blood berries called zereshk the bays of the barberry rarely seen in the West). The dish is baked and gives an impression of great golden cake.
• Albalou polow is a dish made of rice, chicken and morello cherries. These are the latter which give a pale pink color to the rice and a sweet taste because their juice is very colorful.
• Fessen joun or Fessenjan is a stew of poultry, nuts and pomegranate juice.
• Shirin polo is a rice dish which has a sweet taste. The rice is decorated with carrots, zest of oranges, raisins, almonds and spices.
Fast food, imported and adapted food
Popular dishes to eat quickly in Iran include chelow kabab (literally "rice and kabab"), joojeh kabab (the same with grilled chicken), nan-e kabab (literally "bread and kabab"), sandwiches kabab and some other dishes derived from slow cooked dishes. A growing preference among the younger generation for American-style cuisine has led to the establishment of many pizza, steak, hamburger and fried chicken restaurants, but western food is sometimes served with accompaniments such as those described above, and is often prepared differently (the difference is more noticeable for pizza). Chinese and Japanese cuisines have also become popular in recent years, mainly in Tehran. Indian, Italian and Mediterranean restaurants can also be found.
The basic traditional Iranian breakfast consists of a variety of flat bread (noon-e sangak, lavash and others), butter, cheese (panir), sometimes with thick sarshir cream (often slightly sweetened) and several fruit jams . However, other popular traditional breakfasts (which require much more preparation) include haleem (a wheat-based dish with small pieces of sheep), asheh mohshalah (a thick soup), kaleh pacheh (a soup of the head and sheep's feet) or other dishes. These last breakfasts are regional specialties, and many cities in Iran have their own version of these dishes. The asheh mohshalah and haleem are prepared the night before to be served the following morning, and the haleem is usually served only at certain times of the year (the restaurants of which it is the specialty are only open at these times) , except in southern Iran, where haleem is still present. The kaleh pacheh is served from 3 o'clock in the morning until shortly after sunrise, and the specialty restaurants (serving only that dish) are only open at those hours.
Lunch and dinner (nahar va sham)
Traditional Persian cuisine is done in stages and requires hours of preparation and attention. The result is a balanced blend of herbs, meat, vegetables, dairy products and grains. The accompaniments in Iranian cuisine that are traditionally eaten at each meal include rice, several herbs (mint, basil, chives, parsley), panir (feta type cheese made from sheep's milk or cow's milk), various kinds of flat breads and meat (often beef, lamb, sheep or fish). A stew and rice are by far the most popular dish, and the constitution of this dish varies according to the region. Tea (chai) is the drink of choice for virtually any occasion, and is usually served with fruit, pastries or candy.
Tea can be found at any time of the day in all Iranian homes. Doogh, a yoghurt drink is also very popular. One of the oldest unique recipes in the world is khoresht-e-fesenjan, a meat stew in a rich nut-and-pomegranate sauce that gives a special brown color, usually served with white rice.
Persian Cuisine in the West
One reason why Iranian cuisine is not widely known in the West is that is often confused with Middle Eastern cuisine, a much wider and general term, and this confusion is perpetuated by restaurants and markets providing of the authentic Iranian cuisine that are presented in this way. Many Iranian restaurants and grocery stores are labeled Middle Eastern, international or Mediterranean in order to increase their European clientele. In reality, Iranian cuisine is one of the richest and oldest cuisines in the world, and differs greatly from what can be found throughout the Middle East. Although little known, Iranian cuisine is gaining popularity in large multi-cultural cities, such as Los Angeles or London, which have a large Iranian population.
The traditional drink to accompany Iranian dishes is called doogh. However, many brands of local soda like Zam Zam Cola or its competitor Parsi Cola are widely consumed during meals. Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola both have factories with a production and bottling license in Mashhad, their products not subject to US sanctions against Iran.
The other drinks of interest are several kinds of sharbat and khak shir.
For dessert, there is a wide variety of choices, from Persian to Faludeh.
Most Iranian desserts are fragrant with rose water and garnished with pistachios, almonds or walnuts.
Traditional Persian ice cream is fragrant with saffron and rose water.
Sholeh zard is a typically Iranian dessert based on saffron rice, rose water and cinnamon.
Ferni is also a dessert made with rice flour, milk and rose water.
Vegetarianism in Iran
The concept of vegetarianism is not common in Iran, although many vegetarian dishes exist and a growing interest has existed on this subject since the 1960s, especially among young people. The most popular vegetarian dishes are:
• Kashk-e baademjan
• Kookoo-e baademjan
• Kookoo-e gol-e kalam
• Kookoo-e sabzi who usually accompanies Sabzi-polo ba Mahi
• Mirza ghasemi
• Naaz khatoon
• Nargesi esfenaaj
• Borani esfenaaj