Cuisine, in terms of both the preparation of food and the social aspects of
dining, is an essential part of any culture; indeed, some fundamental aspects
of a culture may be more readily apparent in its culinary arts than in other
traditions. Certainly, many observations that might be made about food in
Iran reinforce those that can be deduced from other facets of its culture.
There is a mainstream culinary tradition primarily associated with the urban,
Persian-speaking population that can be taken (as it will be in this chapter) as
essentially the common national cuisine, but the country also has a very rich
array of local, regional, and ethnic dishes.
Persian cooking has many features in common with Indian, central Asian,
Turkish, and Middle Eastern cuisines, yet it has its own particular characteristics
and is unmistakably different from any of its counterparts. For instance,
while many ingredients of Iranian and Indian food are similar, Indian food
is spicier and uses pepper very generously. Likewise, many of the ingredients
used in Persian cooking would be familiar to Americans, but Americans
would be surprised at the unique ways the ingredients are used and the fl avors
they produce. A good Persian cook has an almost miraculous ability to turn
simple ingredients into dishes of great subtlety and beauty. This Persian style
of cooking is sophisticated and refi ned enough to hold its own with any of
the world’s other great cuisines, but it is relatively little known and appreciated
outside the region. However, that is changing as the recent emigration
of Iranians and their settlement in other countries, especially Europe and the
United States, has resulted in the appearance of Persian restaurants in major
150 Culture and Customs of Iran
cities like Paris, London, New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco,
and Los Angeles.
Food and dining has a public face in Iran, but its fullest development and
greatest glories are to be found in the private setting of the home, among relatives
and friends. Especially in social gatherings, the variety and abundance of
foods, as well as the conviviality and generosity of the host, are remarkable.
Sharing food is an important mechanism of socialization and social bonding.
A traditional proverb states that a way to win someone’s favor is to share your
food with them: namakgir kardan , which means “having someone to have a
taste of the salt in your food” (i.e., to become bound by hospitality). Food is
not an end itself but a means of family solidarity and social exchange, especially
in the traditional world of the past when families were extended and
eating was a communal affair within the extended family.
The culinary tradition in Iran has certainly been affected by the infl uence
of modernity and Western customs, be it in the way of New World ingredients
like tomatoes or potatoes, eating habits, or the appearance of fast-food
shops. Indeed, the fastest growing restaurant type in Iran today would probably
be pizza shops with delivery service. Yet on the whole, Iranian dining has
proved remarkably resilient in preserving its essential character and distinct
identity. Even pizza produced in Iran is not exactly the same as that found
in the United States or Europe. Both the sauce and cheese used are closer to
Persian fl avors than American or Italian ones.
In general, culinary practices in Iran have been affected by several important
cultural factors. The most obvious, of course, are the requirements of
Islamic dietary law since the vast majority of the population are Muslims:
meat should come from animals that have been ritually slaughtered; pork
and certain other foods are forbidden; and wine or other alcoholic beverages,
though certainly used by some people at various times, are illegal under
Islamic law and have been strictly prohibited since the establishment of the
Islamic Republic. Prior to the 1979 revolution, alcoholic drinks and pork
meat in the form of ham and hot dogs were available in modernized sectors of
major cities, even though these foods were avoided by the majority of people.
Secularized Iranians, especially educated ones, are not much concerned about
religious dietary restrictions.
There is also a kind of basic philosophy to Iranian cooking that has its
sources in ancient Zoroastrian tradition and concepts perhaps derived ultimately
from Galenic medical theory. Foods are regarded as being either “hot”
( garmi ) or “cold” ( sardi ) in their nature and in the effects they have on the
consumer, inducing either excitement or lethargy, for example. For instance,
while yogurt is regard as a cold item, red meat is classifi ed as hot. Individual
dishes and meals as a whole seek to balance these two qualities; spices are used
Food and Dining 151
in moderation, and ingredients often emphasize contrasting fl avors like sweet
and sour. Of course, the younger generation, educated in modern sciences,
tends to be neither familiar with these traditional concepts nor to fi nd them
particularly relevant when it comes to modern food items like pizza.
Wheat and rice are the two main cereal crops grown for human consumption
in Iran, and one or both of these provide the staples found at virtually
every Iranian meal. In earlier times, the national diet tended to be divided
between areas where wheat or rice was produced and eaten exclusively, but
today both products are grown and used throughout the country.
Grain crops such as wheat or barley are well suited for cultivation in the
arable areas of the Iranian plateau and have been grown there since ancient
times. Some, such as barley, are used mostly to feed livestock, but wheat is of
course produced to make the variety of breads that form an important part
of the daily diet. In towns and cities, it is customary to buy bread freshly
made from one of the many neighborhood artisanal bakeries. That is why
bakeries cook their bread three times a day: in the early morning, at noon,
and in the evening. Scenes of crowded bakeries during these times are very
common, not only in Iran, but all over the Middle East. Since most people
come to purchase bread at the same time, bakeries have long lines at rush
hours, and families prefer to send a male member, especially a teenager, to
buy bread. Although mass-produced breads like those now found in Europe
or the United States are not appealing to Iranian tastes, the fast pace and
stretched nature of social life in big cities like Tehran are forcing some families
to adjust to products of a number of Westernized bakeries.
Bread in general is known as nân, but there are several distinct varieties
of bread produced at the bakeries. Two of the most common are tâftun and
lavâsh; they are both baked in very thin, fl at sheets pressed against the wall
of the oven and differ primarily in the type of wheat (whole wheat or white)
used to make them. Lavâsh bread offered in bakeries is usually soft. In rural
areas, many families bake their own bread on a weekly basis and produce a
hard lavâsh, which is softened at the time of use by sprinkling a little water on
it. Another popular fl at bread is sangak, which gets its name from the process
of baking it on a bed of heated pebbles instead of the wall of the oven, which
gives the bread a very crisp and irregularly surfaced texture. Finally, barbari
is a special type of leavened bread that seems to have been introduced to Iran
fairly recently and under the infl uence of European-style bread. It comes in
a long, relatively narrow loaf about half an inch thick and 2- to 3-feet long
and 8- to 12-inches wide. It is often slightly perforated before baking to give
152 Culture and Customs of Iran
it added crispness and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It needs to be eaten soon
after baking as it does not keep well and is often used as a breakfast bread.
Each of these breads has its own typical shape: tâftun is round, sangak is oval
in shape, barbari and lavâsh are rectangular. Religiously speaking, bread is
treated with respect, and Muslims are taught to avoid dropping bread under
the feet or dumping it in a disrespectful place. Unused bread is often used as
a feed for birds.
The types and quantity of bread found at Iranian meals can to some
extent be understood as an artifact of traditional dining habits. In earlier
times, the custom was to eat sitting on the fl oor. A large cloth, called sofreh,
would be spread out, and the bowls and platters containing the various
dishes put on it. In the older times, there really weren’t any individual
plates or cutlery. Instead, the sheets of thin, fl at bread served both as plates
and eating utensils for holding or scooping up morsels of food. (The art and
etiquette of dining in this fashion is frequently described in books by early
Western travelers to Iran.) More recently, under the infl uence of European
habits, the use of chairs, tables, forks, spoons, and so forth has become
more common, especially in urban areas. In rural areas, villages, and among
the lower social classes, it is still not unusual to fi nd the traditional practices
It might be thought surprising that rice would be a major crop in a country
as arid as Iran, but certain areas, especially the relatively warm and humid
shores of the Caspian, can support rice production. It is not known exactly
when or how rice came to Iran, but it was almost certainly fi rst grown in the
Caspian region, and then its production and use spread to other parts of the
country. In the plateau areas, rice was a fairly expensive food used mostly for
luxury dishes at court and among the wealthy as late as the Safavid period.
As production and transportation improved, it became an important element
of the ordinary diet throughout the country, so much so in fact that the
demand for rice has far outstripped the production capacity and necessitated
its import. Long-grain rice is now used in a great variety of ways, from main
dishes to breads and puddings and even as a breakfast food in some regions.
Well-to-do families like to use an aromatic variety known as bâsmati rice,
which is more expensive.
The simplest type of rice dish is known as kateh. The rice is washed and
cooked until the water (slightly less than twice the volume of the rice) is
absorbed. A good deal of butter is then added on top of the rice, which is
covered and kept over low heat until done. The result is a fairly sticky kind
of rice cake, which can be further compressed and molded if desired. Kateh is
used mostly for a quick or a casual meal at home; it would never be served to
a guest, because it lacks delicacy.
Food and Dining 153
When cooked mixed with other ingredients such as meat or vegetables as
a main dish, the rice is called a polow. Such polow s include those made with
lentils ( adas-polow ), fava beans ( bâqela-polow ), sour cherries ( âlbâlu-polow ),
barberries ( zereshk-polow ), or orange peel ( shirin-polow ), as well as many
Rice cooked as an accompaniment to another dish such as a stew or grilled
meat is called chelow. The preparation of a chelow, however, is not a casual
matter and actually requires a good deal of time and effort. The rice has to be
washed and sometimes soaked overnight and then partially cooked in boiling
water. It is then drained and rinsed before being returned to a pot with
clarifi ed butter and water to be steamed. The rice is heaped in a cone-shaped
mound in the pot, which is covered with a special fabric top to prevent the
steam from condensing and dripping back down on the rice, and kept warm
until time for serving. This process gives the rice a wonderful taste and fl uffy
texture that is not at all sticky. It also creates a crunchy, buttery layer of rice at
the bottom of the pot (called tahdig ) that can be served alongside, or broken
up over, the rice and is regarded as a choice delicacy. Before serving, some rice
is colored and fl avored with saffron and sprinkled on the top of the dish. This
gives a beautiful look to the dish and adds a delicious taste to the rice.
A chelow served with grilled meat is known as chelow-kabâb. This is virtually
the national dish of Iran and is a mainstay of restaurants all over the country.
The meat may be a special type of lamb fi llet ( barg ) or ground meat ( kubideh ).
It is usually served with grilled tomatoes; butter, an egg yolk, red onion, and
sumac can be mixed into the chelow according to one’s taste. A stack of fl at
bread and a plate of fresh herbs ( sabzi ) round out this tasty, nutritious—and
very fi lling—meal. Fresh herbs are used regularly and may serve the same
function as a salad.
Chelow served with a stew is known as a chelow-khoresh. Almost all the
stews, like the grilled meats, are based on either lamb or poultry (beef is not
a common ingredient in Iranian cooking; fi sh may be used in some regions).
The most highly regarded khoresh is undoubtedly fesenjân, chicken or duck
cooked in a sauce of pomegranate and ground walnuts. A good fesenjân is
considered the hallmark of an accomplished Iranian cook. It is but one,
however, of a great variety of stews that showcase the many ingredients and
considerable ingenuity in Iranian cooking: different stews feature vegetables
( qormeh sabzi ), green beans ( lubiâ ), okra ( bâmyeh ), peaches ( hulu ), quince
( beh ), eggplant ( bâdemjân ), spinach and prunes ( esfenâj o âlu ), split peas
( qaymeh ), or other ingredients.
A full Iranian dinner, especially on a social occasion, might include not
only chelow, a number of different stews, and a copious amount of bread,
but also an assortment of appetizers, soups, salads, side dishes, and desserts.
154 Culture and Customs of Iran
Only a sampling of these can be mentioned here. Typical appetizers include
mast o khiâr (a mixture of yogurt and grated cucumber), mâst o mosir (a
mixture of yogurt and minced shallot), and varieties of pickles ( torshi ),
mostly prepared with vinegar and unlike the salty ones found in the West.
A popular side dish might be kuku, a thick, spongy kind of souffl é (there are
numerous varieties made with ingredients such as spinach, eggplant, peas,
potatoes, herbs, or meat). Special cookies, puddings, candies, or cakes might
be offered for dessert, but the fi nest desserts may well be the fresh fruits
for which Iran is famous, especially the indescribably sweet and succulent
Snack foods constitute another rather important element of Iranian cuisine.
These are typically called âjil (a mix of nuts and dried fruits). Iranians
love to snack, so they munch on âjil not only before and after meals but also
throughout the day, such as when out for a stroll. Ingredients of âjil may
vary according to occasions, like âjil-e Chahârshanbeh suri , used during the
celebration of the last Wednesday of the calendar year; âjil-e shab-e yaldâ ,
consumed on the longest night of the year; and âjil-e moshkel-goshâ , literally
meaning “problem-solving mixed nuts and dry fruits” consumed during the
New Year holidays in the hope of unraveling one’s problems. Some of the
more popular elements of âjil include pistachios, abundantly produced in
Iran and known as one of the most important Iranian exports; roasted chickpeas
( nokhod ); and roasted seeds of pumpkins, melons, or sunfl owers. Breaking
the shell and retrieving the kernel of the seeds by teeth is an art Iranians
demonstrate during their pastimes.
Soups ( âsh ) are a fundamental part of Iranian cuisine (in fact, the generic
term for cooking, âshpazi, literally means “soup making”). Like stews, soups
come in a number of varieties, each named for its main ingredient (beans,
barley, yogurt, etc.). One of the most common soups is âsh-reshteh, made
of vegetables, kidney beans, and thinly made fl at noodles. Another widely
used soup, which might also be regarded as a kind of stew, is âb-gusht (“meat
broth”). Like many Iranian dishes, it is not prepared according to a fi xed
recipe so much as designed to take advantage of ingredients that are in season
and readily available and to use them as economically as possible. The
meat broth is prepared and then cooked with beans (typically garbanzo
beans) and various other vegetables, herbs, or fruits. After preparation, the
solid ingredients are typically strained out and mashed to a puree; the broth
and puree are served separately along with fl at bread. Âb-gusht may also be
prepared and served in an individual pot, in which case it is customary to
toss in some pieces of bread and mash it all to a pulp with a pestle. For poor
and working class Iranians, âb-gusht is a mainstay of the daily diet. It is also a
popular dish with more affl uent classes on outings or picnics; for example, shops
Food and Dining 155
specializing in the dish can be found along hiking trails in the mountains
north of Tehran.
As for beverages, tea can be regarded as the national drink of Iran. It is
served hot and plain, usually in small, clear glasses. The traditional custom is
to sip the tea through a hard lump of sugar ( qand , or sugar cube) held in the
front teeth. Many people now use samovars to keep a pot of brewed tea and
hot water to mix with it before serving. Other traditional drinks are made
from fruit juices, either freshly squeezed ( afshoreh ) or from prepared syrups
( sharbat ), and served with ice; dugh is a drink made from yogurt, mint, and
either still or sparkling water. Dugh is often served with food. In recent years,
of course, bottled sodas and similar drinks have also become common.