Iranian Culture 101: Persian Cuisine (main dishes)

A visit to Iran yields a stunning variety of culinary delights. Between the familiar kebab and the decidedly outré grilled lamb’s testicles, there’s a vast spectrum of foods: caviar, pickle, and smoked fish in the north; samosas, falafel and hot and sour shrimp in the south; noodles, flatbread and rosewater-scented ice cream across the country.

Take a look at Iran’s place on the map and it’s easy to understand why the scope of native foods is so wide. Once the center of the Persian Empire, Iran neighbors the former Soviet Union countries, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab states and Turkey. Although Iran is part of the Middle East, it has close ties to Europe, the Far East and Africa, owing to its central place on the Silk Road trade route.

What’s more, the ancient warrior-king of Greece, Alexander the Great, conquered the Persian Empire back in the 4th century, and later it was invaded by Arabs, Turks, Mongols and Uzbeks. While Iranians already had a well-developed food identity before these invasions, they assimilated what the outsiders brought in. Think Russian-style borscht with cumin and cilantro and Chinese noodles in a soup of beans, herbs and sour fermented whey.

Many coveted ingredients are native to Iran, including pistachios, almonds, walnuts, saffron, mint, oranges, pomegranates and grapes. Iran has a variable climate with four distinct seasons, and unlike other parts of the Middle East, where the dry terrain limited what food could be grown, the ancient Persians transformed vast stretches of arid land into fertile oases via underground aquifers that drew melted snow water into the desert. A bright, sensuous, fruit-and-herb filled cuisine was born. Here is Iran Unveiled’s guide to Persian Cuisine. Noosh-e jan! (That’s Farsi for bon appétit)

1) Fesenjan (Pomegranate Walnut Stew)

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Akh joon fesenjoon!

This iconic stew, an essential part of every Persian wedding menu, pairs tart pomegranate with chicken or duck. Ground walnuts, pomegranate paste and onions are slowly simmered to make a thick sauce. Sometimes saffron and cinnamon are added, and maybe a pinch of sugar to balance the acid. Fesenjan has a long pedigree. At the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient ritual capital of the Persian Empire, archaeologists found inscribed stone tablets from as far back as 515 B.C., which listed pantry staples of the early Iranians. They included walnuts, poultry and pomegranate preserves, the key ingredients in fesenjan. Recipe

2) Bademjan (Tomato and Eggplant Stew)

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This stew has the shimmering red-gold color of tomatoes cooked with turmeric, with a sheen of oil on top, a prized characteristic in Persian cooking that shows a stew has been cooked long enough for the oils to rise up. Slightly tart, with the tang of tomatoes, lemon juice, and sometimes the juice of unripe grapes, its tanginess is kept in check by the eggplant, which is first fried on its own until golden-brown, then cooked with onions, lamb and the tomatoes and seasoning. Like all Persian stews, bademjan is thick and meant to be eaten over rice with a fork. Recipe

3) Baghali Polo (Rice with Dill and Fava Beans)

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In Iranian cooking, rice can be prepared simply with butter and saffron, known aschelo. But just as often, it’s cooked with other ingredients and called polo. Polo can be made with herbs, vegetables, beans, nuts, dried fruit, meat and even noodles, and acts as the centerpiece of the meal. This polo is particularly good in the spring, when fava beans are young and tender and dill is in season. The dish is flecked with green dill and favas, and is often cooked with very tender chunks of lamb. Alternately, it may be served alongside lamb on the bone. The rice should have a mild saffron flavor, with the saffron mixed into the rice just before serving. Recipe

 

4) Zereshk Polo (Barberry Rice)

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Iranians love sour flavors. Like cranberries, barberries have a vibrant red color, but they’re even more sour. This classic rice dish is studded with the red berries, which are dried and then rehydrated before cooking. The rice is cooked with plenty of butter, which helps to soften the intensity of the berries. Quince, rhubarb, green plums, sour oranges, lemons, limes, dried limes, sour cherries, tamarind, sumac and pomegranate are all used in Persian cooking to make food more tart. Recipe

 

5) Ghormeh Sabzi (Green Herb Stew)

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The ultimate Persian comfort food!

Made from herbs, kidney beans and lamb, deep green gormeh sabzi satisfies two Persian flavor obsessions: it’s sour and full of herbs. The stew is seasoned with dried limes, limoo omani in Farsi. These limes are extra intense and sour, with a bittersweet taste that gives the stew a unique flavor. The other constant in gormeh sabzi is fenugreek leaves, a taste unfamiliar to most westerners. Other herbs include parsley, coriander and scallions. Recipe

6) Ashe-e-Reshteh (Bean and Noodle Soupe)

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A richly textured soup full of noodles, beans, herbs and leafy greens like spinach and beet leaves. It’s topped with mint oil, crunchy fried onions and sour kashk, a fermented whey product eaten in the Middle East that tastes akin to sour yogurt. The noodles, which made their way to Iran from China, are thought to represent the many paths of life, and this soup is traditionally served when someone sets off on a long journey. Because of its auspicious ingredients, it’s also part of the menu for Norooz, the Persian new year, which occurs at the spring equinox in March. Recipe

 

7) Tahchin (Upside Down Layered Saffron Rice & Chicken)

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This is a divine dish of  layered saffron rice and cooked chicken breasts bound together by seasoned yogurt and egg yolk mixture. Iranians love their rice and love to layer it with different types of vegetables and meat. However, the most tasty and desired part of this dish is the burnt bottom layer of the rice (tah-dig). Recipe

 

8) Jeweled Rice (Rice with Dried Fruit and Nuts)

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Dotted with brightly colored dried fruit and nuts, like little jewels, this is a sweet-and-savory dish that shows off some of the native ingredients of Iran, including pistachios, almonds, candied orange peel, barberries, carrots and saffron. It’s cooked with a little sugar to balance the sourness of the barberries. Jeweled rice is served for special occasions, particularly at weddings, because the sweet elements symbolize a sweet life. It’s traditionally served with chicken, which contrasts nicely with the sweetness. Recipe

 

9) Kebab (Lamb, Chicken, Lamb Liver, Ground Meat)

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Kebabs have more variety than you might think. First, there’s koobideh, ground meat seasoned with minced onion, salt and pepper. It sounds simple, but the taste is sublime. There is kebab-e barg, thinly sliced lamb or beef, flavored with lemon juice and onion and basted with saffron and butter. Chicken kebab, known as joojeh, is traditionally made from a whole chicken, bones and all, for more flavor (although in American restaurants it’s often made from skinless chicken breast), marinated in lemon and onion, and basted with saffron and butter. If you’re lucky, you’ll find jigar, lamb liver kebab, garnished with fresh basil leaves and a wedge of lemon. Recipe

10) Dizi/Abgoosht (Lamb Chickpea Soupe)

Dizi, a popular highlight of Persian cuisine, is traditionally cooked in a small stone crock pot or a metal cooking pot. The history of abgoosht goes back hundreds of years ago when it was only made with lamb and chickpeas. However, with the introduction of the new world foods into Iranian cookery and the addition of new ingredients such as potatoes and tomatoes, this modest meat and chickpea soup became a more substantial and tastier meal. Preparing food in a clay/stone cookware is one of the ancient methods of cooking where the clay pot is placed over an indirect heat or slow fire for several hours until all ingredients are fully cooked. Dizi is one of the foods that’s usually bought from a dizi specialty store due to its long cooking process and the need for a very hot stove. In today’s modern kitchens, the clay pot is mostly used as a serving dish rather than cookware. This slow-cooked, simple and down-to-earth meal, which is also known as abgousht/abgoosht, satisfies the hunger, nourishes the body and leaves one feeling gratified. Recipe

11) Koresh-e Karafs (Celery Stew)

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Khoresh Karafs is another healthy and delicious Iranian dish. It’s a combination of meat, evenly sliced celery, finely chopped parsley, a little bit of mint (preferably fresh), fresh squeezed lime juice and the right amount of seasoning. In my opinion, what makes Iranian food tasty, especially for most of the casseroles and stews, is the slow cooking process and the taking time to let the food simmer in order to bring out the flavors. Recipe

12) Khoresh-e Gheyme (Lamb, Split Pea and Dried Lime Stew)

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Khoresht gheymeh is a delicious Persian stew made of diced meat, yellow split peas, saffron, tomato paste and sun dried lime. The stew is garnished with fries and served on a bed of fragrant basmati rice. The sun dried lime, called limoo amani in Farsi, gives this dish its distinct citrusy and earthy flavor that is so authentic of Persian food. Recipe

13) Lubia Polo (Green Bean Rice)

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Lubia Polo or Lubia Polow (Persian Green Bean Rice) is one of the popular Iranian dishes. Lubia Polo is a delicious combination of rice, green beans, tomato sauce and spices mixed together with ground meat, and is usually served with plain yogurt or salad. Recipe

14) Kofteh Trabrizi (Persian Meatball)

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It seems that meatball is an international food, and Iranian kitchens have their own version of this round looking food which is prepared differently in various parts of the country. The famous one is Koofteh Tabrizi, which as the name says, it originated in city of Tabriz, northwest of Iran. It is a hearty, savory meatball with boiled egg, dried apricots, barberries, prunes, walnuts, and herbs in the center. Recipe

Videos on Persian Cuisine to check out:

*Special thanks to Tumeric and Saffron for information, pictures, and recipes

 

 

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