Traditional Table: A Persian Food Primer
Although many groups make up the rich and varied tapestry of cultures that is Iran, Persian food is considered the country’s dominant cuisine. Because of Iran’s history and its proximity to the Silk Road, a trade route that ran through the heart of the region, Persian food is heavily influenced by Middle Eastern, Turkish, Russian, and Mediterranean staples. Sit at an Iranian table, and you’ll find yogurt and kabobs, but also stews and tea that hail from the east and dried fruits and nuts that are a hallmark of Greek cuisine. The languages spoken in Iran are equally eclectic. The majority of Iranians speak Persian, otherwise known as Farsi, but both Azerbaijanian and Arabic maintain a strong presence in the region.
Pistachios, saffron, and pomegranates are native to Iran and are a cornerstone of Persian food, flavoring everything from rice dishes to desserts. While Iranians don’t eat a great deal of red meat, lamb and chicken are often on the menu but balanced by other flavors. Persians believe that foods are hot or cold and meals should be carefully constructed to aid in digestion and overall health. This is why yogurt, which is purported to be a cold food, is found on every Iranian table. It’s said to balance out the richness of other hot elements of the meal, like fatty meats or warm spices, such as turmeric, and cool the palate.
Kabobs are probably the most easily recognizable Iranian food, likely because they are the national dish of Iran and Persians are rumored to have invented them. Persian nomads and shepherds needed a way to carry protein long distances in the desert, and cooking chunks of meat quickly was an easy way to transport things like duck and lamb. Kabobs are one of the only kinds of Persian food available everywhere, including cities with well-established Iranian immigrant populations like Los Angeles. But Persian food embraces a variety of other dishes that are definitely worth incorporating into your recipe repertoire.
If you were to take a seat at a Persian table in Iran, these are the kinds of foods that might greet you.
- Persian tea (usually a blend of ceylon and Earl Grey or bergamot, made in a Russian samovar)
- Rice dishes (chelo or tahdig which is crunchy, bottom of the pot rice)
- Stewed meats or vegetables (Dishes like ghormeh sabzi-stewed spinach or Fesenjoon- meat stewed in pomegranate with walnuts)
- Yogurt and yogurt-based drinks (doogh)
- Dried fruits and nuts (pistachios and figs are common)
- Baked goods (usually cookies featuring saffron, rosewater, pistachios, and sesame seeds)
As with most regions of the world, Persian food can vary widely depending on what area of Iran you’re exploring. On the gulf, fish replaces much of the meat while to the north, warmer stews are often on the menu. For Persians, the geography of their country and the demands of a harsh climate inspire culinary creativity.
Iran & the geography that creates Persian food
Farah Poursaid, who immigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago, knows a thing or two about Persian cuisine. She grew up in Tehran but came to America during the Iranian revolution in 1979, where she joined her husband who had attended college in the states.
“The revolution happened and my husband felt that he just could not handle those people. Either you have to go to jail, or get executed, or leave. And so he left and came back. Our families knew each other.”
She worked to get a green card and within a year and a half, along with her husband who was sponsored by the university he attended, Farah became a United States citizen. She has raised her family in America but retains a craving for the Persian cuisine of her homeland.
Tehran is a very cosmopolitan metropolis and while most kinds of food are available that you would find in every city, getting to the heart of traditional Persian cuisine takes a little more effort. Farah’s mother is from Iraq but as a wealthy family, they had household staff growing up, and she didn’t cook much.
“I was around though. I watched. I knew the taste. When I came to America and got married, I went into the kitchen and started crying. I did not know what to do. So I had a cookbook with me and I would try to follow the recipe but it’s not that easy when you don’t know what you are doing.”
Eventually, her cooking improved and Farah is now admired among her friends and neighbors as a fantastic hostess. She still travels to Iran to visit her family, bringing spices and other Persian ingredients home from her yearly pilgrimage. She admits it’s been more difficult since the sanctions were enacted to bring the flavors of her homeland back to her stateside kitchen. Instead, she often brings Iranian staples from California, where they are more commonly available.
Farah believes the geography of Iran and the challenges of the region have played a considerable role in shaping the cuisine. People from the north by the Caspian Sea or those in the south that live clustered by the Persian Gulf have lots of fish in their diet. However further inland in the countryside of Iran, there isn’t much fish because, for a long time, a lack of transportation and refrigeration made fresh fish impossible. Instead, people who were landlocked relied on smoked fish, which could be salted and preserved for long journeys in the heat and was enjoyed on holidays as a special treat.
“You know, the thing is, people should understand that with each country and the food they make is where they are located and what is available. In old times it was whatever was available. It’s not like you can go to the grocery store and get whatever you want. Over there, because it’s desert, water is an issue so raising cows was always difficult. Instead they would raise sheep and lamb.”
You can see this same pattern of necessity in other cuisines. For instance in India, strong spices were thought to kill bacteria which thrived in the hot, humid climate. In Greece, olives grow plentifully and are a staple of Greek food but are mostly absent from Russian cuisine. Persians, like so many other peoples, have adapted to the world they live in and cultivated the land to create a unique flavor that, to Iranian immigrants like Farah, tastes like home.
Baghali Polo: A Persian Classic
Rice is an essential component of any Persian meal, but rather than the sticky or sweet rice Asian cuisines prefer, Iranians focus on creating fluffy, fragrant grains from basmati varieties. In this traditional Persian dish, baghali polo, the rice is infused with saffron and tossed with huge quantities of fresh dill and fava beans. It becomes the backbone of the meal, accompanied by lamb shanks seasoned with turmeric and stewed in a fragrant broth.
Traditionally, this is the sort of dish that would be left to simmer all day. However, modern technology lets us accelerate cooking time with the assistance of a pressure cooker or Insant Pot. After sauteeing the onion and browning the seasoned shanks, the lamb stews quietly, allowing plenty of time to get the balance of saffron-infused rice, dill, and firm fava beans just right.
One of the ingredients that might be difficult to come by is the larger quantities of the rare and sometimes expensive spice saffron required for this dish. It’s recommended you pop into a Middle Eastern store to find larger bags of saffron, then dissolve the deep red-orange strands in water before drizzling over the top of the rice. Fava beans are difficult to find fresh, but you can usually get a bag of frozen ones in most grocery stores. Just be certain to get beans that are double-peeled to avoid the crunchy outer shell that needs to be removed before cooking.
If you’re particularly ambitious, you can also put yogurt and butter in the bottom of the rice pot as it cooks to create tahdig, or bottom of the pot rice. This is a layer of basmati at the bottom of the pot that will harden and become brown and crunchy, creating a pretty dome-shaped effect when you turn it out onto a platter for serving. Accompanied by the lamb shanks and yogurt, it creates a traditional Persian dish that’ll you’d find gracing many Iranian tables.
(Fava Beans & Dill Rice with Lamb Shanks)
For the rice and tahdig:
2 cups basmati rice
3 heaping tablespoons table salt
300g fresh or frozen fava beans (double-shelled)
60g dill, roughly chopped
1 ½ tbsp dried dill
2 tbsp. Greek or plain yogurt
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 tsp ground saffron
For the shanks:
4 small lamb shanks
1 tsp turmeric
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
6 large garlic cloves, peeled
2 tsp whole green or black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
1/4 tsp saffron strands
1 tsp salt
Put two tablespoons of the oil in the pressure cooker or Insta-pot. Brown the shanks on medium heat, sprinkling with turmeric. Remove to a plate. Add the rest of the oil to the saucepan and sauté the chopped onions until lightly caramelized. Add the peppercorns, garlic and bay leaf. Cook for a minute or two. Return the shanks to the saucepan and cover with enough boiling water to cover the shanks. Bring to the boil, then braise until cooked about one hour.
Remove the shanks and put the broth through a sieve. Discard the pulp and return the shanks to the pot with the tomato puree and salt. Cover and cook on medium heat until the sauce has reduced by half and the shanks are really falling off the bones.
Rinse the rice and put in a bowl and add enough water to cover the rice by about three centimeters. Add the salt and gently stir. Let stand while you defrost the beans. Bring a medium-sized pot of water to boil, then drain the rice and add it to the boiling water. Stir and cook until al dente, then drain.
Heat the oil in the saucepan on medium. Put yogurt in the bottom of the pot and stir quickly to avoid burning. Use a large spoon or skimmer to gently transfer 1/3 of the rice into the pot, slightly heaping it in the middle. Sprinkle with 1/3 of the fresh dill, the dried dill and 1/3 of the broad beans and repeat until all the rice, broad beans and dill are used up. Dissolves the saffron in warm water. Drizzle it across the rice and beans, then toss gently. Make three or four holes in the rice down to the bottom of the pot and deposit some butter in each well. Add a cup or two of water to begin with in order to steam the rice.
Increase the heat and cook the rice for a couple of minutes on high heat or until the side of the pot is very hot to the touch. Lower the heat and let the rice steam for approximately 30 minutes, but watch carefully to ensure you aren’t burning the bottom. Add additional water as needed.
When ready to serve, use a skimmer to gently transfer some of the white layer of rice to a plate.
Now use a spoon to lift the crunchy rice (tahdīg) from the bottom of the pot. Serve with the lamb shanks, the sauce from cooking the lamb, sprinkle with pistachios, and some yogurt. Devour and delight in all things Persian!