Ancient Persians took their wares to all the corners of the world, in particular pomegranates, saffron and spinach, and the country also played host to much of the bargaining between the East and West. These bargained goods, including rice, lemons and eggplant, now feature prominently in the national Iranian dishes.
Iranian cooking has much in common with Middle Eastern cooking, where wheat is a staple, and lamb, poultry and yoghurt are all popular. A distinctly sour flavour is evident in most Iranian dishes, and may be achieved through the addition of lemon, pomegranate or sour oranges.
The dishes of Iran are often time-consuming, slow-cooked affairs. Rice dishes are among the true specialities of the region. There are two primary preparations for rice in Iran: chelow and polow. Preparing both the chelow (white rice) and polow (a pilaf-style dish) is a long, complicated process. The rice is first soaked, then boiled and finally steamed. To make chelow koresh, a household favourite, the rice is then cooked until a golden crust forms at the bottom of the dish. Chelow is a common accompaniment to meat or poultry stews. A polow is generally flavoured with vegetables, herbs and nuts. For example, shireen polow, considered “The King of Persian Dishes”, is flavoured with saffron, orange peel, dried fruit, carrot, pistachios and almonds and then coated in caramelised sugar and served with saffron rice. Grains of rice are said to symbolise money and at the end of the meal any rice that has slipped to the floor will be collected, in recognition of the fact that money should not be wasted.
Kababs also form part of the traditional cuisine. Predominantly made with lamb, the different styles of kabab vary from a thick and chunky tikka to a finer kabab-barg. To make a kabab, the lamb is generally marinated with finely chopped onion and lemon juice. Most kababs are served accompanied by herbs or pickles and are eaten wrapped in taftun or sangak (flat-style) breads. The exception to this is the kabab-barg, long considered to be the national dish of Iran. It is served with chelow flavoured with saffron, and then mixed with egg, butter and sumac. The complete dish is known as chellow-kabab.
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In Persian households this is made every morning ready for lunch – the sound of the chopping of walnuts and parsley for the topping echoes throughout Persian neighbourhoods. The salty kashk cheese is a fermented by-product from cheese making and is available from Middle Eastern grocery stores. With its strong flavour it resembles a liquid feta cheese and is lovely in this recipe mixed with the golden eggplant and dried mint.
Traditionally served in Iran’s tea houses, Dizi was said to sustain workers through a long day (it’s very filling and has a high calorie count). Dizi is the name of the small container in which it’s cooked and served. The ingredients include; lamb, potato, chickpeas, tomato, garlic and turmeric – all steamed in an oven on low for at least 7 hours (the longer the better). The trick to eating dizi is to eat the meat out of the container first and then mush the rest of the ingredients into a paste so it’s almost pate-like then spoon a small amount onto a bit of bread.
Known as "celebration rice" or "jewelled rice", this is often cooked for weddings. It is made with wild, red barberries (zereshk), which give the dish its jewel-like appearance and an exotic, slightly tart taste. It is usually served with chicken, as it is in this recipe – the chicken, while delicious, is considered the accompaniment and the rice is the centrepiece.
Translated literally, kaleh pacheh means "head and hoof soup". While traditionally regarded as a festive winter soup, when eaten for breakfast, this Persian soup is a hearty way to start a day.
Qormeh sabzi is a delicious Persian khoresh, or stew. Sabzi is the herb mix integral to the dish and includes parsley, coriander, garlic chives and fresh or dried fenugreek leaves. The herbs are added in mountains and it’s no wonder the dish turns a marvellously dark green – and the aroma of fenugreek fills the house (be warned!). This recipe is cooked with duck, but it can also be cooked with chicken or lamb – or you could even do a vegetarian version.
Falooda is Iran’s take on the slushie and it is perfect on hot days. In this recipe, ice made from frozen sugar syrup is crushed and mixed with rice noodles and rosewater, and topped with lime juice or with strawberry, sour cherry or pomegranate syrup (available from Middle Eastern stores). It is a deliciously refreshing drink and you can even serve it for dessert.