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A Culinary Travel Guide to Persian Food

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

If you’re not familiar with Persian cuisine, the very basics are that if you’re invited to an Iranian home for dinner you’ll likely be served some combination of grilled or braised meats and rich stews, flavored by deeply aromatic spices (though not many of them pack much heat) and accompanied by piles upon piles of steamed rice. (Persian rice is the best rice, and I will hear no arguments to the contrary.)

On the actual day of Nowruz, though, you can expect to see a couple of dishes that are specific to the holiday, often centering on greens and herbs to represent its themes of — say it with me now — freshness and renewal.

The centerpiece of most Nowruz meals will be sabzi polow ba mahi, an herbed rice served with some kind of whitefish. Then you might have a kuku sabzi, which bakes eggs with a whole mess of herbs like dill, cilantro, parsley, fenugreek, tarragon, and more. (My mother helpfully describes kuku sabzi as “an ancient relative of the frittata.”)

No matter what, though, Iranians will always make you more food than you know what to do with — and at the end of the meal, you’ll still wish you could still eat more.

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.

A core curriculum of classic Persian favorites can be found on most Persian-Canadian restaurant menus. Here are 10 to try. Noosh-e jan! (Yes, that’s Farsi for “bon appétit.”)

1. Fesenjan (Pomegranate Walnut Stew)

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.

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2. Khoresht-e Bademjan (Eggplant And Tomato Stew)
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, khoresht-e bademjan is thick and meant to be eaten over rice with a fork.

3. Baghali Polo (Rice With Dill And Fava Beans)
In Iranian cooking, rice can be prepared simply with butter and saffron, known as chelo. 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.

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4. Zereshk Polo (Barberry Rice)
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.

 

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5. Gormeh Sabzi (Green Herb Stew)
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.

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6. Ash e Reshteh (Noodle and Bean Soup)
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.

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7. Tahdig (Crunchy Fried Rice)
Tahdig is the soul food of Persian cooking. It’s the crisp, golden layer of fried rice at the bottom of the rice pot, and it tastes like a combination of popcorn and potato chips, but with the delicate flavor of basmati rice. (Tahdig is usually not printed on the menu, so you may have to ask for it.) At Iranian family gatherings, there are always plenty of leftovers, but the one dish that disappears completely is tahdig. It’s eaten as a side dish, and it’s forgivable to pick it up and eat it with your fingers.

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

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

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10. Sabzi Khordan (Herb and Cheese Plate)
No Persian meal is complete without a dish of sabzi khordan, or edible herbs. The plate can include mint, tarragon, basil and cilantro, alongside scallions, radishes, walnuts, feta cheese and Iranian nan (flatbread). Simply tear off a piece of flatbread, tuck a bit of the herbs and cheese and other garnishes inside, and fold it up like a rustic sandwich. The plate stays on the table throughout the meal, and the herbs are a crunchy palate cleanser between bites of stew and rice. Fresh and dried green herbs are eaten daily in Iran. The Zoroastrian new year Norooz celebrates rebirth and renewal, and the Norooz menu includes several dishes made with green herbs representing new life, including rice with herbs, an herb omelet and the herb platter.

 

11. Abgoosht (Lamb Chickpea Soup)
Abgoosht is one of the most traditional Iranian foods. It is also called Dizi, which refers to the traditional stone crock pots it is served in. Hundreds of years ago Abgoosht was made with lamb and chickpeas. However, later on, when new foods such as potatoes and tomatoes were introduced to Iranian Cuisine, the recipe had some changes. Serving Abgoosht has a special custom. First, the broth is poured in a bowl and served with small pieces of bread soaked in it. Then the remaining ingredients such as potatoes, beans, chickpeas, and lamb are mashed up to a mashed-potato type consistency and served separately alongside with the broth.

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12. Kashk-e Bademjan (Eggplant Dip)
If you are an eggplant lover, Persian cuisine can be a paradise for you. There are plenty of eggplant dishes and side dishes in Persian cuisine, and among them one of the most popular dish is Kashke Bademjan. The main ingredients of this dish are eggplants and Kashk which is a type of yogurt whey. In the process of making cheese, the remaining liquid after milk has been strained is called whey. Kashke Bademjan is often served with a special Persian bread called Lavash, but you can serve it with pita bread or crackers too.

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13. Tahchin (Layered Saffron Rice & Chicken)
Tahchin is a popular Iranian rice dish of saffron-infused rice layered with a kind of meat (or vegetable), yogurt and eggs.  There are different kinds of Tahchins based on the ingredient which is layered with rice. The most popular Tahchin among Iranians is made with shredded chicken, and the other kinds such as beef, spinach or eggplant Tahchin are not widely known. The word Tahchin literally means “placed at the bottom” and refers to the rice layer placed at the bottom of the dish, which results in a crunchy outer crust.

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14. Haleem (Wheat and Meat Porridge)
Haleem or Halim is a thick, delicious and high-calorie porridge popular in the middle east and central Asia for centuries. It is also known for some other names such as Harees/HareesaKeshkekKichara or Daleem. The origin of Haleem is not definite. But, it is a star of Arabian, Turkish, Persian, Pakistani, Bengali and Indian cuisine. Even though the recipe slightly changes from one region to another, it always includes wheat and meat. People use different forms of meat (lamb, beef, turkey or chicken breast) to cook it. This recipe that I am sharing here is the Persian Haleem, that is typically served for breakfast or during Ramadan month. This dish is slow cooked for some hours which results in a paste-like consistency.

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