Iranian cuisine, less well known in the west than its Turkish or Arabic counterparts, has been surprising and delighting travellers for centuries.
Though superficially similar to much other Middle Eastern cooking, incorporating kebab, rice and cold dishes such as hummus and yoghurt, it has its own character and a number of recipes found nowhere else in the world. Here are some Iranian dishes you may encounter.
Paneer o Sabzi
This is usually the first thing that lands on your table in an Iranian restaurant, or indeed, if you are being treated to dinner in someone’s home. Paneer o Sabzi is a selection of leaves to nibble at, usually accompanied by goat’s cheese, walnuts and radishes. As well as mint, you’ll find parsley, coriander, spring onions and tarragon, though it depends what’s in season.
Khoresh-e Ghormeh Sabzi
A stew made with lamb, delicious herbs and kidney beans, with lime for an extra kick. The greens (sabzi) that give this dish its distinctive flavour include parsley, coriander, garlic, chives and fenugreek.
A rich meat stew, with lentils, potatoes and tomatoes, again with a hint of lime.
A chicken dish made with two Iranian favourites – pomegranate (anar) and walnuts (gerdu), often served on special occasions. The walnuts are ground up and added to pomegranate paste to create a thick, brown sauce. Fesenjan is extremely rich and filling, definitely not for those in search of a light lunch.
Iranian thick soup, ash (pronounced with a long a like car) is a truly ancient dish of which there are hundreds of different versions. From the floury, ash-e gandom which is rather like savoury porridge, ash-e anar, made with pomegranate, to the various local specialties, ash is an integral part of the national cuisine. The Farsi word for cook can be translated literally as ash-maker. There even varieties of ash prescribed for particular medical complaints. Ash-e alu, containing prunes, is meant to alleviate constipation, whilst ash-e shalgham, with turnip, is given to people suffering from colds and flu.
Literally Meat-water, Abgusht has traditionally been seen as a poor man’s dish as it can be bulked up easily (unexpected house-visitors in Iran may hear their host joking with whoever happens to be cooking to quickly add more water to the meat – ab-e gusht ro ziad kon!).
Essentially a kind of broth with meat and vegetables, its served in a unique way, with the liquid in one bowl and the solid ingredients lamb, chick peas, beans and other vegetables ground into a paste and served separately with bread. Occasionally restaurants will provide you with a pestle and invite you to do the grinding yourself!
Kebab, or grilled marinated meat (either lamb or chicken), is a staple of Iranian cuisine. Every restaurant will have a selection of kebabs on offer, though they might not have some of the more complex dishes listed above. Among the many varieties are kebab-e barg or leaf kebab, which uses finely sliced lamb, kebab-e koobideh, made with ground meat and jooje kebab, made with chicken.
Kebabs are served with rice and grilled tomatoes and can be dusted with the traditional condiment sumac. Its great to order some plain yoghurt (mast) on the side to moisten what can otherwise be quite a dry meal.
Rice is the basic accompaniment to most meals in Iran, so its not surprising that over the centuries a few variations on the theme of plain white rice have arisen. Rice is usually steamed to avoid stickiness and often comes complete with tah-e dig (bottom of the pot), the much prized, golden, crunchy layer that has been in contact with the pan.
This steamed rice is termed chelow if it is served unadulterated, ready for some sauce or stew to accompany it, and polow if its mixed with other ingredients during the course of cooking. Saffron is commonly added to lend a delicate flavour and colour to plain rice, and fragrant dried dill is also used.
Nuts and fruit often feature in the various polows, some of which are associated with particular regions, times of the year or events. Zereshk polow is made with barberries, a tiny, dried cranberry-like fruit with a delicious zing. Shirin polow, which contains almonds, pistachios, orange peel and sugar is served at weddings.
Iranian Vegetarian options
Vegetarianism isn’t as alien to Iran as you might expect: Irans only nobel-prize winning writer, Sadegh Hedayat, was a committed vegetarian and campaigner for animal welfare back in the 1930s.
Having said that, its good to check before ordering vegetarian versions of meat based dishes – occasionally this can result in getting just the sauce and some rice!
In any case, there are a number of Iranian recipes are naturally vegetarian, and these are amongst the very best. As many of these are side dishes or starters, it might be wise to order a selection along with bread or a polow. Try the aubergine-based dishes mirza ghassemi and kashk-e bademjan or koo-koo, a kind of frittata that can be made with herbs, cauliflower or potatoes