How to Cook Persian Food

How to Cook Persian Food

A primer on Persian, a.k.a. Iranian, fare

By Zoe Singer

Pomegranates are in everything these days, from iced tea to breakfast cereal. Lemony-tasting sumac is the “It” spice of food media. Iranian limu-omani (dried limes) are among the top-selling items at spice wholesaler Le Sanctuaire. This is all hopeful evidence that Persian food, one of the most overlooked cuisines despite America’s large population of Iranian expats, is about to have its day.

Both exotic and familiar, many Persian dishes overlap with Greek, Turkish, and Indian food: naan-like flatbreads, kebabs, and stuffed vegetables, for instance. But Iranian cuisine’s aromatic spice combinations are instantly recognizable and uniquely their own. Kebabs are marinated in saffron and lime-infused yogurt, making them both succulent and perfumed. Fowl is stuffed with rose petals. An herbal stew is studded with floating dried limes, giving it a mysterious sweet-tart flavor. Fresh herbs like mint, basil, and tarragon are lead players. And many dishes, unusual for most Americans, are revelations: stews and dips made with the classic Persian combination of walnuts and pomegranate, for example, simultaneously rich and delicate. Tasting Persian food for the first time is like eating your first great Indian thali. You’re thinking: “Where have you been all my life? And when can we meet again?”

Below is a primer on what we hope is the next hot cuisine, with help from cookbook author, teacher, and general culinary ambassador Najmieh Batmanglij and University of Texas professor of Persian and comparative literature and cookbook author M. R. Ghanoonparvar.

Openers

To an Iranian, the table is empty without bread. Flatbreads are served with raw sliced onion, fetalike cheese, and a plate of fresh herbs (usually basil, tarragon, and mint), all of which can be sandwiched together. With this opening spread, you might have meze (appetizers)—perhaps a silken eggplant and yogurt spread, or an olive tapenade with walnuts and pomegranate—or noghl-e mey (wine accompaniment).

Second Course

For a large meal, follow breads and spreads with an ash, a thick soup made with legumes, meats, vegetables, and sometimes noodles, served garnished with drained yogurt and herb-infused oil. Traditionally, ash was peasant food designed to be a one-dish meal and was often vegetarian if the family couldn’t afford meat. Kukus, frittatalike baked egg dishes, also make a hearty appetizer or light main. Yogurt mixed with shallots, cucumbers, or herbs is a popular condiment, as are torshis (homemade pickled vegetables and fruits). Yogurt also shows up in dugh, a still or sparkling drink flavored with mint and popular with chelow-kabab (kebab and rice).

Persian rice gets its long, fluffy grains from a combined technique of parboiling and steaming. The most famous dish, chelow, is topped with saffron and served with the tah dig that’s encouraged to form on the bottom of the pot. This dried-out, stuck-together rice could have been mistaken for a culinary accident. But Persian cooks long ago appreciated that the buttery, crunchy, golden crust is a textural treat and the ideal base for stews. In homes, family members argue over who gets the tah dig when rice is served. At restaurants, you can order it on its own—hold the rest of the rice.

Other rice dishes, called polows, are layered with fruits, nuts, meats, or poultry. A favorite meatless combo with lima beans and dill is often served alongside smoked fish.

Meats and Stews

At kebab restaurants, succulent, smoky skewers of grilled chicken, beef, or lamb are served with grilled tomatoes on the side and a shaker of tart, maroon-colored sumac. Other popular mains include lamb shanks braised with rose water and saffron, stuffed fish with pomegranate sauce, and sweet-and-sour stuffed chicken.

Khoreshes are stews of lamb, beef, veal, chicken, or seafood combined with vegetables, dried fruit, beans, grains, nuts, or dried flower petals and served over rice. Kofte, a meatball-type dish also found in Indian and other Middle Eastern foods, contains raisins and prunes. The kofte are sometimes large enough to be stuffed with an entire chicken. Regional competition is expressed in exchanges like “My mother made a kofte with a whole sheep in it.” “Oh that’s nothing, my mother puts a whole camel in hers!”

Fruits, Snacks, and Sweets

When Iranians sit and visit, a heaped platter of fruit is usually on hand. Other snacks, commonly sold on the street near schools, include peeled fresh walnuts, coal-roasted corn, baked potatoes, roasted beets, green almonds, and salted popped rice. Iranians create refreshing summer sharbats from sweetened vinegar, crushed ice, water, mint, and cucumber, or diluted syrups of sour cherries (registration required) or rhubarb. Once famed for its vineyards, the Iranian city of Shiraz is one of the world’s oldest grape-growing regions, and despite the Muslim prohibition against alcohol, the cuisine remains a great match for big red wines.

Sweets are eaten throughout the day. Preserves of quince, fig, rose petal, orange blossom, or cherry are combined with bread and butter or drained yogurt, or added to tea. In addition to rich, delicate pastries like baklava and shortbread cookies made with rice or chickpea flour, there’s Persian halva, a dense confection seasoned with saffron, rose water, and cardamom. Persian ice cream is thickened with sahlab, the powdered root of an orchid, which gives it a delightfully elastic, chewy texture. Faludeh—a lemon and rose-water ice mixed with vermicelli-type noodles to add texture, then garnished with sour cherry syrup—is perhaps the most unusual of Persian sweets. But the most striking part of a Persian meal by far is the quantity of food served: Rice is heaped upon platters, and leftovers seem inevitable.

Old Becomes New Again

In chic restaurants like LA’s Sona, Persian ingredients are making an appearance on the menu. There, dried limes spark up a seafood and grain salad with yogurt dressing. At Abode in Santa Monica, langoustines are accompanied by shallots, crispy tah dig–like rice, and a sumac-lobster glaze.

But this is one trend that’s been in the making for a long time—nearly 3,000 years, actually. You see a lot of Iranian dishes in countries like Greece and Turkey because two great Persian empires in the fifth century BCE and the third century CE spread the cuisine across the Middle East, Greece, Egypt, and beyond. Then again, after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, his armies returned to the Mediterranean with citrus fruit, saffron, and pomegranates they’d taken from the vanquished. During the spice trade, Persia was a hub, exporting pistachios, sesame seeds, and grapevines, and in turn embracing Indian rice, sugar, and poultry, and Chinese rhubarb, apricots, and tea.

Subsequent wars with Muslim crusaders spread Persian sweet-and-sour sauces and almond pastries to North Africa, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, where they’re still made today, and Persian-inspired naan, biryani, and kebabs to India. Zoroastrian Persians, or Parsis, who resisted the conversion to Islam fled to Gujarat, India, where they retain a mild, Persian-influenced cuisine (beautifully documented in the recently published My Bombay Kitchen).

Locating Persian Ingredients

Many things called for in Persian recipes will be readily available in better markets (rice, yogurt, and fresh herbs, for example). Below are some of the more unusual spices that give Persian food its special flair. Buy them here, or here.

How to Find Persian Restaurants

The name Persia has been used since Western scholars first read it in ancient Greek writings, but Iranians have always used the word Iran, and in the 1930s, the country’s name was officially changed. While the word Persian is common on signs in cities with large Iranian populations, elsewhere, due to negative associations with Iran or assumed cultural ignorance, it’s often replaced with vaguer, less accurate terms, so finding a restaurant may take some research. Look for eateries dubbed Middle Eastern or Mediterranean. This is sometimes code for Iranian. Also check out Chowhound threads in your area. Here are a few samples from San Francisco, Toronto, and New York.

For a taste of Persia wherever you are, we recommend mail-ordering ice cream from the delicious Southern California–based Mashti Malone’s. With flavors like orange blossom, lavender, saffron, and rose water, the company has achieved cult status on the West Coast, where its products are available at Whole Foods.

Angelica Barberries Dried Limes Pomegranate Paste Rice Flour Sumac Whey

Angelica Angelica: Ground seeds from this herb, which tastes a little tart and juniperish, are used to add a sour element to soups and stews.

Barberries Barberries: Tiny, tart, cranberrylike, and sold dried. Soak and use in rice dishes.

Dried Limes Dried Limes: Limu-omani, Persian limes (a low-acid variety) that are salted then dried, are sold whole and powdered, and are used to add a deep, musky, slightly sweet note to stews. Buy whole limes, remove the seeds, and grind in a food processor to avoid the bitter taste of the commercial powder.

Pomegranate Paste Pomegranate Paste: Reduced pomegranate juice, this is thicker, and tarter, than Middle Eastern pomegranate molasses.

Rice Flour Rice Flour: Used in cookies, and for thickening stews and puddings.

Sumac Sumac: The ground, dried red berries are astringent, and add spark much like lemon juice.

Whey Whey: Drained, salted, and dried, this tangy powder is used for its tartness, and generally is considered an acquired taste.