Persian Food Primer

by Chef Louisa Shafi

Chef Louisa Shafi is a Persian food expert and writer of cookbooks‭, ‬consulting‭, ‬developing recipes‭, ‬and teaching cooking classes‭. ‬She has published two cookbooks‭, ‬The New Persian Kitchen and Lucid Food‭: ‬Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life‭.‬

Generally, each Iranian cities has its own specialities. Their ingredients testify to geography, while their flavours and colours underline the culinary and aesthetic tastes of the Iranians. The different recipes are associated with events like births, weddings, funerals, and many other ceremonies and rituals. Culinary traditions are also closely linked with Iranian history and its religion. Iranian cuisine is an essential aspect of Iranian life and culture. It is renowned for its dishes based on rice, thick soups and hearty stews (khoresht). The Iranians also use many varieties of herbs, spices and dried fruits to give more flavour to their foods.

A visit to Iran yields a stunning variety of culinary delights. Between the familiar kebab and the decidedly outrIJ grilled lamb’s testicles, there’s a vast spectrum of foods: caviar, pickle, and smoked fish in the north; samosas, falafel and hot and sour shrimp in the south; noodles, flatbread and rosewater-scented ice cream across the country.

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 centre of the Persian Empire, Iran neighbours 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.

What’s more, the ancient warrior-king of Greece, Alexander the Great, conquered the Persian Empire back in the 4th century, and later it was invaded by Arabs, Turks, Mongols and Uzbeks. While Iranians already had a well-developed food identity before these invasions, they assimilated what the outsiders brought in. Think Russian-style borscht with cumin and cilantro and Chinese noodles in a soup of beans, herbs and sour fermented whey.

Many coveted ingredients are native to Iran, including pistachios, almonds, walnuts, saffron, mint, oranges, pomegranates and grapes. Iran has a variable climate with four distinct seasons, and unlike other parts of the Middle East, where the dry terrain limited what food could be grown, the ancient Persians transformed vast stretches of arid land into fertile oases via underground aquifers that drew melted snow water into the desert. A bright, sensuous, fruit-and-herb filled cuisine was born.

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

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