When you are a million miles away, you find comfort in the things that remind you of home. Even though I have always enjoyed expanding my palate and food diversity, in my nearly two years away from Iran, I have come to appreciate Persian food more than ever. I often find myself craving familiar tastes like the apple and rosewater dessert (Faloudeh Seeb) my grandmother made on hot summer days, the celery stew (Khoresh Karafs) my mom made when her uncle visited, or my best friend’s divine walnut and pomegranate stew (Khoresh Fesenjan).
It is easy to fall in love with Persian food. It is a delicious blend of dry or fresh herbs, spices, nuts, berries, fruits, peels, and legumes that come together to create the mild flavors loved by Iranians. As a multicultural nation, Iranians have common dishes shared all over the country as well as cooking styles and exotic ingredients unique to specific regions. In southern Iran, for example, a kind of red soil is used to flavor fish dishes as well as bread and in northern Iran bitter orange juice is used to cook Caspian dishes.
Many of the essential ingredients in Persian recipes are seasonal. My childhood is filled with memories of watching the women of my family make the annual supply of tomato and pomegranate pastes because store bought was never as good; hours of work put into juicing lemons and unripe grapes for the lemon juice and verjuice that would later be used as salad dressing, and for flavoring stews and side dishes; days I spent helping to remove parsley, spinach, chives, coriander, and fenugreek leaves from stems so that they could be washed, chopped, sautéed and stored in the freezer – a Persian cook’s best friend- for use in stews and Persian frittatas (Kuku); pitting sour cherries for my mom to make breakfast preserves and store in the freezer so we could have sour cherry rice (Albaloo Polo) any time of the year; drying dill, mint and damask rose petals to season rice or side dishes, and sun drying pumpkin, cantaloupe and watermelon seeds, sour cherries and apricots so we could eat as snacks especially on the winter solstice festival or Yalda. As tiresome as these chores were they were also a fun excuse to spend more time with aunts and cousins.
As a rule of thumb, the best Persian food is always homemade and no restaurant ever comes close to what a Persian mom whips up in her kitchen. The quality and taste of homemade meals has resulted in the success of a mobile app that allows hungry Persians with busy lifestyles and no time or skills to cook to order food from housewives looking to capitalize on their cooking talents. The only exception to the home-cooked-is-best rule is Kebab, the unofficial national dish of Iran.
Iranians learn family recipes by watching their moms in the kitchen. Recipes are rarely written down and are instead passed down from mother to daughter. This is why online recipes and cookbooks seldom do Persian food justice as they often require “as needed” amounts of spices and sometimes leave out things like verjuice as the recipe requiring this ingredient is believed to be common knowledge.
The talent of a Persian cook, therefore, lies in the ability to adjust “as needed” amounts of spices and other ingredients to feed small or large numbers of people without any of the tastes overpowering the others.
Mixing the basic ingredients for a Persian stew may take less than 20 minutes but cooking it to perfection takes hours. Some stews are even left to simmer overnight in a traditional stone pot or a slow cooker before they are considered ready to serve. This is particularly true about Dizi (a soup with lamb, legumes, potatoes, tomatoes and dried lime) and the all-time Iranian favorite and most challenging-to-cook Persian stew, Ghormeh Sabzi. Made with sautéed herbs, lamb, dried lime and kidney beans, a well-made Ghormeh Sabzi is considered the ultimate seal of approval on one’s cooking skills. Iranian men are even known to joke that their dream girl is one who cooks Ghormeh Sabzi as well as their moms!
Stews are served with white Basmati rice. Cooking rice the Persian way is a process and if done properly will result in the coveted golden Tahdig i.e. a crispy layer of rice at the bottom of the pot. As Iranians say, Tahdig is life! Some cooks add a little oomph to their Tahdig by using potato, lettuce, flat bread like Lavash or a mixture of saffron, yogurt and rice.
Every Persian meal is served with sides ranging from Sabzi Khordan (fresh basil, cilantro, cress, chives, radish, scallion and tarragon), Mast-o Khiyar (chopped cucumber in plain unsweetened yogurt), Salad Shirazi (finely chopped cucumber, tomato, and onion in lemon juice), and Borani (steamed spinach and grated fresh garlic in plain unsweetened yogurt) to Torshi (vinegar-based) and Shoor (salt-based) pickled vegetables.
Persian desserts are often easy to make but require practice for mastering. Sholeh Zard or as my friend calls its Mellow Yellow (saffron rice pudding) and Sheer Berenj (rice pudding flavored with cardamom and rose water) are delicious treats that are not made every day as most Iranians prefer a simple cup of black tea after their meals.
To a Persian cook, the best compliment is praise on the aroma, flavor and color of their food. But presentation is also key. For instance, to make Jeweled Rice (Morasa’a Polo), one of the most elaborate special occasion dishes, the surface of the rice must be covered with equal-width, alternating rows of sweetened orange peel, almond and pistachio slivers, and lightly fried barberry. Persian soups (Ash) are always decorated with whey, fried mint, fried garlic, and caramelized onion; side dishes like Mast-o Khiyar with dry powdered mint, powdered rose petals and chopped walnut; and desserts like Sholeh Zard with cinnamon powder and pistachio and almond slivers.
The final step in presenting a Persian meal is setting the Sofreh – a rectangular or square piece of patterned plastic or cloth with adjustable length to accommodate the guests-are-always-welcome policy of Iranians. Setting the Sofreh - be it for family meals, the Haft Seen Sofreh for welcoming the Persian New Year, Nowruz, or the Sofreh Aqd which is an inseparable part of a Persian wedding ceremony- is an art.
I remember helping my mother set the Sofreh as a child and hoping that one day I would be trusted to arrange the plates, flatware, cups and serving dishes on my own.
Despite the growing trend of eating at the dining table, many still prefer to sit around the Sofreh for meals. Some may find the Persian practice of sitting on the ground to eat questionable but like many parts of Asia and the Middle East outside shoes are never allowed on the carpets and must be left at the door before entering the home.
Whether you eat at the table or sit around a Sofreh, Persian dining is a cultural experience that brings families together and no matter how much I may miss the tastes, smells and even rituals, being with family is what I miss the most.
2 cups of plain unsweetened yogurt
1 or 2 large seedless cucumber finely chopped
1 tablespoon dry mint
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon dried rose petals (powdered)
½ cup crushed walnuts
1 tablespoon raisins
In a bowl combine yogurt, cucumber and dry mint. Taste and adjust salt to your liking. You can use a bit of dry mint and dry rose petals to decorate the Mast-o Khiyar. You can also add the optional ingredients to your Mast-o Khiyar for variety. Refrigerate until serving time.
Persian rice with Tahdig
2 cups of Basmati rice
1/5 tablespoon salt
1 slice Lavash bread cut into squares
1 large potato sliced and lightly slated
Note: I use the plastic measuring cup that comes with rice cookers and these cups are equivalent to 3/4 of a standard measuring cup.
Pour rice into a bowl and rinse a few times in lukewarm water until water is clear. Add salt and let the rice soak for a few hours. When you are ready to cook the rice, bring 6 cups of water to boil in a nonstick pot and add the drained rice to the boiling water. Let the rice boil for 10 mins and stir a few times. When you are close to 10 minutes check the rice and make sure it is soft to the touch but not falling apart. My mom’s rule was to always check one rice grain to see if lines had started to appear on it. Drain the rice in a colander and quickly rinse with cold water.
Rinse the pot, dry it and return to heat. Add two to three tablespoons of cooking oil to a pot so that it covers the bottom of the pot. Heat the oil over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, arrange the potato slices at the bottom of the pot until it is completely covered and wait a few minutes before adding the rice.
You can opt to use Lavash bread in this stage. Slightly wet the bread squares and place at the bottom of the pot until fully covered. Wait a few minutes before adding the rice.
Cover the pot with a wash towel or a few layers of paper towels before placing the lid. Cook on high heat for about a minute before reducing heat to low and cooking for 50 minutes to an hour.
Once the rice is done, give your pot a gentle shake, place a large plate over the pot and flip the rice. You should have golden brown Tahdig on top of the rice.
450 grams of meat (beef or lamb), washed and cut into cubes
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
1 head of celery, washed, cut into 2.5 centimeter pieces
2 bunches fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 bunch fresh mint, finely chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 tablespoons verjuice or lime/lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot, sauté chopped onions in 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium-high heat until they become light golden brown. Add the garlic and sauté for an additional 2-3 minutes. Add turmeric and meat and stir until the meat is brown on all sides. Add 2-3 cups of water and bring to a boil before reducing heat to medium-low. Cover the pot and cook.
Heat 2-3 tablespoons of oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat and sauté celery until soft. Add the chopped parsley and mint, stir well and sauté for 3-4 minutes. Add the sautéed ingredients to the to the pot and cook for another hour and a half on low. Add boiled water if needed. When the meat is fully cooked add verjuice or lemon juice (you can adjust this to your liking) and adjust the salt to taste.
Take a look at our recreation of Heidi's Mast-O-Khiyar recipe below: