Persian Cuisine, a Brief History
Persian cuisine is ancient, varied and cosmopolitan. Eating habits and products from ancient Greece, Rome and many Asian and Mediterranean cultures have influenced and are affected by this unique cuisine.
It has borrowed spices, styles and recipes from India and has in turn influenced Indian food. There are many dishes that are shared by both Iranians and Turks to the extent that it is hard to say who has borrowed what and from where. The archives at the major ancient Persian cities contain names of many food products, ingredients, beverages, herbs, spices and wine, an important ceremonial and religious drink. Basil, mint, cumin, cloves, saffron and coriander were traded along with olive all over the ancient trade routes. The Parthian and the Sasanian records mention walnut, pistachio, pomegranate, cucumber, broad bean, pea and sesame in their trade records. The ancient physicians influenced by the Greek sciences considered food and beverages important factors to revive body. Excessive consumption of too much red meat and fats was thought to upset body’s balance.
While a balanced combination of fruits, vegetables, poultry, herbs, seeds and mixed petals and blossoms of roses was regarded as a very good diet capable of strengthening body and mind.
Muslims, through the Iranians and the Byzantines, borrowed the entire Greek medicine and sciences. They adopted the ancient Greek principle that disease was caused by a fundamental imbalance in the body between certain opposed qualities, such as heat and cold (sardi/garmi), or wetness and dryness (tari/khoshki). The physicians of the period improved Hippocrates (460-377BC) ideas who had proposed that health resulted from the equal influence of four bodily “humors” that was analogous to the four elements of the Greek physics (earth, water, air and fire). Food became an important factor instrumental in maintaining the body’s balance.
The ideas of cold and hot foods are still believed by many Iranians and in planning for meals such considerations will be paid attention to. From region to region, the classifications may vary. In general, animal fat, poultry, wheat, sugar, some fresh fruits and vegetables, and all dried vegetables and fruits are considered as hot. Most beef, fish, rice, dairy products, fresh vegetables and fruits are considered as cold. In planning for meals people’s nature, season or illness, will be considered and cold or hot or a combination of the two foods will be produced. For instance, walnut, a hot food is usually combined in a dish that includes pomegranate, a cold food, to make the dish balanced and delicious. Or a variety of pickles are consumed when eating fatty or fried foods to neutralize the effect of too much fat. Iranians are avidconsumers of dairy products and many still make their own yogurt and cheese at home.
Women have had a great influence in the history of cooking in Iran. The best chefs were and still are women. From the palaces of the Persian kings to the average housewife, women have had fabulous skills preparing exquisite cuisine. Most men do no cook but expect the best food from their wives or mothers. Iranians regard most foods at restaurants as second-class and homemade food is precious and more appreciated. Even for weddings and major parties when catering services are used, the food is expected to be the same quality as the best homemade food. Restaurants both in Iran and outside the country prepare a very small selection of Iranian cuisine. They are very limited in choice and are most popular for rice and kebabs known as chelo kebab.
Central to the Persian cooking are the numerous rice dishes, some containing almonds, pistachios, glazed carrots or orange peels, and raisins; others with vegetables and spices; occasionally with meat. Most often perfected and finished by the use of specially prepared saffron from Iran and cooked slowly after boiling to have a hard crust at the bottom (tah dig). Other recipes include stews, dumplings, kebabs, and stuffed vegetables accompanied by different sauces. The sweetmeats and pastries are especially delicious. Many of the dishes are vegetarian, and the mixing of sweet and savory, such as grains stewed with fruit and spices produce unique meals. The result is a feast of flavors and textures as well as a visual delight. Most cooking is done from scratch and ready-made products and previously prepared ingredients such as frozen mixed herbs currently becoming popular with the younger generations are not acceptable to many.
Iranians use a variety of breads. The breads are mostly flat and all are baked in special ovens similar to clay ovens in Indian restaurants. In Iran the bread is bought fresh every day and sometimes for each meal, but in Europe and America most buy enough for several days and will freeze and toast them for meals. They are not the same quality as the breads in Iran and are baked in modern conventional ovens and some are similar to the Greek pita bread but not identical.
Many in Iran make fresh sherbets and many different kinds of herbal drinks at home. A small variety exists in the Iranian stores in North America, but again they are not the same quality as the homemade ones. Many Iranians drink all kinds of alcoholic beverages and do not follow the Islamic ban on alcohol. However, many practicing Muslims will not consume alcohol and other edibles prohibited by the Islamic codes such as pork, blood and some kinds of fish.
Iranians are great consumers of all kinds of meat except pork for those who follow the religious codes. The meat has to be slaughtered in a certain way according to religious prescription. The people who follow such practices purchase their meat from special halal Meat shops. Halal means permitted and is normally referred to shops selling meat slaughtered according to the Islamic prescribed codes. These shops are in every major city and easy to access. All Islamic on-line sites have detailed information on prohibited foods and beverages for public access. Many Iranians outside Iran do not observe such practices and have no problems buying regular meat.
Iranian food is varied and changes from area to area and there are many great cookbooks published in every language making the cuisine available internationally. The recipes mentioned below are only a few that are used for major ceremonies and rituals. Rice is a major ingredient and is cooked very differently from Indian or oriental rice. Iranians use Indian basmati rice and to get the best results the best basmati should be purchased since there are many different kinds. The ones produced in India are better than others and the local shop owners or Iranian friends should be able to recommend the best variety in your neighborhood.