For most travelers exploring a new destination, food is a very important factor influencing how much they enjoy their experience. Travelers discovering Iranian food are not an exception. Iran’s incredible cultural and environmental diversity mean that in various corners of the country, travelers to Iran can enjoy completely different culinary experiences. Although these dishes can have vastly different flavors and ingredients, one thing they all share is how delicious they are. There are a few Iranian dishes that are best left for adventurous eaters, but we still encourage all travelers to Iran to try them at least once. Especially the regional specialties. You will see some food combinations that you will be skeptical about before you eat, but we have turned many skeptical travelers into believers of these flavor combinations by urging them to try them just once. Consider it a part of our Iranian hospitality. We have prepared this multi-part guide to familiarize you with some of the must eat dishes during your trip to Iran.
At Hayahoo Tours, we are obsessed with the culinary experience of our travelers in Iran. We want all of our travelers to truly experience the incredible diversity of Iranian cuisine. Our culinary experience goes beyond the main dish. We want our travelers to try the side dishes, desserts, snacks, fruits, juices, the street food, and everything else that contributes to the Iranian culinary experience. Travelers on one of Hayahoo’s Iran trips that feature our signature culinary experience will sample local dishes and delicacies in all of our travel destinations. It is no secret to Iranians that some of the best Iranian food is served at homes. As a part of our signature culinary experience, in addition to offering the finest local dishes at the best restaurants featuring local cuisines, we incorporate meals with Iranian families at least once during your trip. Hospitality is one of the aspects of Iranian identity that Iranians are most proud of. Experiencing authentic hospitality while sharing an Iranian feast with a family is one of the highlights of trips to Iran for many of our travelers.
If you arrive in Tehran as part of a business delegation or have your trip pre-planned by a local agency, the chances are you are going to consume large amounts of grilled red meat and chicken, better known as kababs, along with disproportionately large plates of rice, before your departure. Many Iranians consider kababs to be the crown jewel of Persian cuisine, worthy of special guests. In fact, you may have similar experiences in most countries in this region.
If you were to put an Iranian, a Turk, a Lebanese and a few other Middle-Easterners around a table to discuss the origin of kababs, you’ll have a better chance of discovering the killer of Bruce Lee, than reaching a consensus on this matter. So let’s set one thing straight – we are not going to blabber on about kebabs in this guide. In fact, this guide will come very handy once you have had your fair share of kebabs and want to discover what ordinary Iranians eat every day (and trust me, It is not kebabs!).
When talking about Persian cuisine, it is difficult to generalize because ingredients and flavors vary significantly from one region to another. So we thought it would be more useful if we divide this guide into several sections, each focusing on a particular region of Iran that you may visit during your trip. But let us first set the scene and give you some general facts about Iranian foods.
Perhaps, the most noticeable fact about Iranian dishes is that unlike most Asian cuisines, the use of spices is somewhat limited. Of course, this is not the case everywhere. Many regions in the south of Iran, especially close to the borders, have cuisines that are heavily influenced by that of neighboring countries and incorporate more spices. But in general, Iranians tend to use aromatic green herbs, fragrant seeds, and dried or fresh fruits as flavorings. Saffron, mint, coriander and its seed, dill, fresh or dried lime, fresh tomato or its puree, plums and pomegranate are commonly used in many dishes around the country. Sadly, vegetables (aside from a handful) haven’t quite found their place in Persian cooking yet. This is mainly because many types of vegetables have only recently been brought into the country. Broccoli, leek, Brussels sprouts, iceberg lettuce and even mushrooms are all newcomers of the past few decades. Even things like potatoes and tomatoes were unknown to Persians a couple of centuries ago.
Stews and Common Dishes
So what does a typical Persian dish look like? The most common form of an Iranian meal is a stew (called “Khoresht”), prepared with cubes of red meat (more often lamb) or chicken cooked in a mixture of herbs or fruits and is usually served along with white rice. “Ghormeh Sabzi”, a stew made with lamb cubes and 4 – 6 types of aromatic herbs chopped up, kidney beans and dried lime, is probably the most common stew in Iran (some may go as far as putting it as the national dish!). Another stew, or Khoresht, worth trying is “Fesenjan”. The base of the stew is made with minced walnut, pomegranate puree and sometimes crushed pumpkins; and prepared with meatballs, chicken or duck; depending on which region of Iran you’re in. It has a rich, mouth-watering sweet and sour taste. If you are in Tehran or any other big cities in Iran, you should easily be able to find a good Iranian restaurant that serves those (and other types) of Khoreshts. Just make sure the restaurant serves you Iranian rice and not Basmati rice! Iranian rice is, arguably, the best rice in the world. It is very light and fluffy in texture, has a wonderful aroma and a distinct taste that would make you want to eat it on its own. Unfortunately, it is only produced in certain areas of northern Iran, and the production volume only meets a fraction of the national consumption of rice.
One last “nation-wide” dish to introduce, before we focus on regional food, is barberry rice or “Zereshk Polo”. Barberry is a sour berry (looks similar to red currant) that grows naturally in the East of Iran. To preserve it, barberry is dehydrated and dried after it is picked from the bush. For preparation, it is sautéed with butter, sugar, and saffron and then mixed with or poured over rice. This combination gives a unique tart and slightly sweet flavor to the rice. Zereshk Polo can be served with chicken, meat or any stew that you like (or even your kabab!). So in the restaurant, ask if you can have Zereshk Polo, instead of plain rice.
Vegetarian Foods in Iran for Travelers
If you are a vegetarian or not a fan of rice, you might feel a bit disappointed at this point. But, the good news is that there are several vegetarian dishes that are usually served with flatbread, and that are easily found in most parts of the country. “Kashk e Bademjan” is a favorite among Iranians, as a side or the main course. To make it, eggplants are fried with onions, garlic, walnuts and dried mint; then mashed and simmered until the mixture is well soft and sticky. In the end, whey liquid (a thick, salty dairy called “Kashk”) is mixed into or poured over the dish. If you order it at a restaurant, flatbread (called “Naan” in Persian) should come as standard on the side. Another vegetarian Iranian food, certainly worthy of a try, is a thick pancake, called “Kookoo”. There are many types of Kookoo’s, made with various ingredients; but the most famous one is “Kookoo Sabzi”. To make it, finely chopped herbs are mixed in a bowl with eggs and then poured into a pre-heated saucepan to form a round cake that is fried on both sides. It is then sliced into wedges and served with Naan. A more luxurious version of Kookoo Sabzi would also contain crushed walnuts and barberries, two very familiar ingredients in Iranian food and cuisine.
Iranian Food Cooking Classes
Learning to cook signature Iranian dishes is one of the favorite travel experiences for our travelers. We offer Iranian culinary classes in many of our featured destinations. Participants explore a local market to see, smell and learn about the fresh local produce, and buy ingredients for their dishes. A local instructor will guide the travelers through the cooking process and teach them the basic techniques required to prepare Iranian food. Most Iranian dishes have extended preparations providing plenty of opportunities to discuss Iranian cuisine and its role in the overall Iranian identity and culture.