Iranian Food Culture
The classic Middle East staples of lamb, wheat bread, eggplant and yogurt are also the staples of Iran. But Iranian cuisine sets itself apart by the cultivation and use of rice for almost every meal. "A loaf of bread, a jug of wine" may have satisfied Omar Khayyam, but the fact that the Iranians themselves pay highest tribute to their poet Firdausi, who wrote the Shah-nameh an epic poem to the ruler said to have invented cooking clearly marks their valued appreciation of gastronomy.
Thus the Iranian dietary, along with a base of expertly cooked long grain white rice, includes seasonal fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, all subtly touched with fragrant spices and herbs and accompanied with liberal servings of some form of yogurt as well as flat wheaten bread. Very little seafood is used and pork is forbidden since it is a Muslim land. It should be emphasized that Iranian foods are mildly seasoned often using saffron or turmeric and the aromatic cinnamon, clove and cardamom, while orange-flower water and rose water perfume many confections. Sweet hot tea in tiny cups is the anytime beverage; while succulent sweetness keynotes not only the tea but also snacks and treats and even some of the fruit sauces that are part of meat dishes.
As in most Middle East countries, the disparity is great between the diet of the wealthy classes and the low-income groups both in rural and urban areas. The fine intricacies of the Iranian cuisine and selection of many dishes for a meal are the privilege of the upper classes alone. For others, cereals supplemented with dairy products, and small amounts of fruits and vegetables in season washed down with huge quantities of sweet tea form the basic diet. Meats are used rarely. In the wheat-producing areas rice the staple of most Iranians is considered a luxury for the poor; while in the rice-producing areas, the poor enjoy wheat bread like cake.
Milk and Alternares
Ten percent of Iran's population consists of nomadic tribes who herd goat and sheep. Fresh milk is not practical in a hot climate; goats and sheep can forage for food in dry scraggy areas where cattle could not survive. Hence the title of "poor mans cow" bestowed on the goat, the producer of milk that makes excellent cheeses and which is fermented also to produce the rich buttery yogurt. Most homemakers prepare their own yogurt, simply by adding a little yogurt to fresh milk and allowing it to ferment. Spread on a cloth and allowed to dry in the sun, the yogurt culture can be transported as a dried powder then reconstituted. Yogurt is used as it is or diluted with water and lightly salted to form a refreshing beverage. It is also used as a marinade to tenderize meats, and as an ingredient in many dishes.
Fruits and Vegetables
While the climate of the Middle East is conducive to the growing of fruits, the orchards and vineyards of Iran produce fruits of legendary flavor and size. These are not only enjoyed fresh and ripe as desserts but are also imaginatively combined with meats and form unusual accompaniments to the main dishes. When fresh fruits are not available, a large variety of excellent dried fruits such as dates and figs, dried apricots and peaches are used instead. The list of fruits includes-fresh dates and fresh figs. many citrus fruits, apricots, peaches, sweet and sour cherries, apples, plums, pears, pomegranates and many varieties of grapes and melons."
While the eggplant is "the potato of Iran," Iranians are fond of fresh green salads dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and a little garlic. Vegetables such as pumpkin, spinach, string beans, varieties of squashes and carrots are commonly used in rice and meat dishes.
Tomatoes, cucumbers and green onions often accompany a meal. A small sweet variety of cucumber is popularly served as a fruit. The term DOLMEH is used to describe any vegetable or fruit stuffed with a rice or rice-andmeat~ixture: grape leaves, cabbage leaves, spinach, eggplant. peppers, tomatoes, even apples and quince (BEH).
To underline both the skill and imagination of Iranian cookery, a few examples of the main ingredients in Iranian specialties would include duck, pomegranates and walnuts; lamb, prunes and cinnamon; spinach, orange and garlic; and chicken and sliced peaches sautéed in onions and butter, seasoned with cinnamon and lemon juice.
The above are only a few examples of the combinations of meats and vegetables, or meats and fruits plus unusual seasonings that may go into CHELO KORESH, the favorite Iranian dish that is served at least once daily. This dish of crusty baked rice is topped by one of the sauces listed, or one of dozens more limited only by price and availability of ingredients.
Meats and Alternates Lamb is the favored meat. Young. sweet and tender, lamb is treasured its flavor and texture and is usually combined with rice to form CHELO KORESH, TAH CHIN (layered rice, yogurt and lamb) or the many DOLMEH dishes. Next to lamb in importance is kid (young goat), and very occasionally beef and chicken. Many varieties of local fish are eaten, but almost no seafood.
An important source of protein is to be found in the large quantities of beans, legumes and nuts consumed almost daily. Chick peas, dried fava beans, white and red beans and lentils are used not only in stews with vegetables and bits of meat but also mixed with rice and even toasted and salted to be enjoyed as appetizers. Nuts in rich profusion, especially pistachios, walnuts and almonds, are used widely as ingredients or garnishes as well as appetizers or to nibble lightly toasted and salted like the beans.
Irans beluga caviar, lightly salted sturgeon roe, deserves special mention for it is world famous. Sturgeon and swordfish are served skewered as a specialty dish of the Caspian Sea region, but the fish are also good smoked.
Breads and Cereals
Unpolished long grain rice or PATNA is an Iranian staple and many say that the preparation of rice in Iran is unequalled elsewhere in the world. The exact method of cookery - whether or not to presoak, and how long to cook - depends on the age of the rice. The scores of unusual food combinations are actually based on two simple rice dishes: CHELO, in which the brown crustiness of the rice is encouraged with the addition of melted butter and egg yolks, then the rice is topped with sauces; or POLO, similar to pilaf in which the many ingredients are mixed and cooked together with the rice. KNORESH is the name given to the many sauces that can top a CHELO and these are usually only limited by season, not by imagination.
Aside from main dishes, rice may also be heavily sweetened with sugar. syrup or honey and flecked with almonds and pistachio. to prepare a type of SHEKAR POLO, a very sweet POLO used for special occasions. Finally. rice will likely be the principal ingredient in the many stuffed fruit or vegetable dishes called dolmeh.
Second only to rice is the production and use of wheat. There are said to be more than forty types of wheat breads from very dark to very light. from crisp to limp, and at least one type of flat bread will be a part of every meal. NANE LAVASH is an example of the thin crisp bread with good keeping qualities, while NANE SANGAK is a fresh yeast bread, baked on hot stones and eaten while still warm."
Some barley is produced but it is used mainly as food for animals and only occasionally for human food when wheat crops are poor.
Olive oils, clarified butter and fat from the "fat-tailed sheep" are used in cooking and salads. Butter is clarified mainly to remove the milk solids and enhance its keeping qualities.
Sweets and Snacks
Fresh fruits are the usual dessert, but the insatiable Iranian sweet tooth finds some satisfaction in the many fruit RHORESHES used in CHELO, the many cups of hot sweet tea (herbal and regular), candied and dried fruits, and the special occasions when SHEKAR POLO and pastries like BAKLAVA are prepared in profusion.
One of the distinctions of the Iranian cuisine is the subtlety of the seasonings. The traditional Iranian politeness even extends to the limiting of garlic in cookery so as not to offend others. Onions and garlic are used only with discretion, but cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, saffron, paprika, nutmeg, turmeric and dill are used with artistry: never overpowering, always gently enhancing the main ingredients.
To balance the natural sweetness of fresh and dried fruits used so often in cookery, the Iranian cook adds judicious amounts of tartness by using one of the following: VERJUICE, the sour juice of unripe grapes, lemon or lime juice, strips of dried limes, dried tangerine peel or tamarind. Powdered SUMAC, with its chili-powder appearance and sour taste, is a seasoning often used for broiled meats. Pomegranate juice and seeds are often used both for color and tartness.
The national beverage of Iran is sweet clear tea, often sipped through a sugar cube. Sweet tea starts the day, breaks the work hours, may accompany social or business engagements and sometimes meals. Tea called CKAi is alwi~s appropriate. But so are the special herbal teas called TISANES, used for a variety of medical "cures," steeped from flowers such as roses, violets, jasmine, camomile, and spices such as ginger, saffron and anise: all fragrant, flavorful and aromatic.
Next in importance is coffee - more important in some areas than in others. Special rituals surround the preparation and serving of tiny cups of coffee (see "Meal Patterns and Eating Customs") but it is taken with little or no sugar.
Yogurt, diluted with water or sparkling mineral water and lightly salted, is served as a refreshing drink - often with meals - and is called DUGH or ABDUG.
Although Muslims do not drink wine, they sometimes allow themselves beer (often taken with the addition of salt), cognac, or AARAK, a clear potent liquor redolent of anise. Large quantities of carbonated beverages and soft drinks are also consumed.
Meal Patterns and Eating Customs
Consideration of others and refinement of manners are as much a part of the Iranian character as appreciation of and dedication of artistry. Shoes are traditionally removed before entering a room and the main meal of the day is always preceded by ceremonious hand-washing and the serving. of tea.
Traditional Iranian dinner is set out in serving dishes set on a large white cloth spread over many beautiful carpets. The diners sit around the cloth on soft cushions. It is customary for the diners to eat all foods with the fingers of their right hand. Special short-handled spoons are used for soups and soft desserts, and sometimes visitors are given forks. However. all food is prepared and served in such a way that knives are never needed or used at the table. A simple meal would traditionally observe all of these customs, a more elaborate meal or banquet would differ only in the number and variety of dishes presented.
Where coffee still takes precedence over tea, there is a special ritual to its preparation and serving, and special implements are used. For the purist, the coffee beans are roasted and crushed immediately before brewing. MIHMA is the special spoon for roasting the beans, QASHUGA is the name of the long rod to stir the roasting beans, while HAWAN is the special brass mortar used to crush the hot, freshly roasted coffee beans," In fact, in some homes, the early morning pounding of the coffee beans is a pleasant awakening for the family.
The rounded Iranian coffee pots, with their long spouts and narrow necks, seem always ready with a fresh brew, whether the housewife is being hospitable or the merchant is doing business. In fact to refuse the offer of coffee is considered an insult. Traditionally, coffee is offered three times after the guests arrival and always it must be drunk. This is not a difficult matter as the handle-less cups are very tiny and when one excludes the sediment, there is really not too much to drink. Like eating, the cup of coffee is always received and drunk with the right hand. The use of the left hand is considered impolite, but the noisy sipping of the beverage, or rather the thick brew, is indicative of pleasure.
Three meals a day are usual and they begin with a light and early breakfast of sweetened tea or coffee and breads. Sometimes the breads ire served with local cheeses. Lunch and dinner are usually similar meals based on hearty portions of rice either made as CHELO or as a POLO and usually accompanied with fresh seasonal vegetables, bread and cheeses. Iran has a small but fine repertoire of soups but these are not as popular is dishes prepared with rice as a base. In fact, ASH, the word for soup, is really part of the Persian word ASH-PAZ or "cook." This literally means the maker of the soup. For most meals, fresh ripe fruits are the usual dessert.
Throughout the day nibbles of crunchy toasted nuts of all kinds, crisp dried seeds, and roasted beans all lightly salted are enjoyed everywhere.
Juicy snacks of fresh fruits and the frequent social sipping of tea or coffee allow little opportunity for real hunger. AJEEL is a favored mix of nuts and seeds that have been simmered in lime juice then salted and toasted. The familiar arrangement of selected fresh fruits that graces tables and is sold by vendors is called MIVEH.