Persian Food Culture: 9 Local Dishes You Need to Try

Persian Food Culture
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Grigory Bruev With one of the most ethnically diverse populations and over 3000 years of empire and history, Iran is an architectural wonder with a rich artistic heritage, and of course, culinary culture. Tradition is at the heart of Iranian life, and Iranians hold their cuisine close to their hearts. Persia may not be one of the first nations that come to mind when you think of Asian food, but our exploration into Iran’s national dishes sets out to change that. 

Imposing mountain ranges surround the central desert plateau that makes up most of this country. Yet, Iran is so much more than its arid landscape. Ancient cities, bustling bazaars, and hospitable people can be found around every corner. The southern coast, where you’ll find the Caspian Sea, provides a lush landscape for fruit trees to thrive, while the dry north sees a preference for sweets and spice influencing the cuisine. Rooted in faith and native tradition, Persian food culture is as important to the vast land as the rich empirical history. 

If you think Iranian cuisine hasn’t made it onto your radar quite yet, think again. Some of these favored staples may be less exotic than you’d first think. Iranian food is not that far removed from modern Asian cuisine with influences from Russia, India, and China. Still, each of these local dishes harbors its own essence, unique to the nation. Expect fragrant rice, bread with every meal, and an abundance of herbs, meats, and vegetable stews. The culture requires that any visitor only be served the finest food, so you’re in for a treat.

Khoresht-e Fesenjan

Persian Food Culture
Photo by Motghnit on Envato Elements

Hailing from the lush northern hills, where walnuts and pomegranates trees flourish, you can find this iconic stew on every Persian wedding menu. Traditionally made from duck, but often served with chicken, lamb, and even fish, the slow cooking process of koresht-e fesenjan allows the flavors to develop.   

Koresht-e is a generic term for stew dishes in Persian food culture and their common across the country. Aside from the time needed to put this stew together, it’s considered easy to make and ready to serve when the concoction is thick, creamy, and almost black. 

Khoreseht-e Fesenjan gets its distinct taste from ground walnuts and sweet pomegranate syrup that complement the stewed duck. The recipe also combines onion, cardamon, sugar, and stock and is served with Persian barbari bread or flatbread. 

Zereshk Polo

Persian Food Culture
Photo by Motghnit on Envato Elements

Zareshk, or “barberries,” are what give this fragrant rice dish its sweet and sour flavor. Joined by turmeric, sugar, and onion, this local Persian meal treats the tastebuds and the eyes. 

Characterized by its colors, this dish combines saffron-stained rice, roast chicken, and crispy barberries to create a simple but fragrant plate. Also often served at weddings, Zereshk Polo is a typical weeknight dinner in Persian households and a beloved classic across the country. 

Saffron yogurt is usually served with the dish to complement the festive rice rather than counteract spice. Persian food is a lot less hot than the cuisines of neighboring Asian nations. But where it doesn’t scorch in spice levels, Persian food makes up for it in flavor.   

Khoresht-e Ghormeh Sabzi

Persian Food Culture
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Sour and loaded with fresh herbs, Khoresht-e Ghormeh Sabzi is one of the most prominent Iranian dishes and a vital part of the culinary heritage. Ingredients vary by region, and each Iranian household will champion their own family recipe. Still, this herb stew typically combines lamb shoulder or beef chuck with dried Persian limes, fenugreek, chives, parsley, cilantro, and kidney beans.  

The dish goes back as far as 5,000 years and is widely popular in Azerbaijan too. Recipes from the south of Iran see chili and garlic added into the mix, while potatoes are used in place of beans in the north. Served with saffron rice and dished up at religious holidays and family occasions, as well as in most Persian restaurants, this stew is a firm national favorite.   

Sabzi Polo

Jeweled rice with Tahdig
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At Persian New Year celebrations, or Nowruz, celebrated in late March, one dish will always be on the menu. Traditionally served with smoked white fish from the Caspian Sea, but now more recently replaced by stuffed fresh fillets, Sabzi Polo, or herb rice, is another Iranian staple. 

If you haven’t noticed by now, rice is eaten every day and with almost every meal in Persian food culture. But that doesn’t mean it should ever get boring. This dish uses basmati rice and combines it with dried dill weed, ground saffron, cilantro, chives, lemon, garlic, and pomegranate. 

This jeweled rice is a treasured addition to any Persian feast and celebrates the abundant fresh herbs grown in Iran’s lush north and the beloved culinary art of fluffing rice. The rice is sometimes served with a crisp base that even has its own name. Tahdig is a national dish in its own right, and the crispy pan-fried rice is a local delicacy across the country.    

Chelo Kabab Koobideh

Kebab Koobideh from Iran
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What would a journey through middle eastern cuisine be without mentioning kebabs? Although rice and stews seem to dominate this list, Chelo Kabab Koobideh, a minced meat kebab dish, is considered Iran’s national dish in some parts of the country and has made its way onto menus worldwide.

This dish is simple and understated, but the flavor combinations are unrivaled. Ground beef or lamb is seasoned with salt, pepper, minced onion, and sumac and served with a mixture of saffron and white rice with grilled tomatoes. It’s quick to prepare and was first served in restaurants in Tehran but can now be found all over Iran.

Kebabs are a considerable part of Persian food culture. Kebab-e Barg, which is thinly sliced lamb or beef flavored with saffron and lemon, and Joojeh, a chicken kebab made from offal and bones for added flavor, are among the most famous kebab dishes. Check out Reyhoon Restaurant in northern Tehran for world-famous Kabab Koobideh. Former US President, Barack Obama, is among the celebrity clientele to have been served up this dish.

Khoresht-e Gheimeh

Persian Food Culture
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Before electric fridges were widely available in Iran, Persian families used traditional methods to preserve meat for consuming in the colder months. One way to do this, which first hailed from Iran’s northern provinces, was to dice the meat into small chunks, or ghemieh, and fry it with onions, turmeric, butter, and dried limed before storing in clay pots underground in cold basements.  

The thick layer of fat would solidify and allegedly seal out bacteria. Throughout winter, portions would be taken from the vats to add to stews which traditionally mixed yellow split peas, dried limes, and saffron with fried potatoes. This recipe is still popular nationwide, even if the meat isn’t stored the same way. Now, tomato purée or chopped tomatoes are often added to the broth, and lamb is the most commonly used protein.

Tahchin

Tahchin rice cake
Photo by Motghnit on Envato Elements

It won’t come as a surprise to see another rich dish grace this list. But Tahchin is far from conventional when it comes to accompanying carbs. This dense rice cake sees basmati or white rice mixed with yogurt, saffron, egg, and chicken. 

Often garnished with pomegranates, this dish is tangy and fragrant and can be eaten alone, but it is usually served with other meat dishes on special occasions. This rice cake always features a Tahdig top which is crisped on the bottom of a pan. Similar to the aforementioned culinary technique, Tahchin translates to “arranged at the bottom” and refers to the fluffy white rice center and crispy top in its name. 

Abgoosht

Persian Food Culture
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Hearty and nutritious, Abgoosht is made for cold winter days, combining carbs, fats, and protein in a rich, balanced stew. This dish is often called “dixi” after the stoneware pots in which it’s traditionally served. Although famous as a poor man’s meal, it has become a casual family staple and go-to for everyday Persian dinner times, using the cheapest cuts of lamb, beef, and animal fat.

The original recipe calls for the meat, chickpeas, garlic, onion, potatoes, tomatoes, and white beans to be put into the clay pots and sealed with mud before being buried in woodstove ashes to cook. The broth was often strained off and served with flatbread pieces floating within. Modern Abgoosht varies from region to region, but the ingredients are typically pounded together and served as a thick soup. 

Still served with Persian flatbread and a combination of pulses and fresh herbs, Abgoosht is Iran’s most beloved peasant dish. 

Ash-e Reshteh

Persian Food Culture
Photo by Motghnit on Envato Elements

Ash-e is a spicy vegetable soup, often served with herb yogurt and Iranian noodles, but don’t be fooled by the name. This dish is nothing like the Phos and Ramens of other south Asian cuisines.

This dish is characterized by its two distinct Persian ingredients, reshteh, the thin spaghetti-like noodles, and kashk, the drained yogurt or whey. Reshteh is saltier and starchier than Italian pasta, and kashk is sourer than Greek yogurt. Mixed with spinach, mint, lentils, and white beans, the result is a thick and sharp soup that is intensely aromatic.

Ash-e Reshteh is usually served during the lead-up to Nowruz and is thought to bring luck for travelers.   

What is traditional Persian food?

Persian, or Iranian cuisine, often combines rice with meat, vegetables, and nuts. Persian food uses many herbs, but the food is a lot less spicy than westerners may assume. Fruit like plum, quince, pomegranate, prunes, and raisins also commonly feature in sweet and savory dishes. Bread is traditionally served with every meal in Persian food culture and is even used as a utensil. Due to the mountainous landscape, lamb and goat are some of the most commonly eaten meats across the country. 

What makes Persian food culture unique?

Although influenced by the land and surrounding regions, some ingredients make Persian food culture unique. The native fruit, Narenj, that grows in the north is one of these. The fruit has a distinct citrus flavor found in many Iranian dishes. Sumac is another iconic Iranian spice used to season any kind of kebab. But it’s not just flavors that make Persian food unique. The predominantly Muslim population heavily influences Iranian cuisine. Pork, alcohol, and any meat not slaughtered following Halal practices are uncommon in Persian food. 

What is the most popular Persian dish?

The Kebab Koobideh, or “minced meat kebab,” is one of the most well-known Persian dishes and a favorite among Iranians. This is considered the national dish by many, and it’s made from lamb, beef, or a combination of the two. This dish is served with local flatbread, rice, tomatoes, and onions and eaten all over the country. You’ll find it everywhere in Iran, from street food stalls to family homes. 

It’s hard to ignore rice as a staple food in Persian culture, and it is often considered a national dish in its own right. Saffron rice is served with the most iconic Persian stews, and herb rice, or Sabzi Polo, is a favorite at Iranian feasts. Tahdig is the name of the crispy, pan-fried base of fragrant rice, and it means “bottom of the pot.” This local delicacy is a prime example of the varied culinary techniques that Persians play with when cooking rice. 

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Esmé is an English literature graduate and freelance writer. Originally from London, Esmé is lucky enough to call Bali home. Her travels have taken her from the far corners of the East to the islands of the Caribbean. When she's not writing, you'll find her lying on a beach somewhere, lost in a crime novel.