If you have ever been curious about Persian cuisine, or have wanted to try it but have been afraid to because it sounded too exotic, then keep reading. This article will highlight some of the more popular dishes of Iran, how they are cooked, and what each contains.
When eating at a Persian restaurant, it is customary to get a complimentary appetizer before each meal. This usually includes fresh warm naan (flatbread) and a bowl of sabzi, or herbs. Cubes of feta cheese are also usually mixed in with the herbs. To eat, tear off a piece of the naan, top it with some of the herbs and cheese, wrap it in half and enjoy. The freshness of the herbs works well with the salty feta and warm bread.
A popular and delicious starter to any Persian meal is called kashk-e badamjan, or eggplant dip. Kashk is a thick whey that can be found in any specialty Persian or Middle Eastern market. The closest thing I can compare it to is yogurt, but it's much thicker and tastes nothing like yogurt. Badamjan is the Farsi word for eggplant. So basically it is an eggplant dip flavored with garlic, onions, seasoning, and kashk. It is very similar to babaganoush but more flavorful. Best eaten scooped up with naan.
On to the main dishes! Kebab kubideh is a great dish to start with if you have never had Persian food before. Think of it as similar to a hamburger, but without the bun and instead of being round it is long and narrow (more similar to a hot dog shape than a hamburger). Kubideh is ground beef and lamb mixed with spices and onion. It is shaped over skewers that are flat and long and grilled over an open flame. It is served with rice and grilled tomatoes and finished off with sumac.
Barg is similar except the meat is not ground, it is filet that is marinated and grilled. Barg can be made of chicken, lamb or beef. It is very flavorful and tender. If you would like to try one of each, Persian restaurants usually have a dish called 'Sultani', which consists of one of each of a skewer of barg and a skewer of kubideh, also served with rice and grilled tomatoes.
Another common Persian dish is ghormeh sabzi, or herb stew. It is basically chopped herbs such as parsley, fenugreek, spring onions, and chives. Other options include cilantro (coriander) or spinach. The herbs are cooked with beans, lamb and/or beef, and seasonings. Another key ingredient in ghormeh sabzi is Persian limes. They are smaller and much more sour than regular limes, and they have a rougher outer skin. The stew is served over rice. There are many other types of Persian stews known as aash. The foundation of aash is similar to ghormeh sabzi, but different flavorings or ingredients are what makes each aash unique.
As far as beverages go, the two most popular that are served with Persian meals are hot tea and a drink called doogh. The main ingredients in doogh are yogurt and mint. Salt and pepper are used to flavor it also. Doogh can be made with or without carbonated water. It is definitely an acquired taste! Hot tea is normally served after the meal. Persians drink their hot tea plain, and a small bowl of sugar cubes is served alongside the tea. The sugar cubes can be dissolved into the hot tea, but it is a common practice among Persians to put a sugar cube in their mouth first and then drink the hot tea.
When it comes to desserts, you may be surprised to learn that rose water is a very common ingredient. Bastani is rose-flavored ice cream and shouldn't be missed when trying Persian desserts. Chickpea flour is used to make cookies, and pistachios are used to flavor baklava. Persian desserts tend not to be too sweet in nature, which makes a perfect ending to a big meal.
If you are lucky enough to live nearby a Persian restaurant and have never eaten Persian food before, do yourself a favor and try it. If you have an Iranian friend, don't be shy! Ask if they know how to cook traditional dishes. Persians are very friendly by nature and love to share their culture. Once you try it, you will be hooked!