We had fairly high expectations of Iranian food going into the trip, and to some extent our expectations were met–most things we had were quite delicious. However, sadly, food for tourists in Iran suffers from two serious problems.
The first is the same issue that I spoke of in my Syrian food entry (4.27)–the food that is generally served in restaurants is only a small subset of the cuisine as a whole, and to try other dishes essentially requires an invitation to a home-cooked meal. Just as in Syria or Turkey, restaurant food is largely kebabs, in various forms. This problem is more severe in Iran because the restaurants do not have the mezze/salad culture of Syria or Turkey, but alleviated by the fact that even fairly basic Iranian kebabis often will serve, in addition to kebab, dizi or a stew (see below for both). At home, we are told, people eat less kebabs, and more stews and rice dishes (polo).
This distinction between home food and restaurant food is common throughout the Middle East, and my two best guesses so far is that it exists either because of gender roles or history. The first theory is that there is a difference between food traditionally cooked by men and food traditionally cooked by women, with only the former being served in restaurants, where only men work. Just as men barbecue in America, grilling kebabs seems to be a man’s job, and I do not recall seeing one woman working as a waitress or a cook in a proper restaurant in the Middle East. [On the other hand, there’s nothing about being male that would prevent you from learning to cook other dishes and serving them in restaurants.] It’s also possible that kebabs represent more masculine food (cooked around a campfire in ancestral days?), and that the customers at restaurants were, primarily, men (since women were more likely to be at home for meals).
The historical theory, I would pose, is that kebabs (due to their meatiness) somehow represented higher class food, or at least food that would be served in a premium (restaurant) setting. Grilled meat is something of a status food in other countries as well (e.g., steakhouses), and the idea of going out to eat may have been equated with eating special food that you couldn’t eat at home every day. Of course, as average wealth has gone up, this is to a certain extent no longer true (many people now can afford to eat meat regularly at home, even if they do not choose to), but this “ranking” of food may persist in what restaurants serve.
Anyway, on to the food.
Let’s start with the kebabs. The most common by far is a minced/pressed meat kebab called kubideh (what a Turk would call köfte). It is fairly highly seasoned in Iran, and delicious almost anywhere (although very fatty in lower class joints). It is the single most common food, here served with grilled tomatoes and onions.
Most simply, kebab can be eaten with bread, which is provided for free in Iranian restaurants, but most people order it with rice, which costs some money. The rice in Iran is long grain, similar to Indian rice, and is often served with some saffron-tinted rice and a few barberries on top. The rice is almost always cooked perfectly, light and delicious, especially with the often provided pat of butter. Here, chicken kebab with rice.
Often called “the national dish,” dizi or abgusht is one of the most homey, basic foods of Iran, of northwestern/Azeri-Turkish origin we read once, and is served in restaurants as well as basic teahouses.
Dizi has quite a complicated eating process. First you drink the soup, which is a meaty tomato broth, usually by pouring it into a separate metal bowl and adding a whole lot of torn-up bread. Here, we did it in the dizi pot.
Once you have consumed all of the liquid, you mash up the solid ingredients (meat, potatoes, vegetables) with the provided masher, add some onions, mint or whatever else is provided for additional seasoning and spoon it up, perhaps with bread.
As I mentioned, many restaurants have at least one stew on hand, which is always served with rice. Two particular stews are by far the most common. The first is khoresht ghaimeh, which is a red stew made with split peas and meat. Here, pictured with yogurt, which is offered with all Iranian meals.
The second is khoresht ghormeh sabzi, which is (and tastes) green. It’s a matter of personal preference and mood, I think, which of these two stews one would prefer at a given time.
Many Iranians told us that their favorite Iranian dish is fesenjun, which is meat served in a thick green sauce of walnuts and pomegranate juice. The flavor is complex and slightly tangy, to me a bit reminiscent of Mexican mole, although not quite as dark and rich. Here, it was served with chicken, as is usual, although we also saw it with lamb. Fesenjun is delicious and fairly hard to come by in a restaurant, and so we ordered it whenever possible.
Tachin. It looks almost like a quiche in this picture, and that is because it is made with a lot of egg (we think just yolk). The substance of the “pie” is rice, crusted on top, and there is a large piece of chicken buried within (visible in the lower right). Oddly, it is served on yet more rice. I found the dish a bit too egg yolk-y, for my taste, but Derek loved it. In addition to appearing on tachin, crusty rice from the side of the pot is eaten as a snack in Iran, just as in parts of East Asia.
A common “appetizer” is kashk-e bademjun, a mixture of eggplant and whey. We used it as a sort of dip for bread.
One special food in Esfahan is beriani. Although it has the same name as Indian biryani it is totally unrelated, as you can see (cf. post of 5.12). A patty of seasoned meat hides within some bread. Not too exciting.
In order to avoid eating kebabs two meals a day, we found ourselves resorting to “fast food,” which in Iran generally means hamburgers and pizzas. Fast food restaurants, mostly one-off restaurants and not chains, and serving food fairly quickly but no more so than kebabis, are more common than any other kind of restaurant. The pizza in Iran is not so good (often packed with fairly bad pork-less meat products) but the hamburgers excellent (made with patties that are a combination of meat and soy). This food was from the Hamedan branch of a national chain called Atish, filled with very hip, middle-class Iranians.
I am not sure whether an Iranian would call firni breakfast food or dessert, but it was first introduced to me in Turkey (in baked form) as a dessert. Here served with sweet date sauce (without the sauce it was fairly bland).
The most common Iranian sweet, at least of those served on the street and not counting soft serve ice cream: faludeh. The light, thin short strips (made with wheat or rice, I believe, depending on where you get it), more similar to pasta than anything else, are frozen and gently flavored with rose water. Here, served with lemon sherbet on left.
The most common drink in Iran is tea, but we found these very interesting beverages on the street in many cities. I believe both are made with flowers, but know only the name of the orange one–khak-e shir. The most unique thing about these drinks, hopefully visible in the photo, is that there are countless “floaties” that slowly settle and then become suspended in the liquid again at a gentle shake. The floaties have a pleasant texture as you suck them through your straw. I was told that the drink is also supposed to have therapeutic qualities.