Learn All of the Basics of Iranian Meals + Get 2 Recipes!
What is traditional food in Iran? What is Persian food similar to? Learn the basics of Iranian cuisine with a special spotlight on rice, bread, and spices!
As the Silk Road came and went and enormous empires rose and fell, Persian cuisine has adapted along with its neighbors and also influenced the world with the gift of foods like pomegranates. Since Iran is uniquely situated between the culinary powerhouses of the Mediterranean Middle East and South Asia, it is no wonder that there is a wide spectrum of flavors and staples in Iran today — from lamb stews to crispy samosas.
In fact, Iranian cuisine is made up of far more than the dishes created by people from the Persian ethnic group. In Iran, you will find Azerbaijani cuisine, Kurdish cuisine, and so much more. And it is all delicious.
But, even with the great diversity of Iranian food, there are some trends that still rise to the surface. So, here are some things to keep in mind before we dive into a few key elements . . .
- Main dishes are often combinations of rice or bread with meat, vegetables, beans, nuts, and fruits
- Many Iranian dishes feature a distinct sourness that is often achieved through citrus, sumac, sour grape juice, and more
- Many Iranian dishes have vibrant colors achieved through herbs and spices
- Many Iranian dishes are aromatic from the use of flowers, herbs, spices, and fruits
Okay, so now that you are a little familiar with Iranian cuisine, let’s get a snapshot of common meals of the day before we look more specifically at 3 non-negotiable staples in Iran.
Good news, folks — a traditional Iranian breakfast is so quick and easy that you can enjoy it before running out the door for the day! A typical breakfast consists of flatbreads smeared with butter, cheese, sarshir (thick cream often mixed with honey), and a variety of jams and spreads.
If you want to try an Iranian flatbread breakfast at home, here are some classic ingredients you can mix and match:
1. Flatbread (see bread section below for types)
2. Soft white cheese:
3. Sweet or savory toppings:
- Sweet: honey, jam / murabba spreads (such as carrot, apricot, sour cherry, quince, rose petal, barberry, and citrus)
- Savory: butter, walnuts, pistachios, fresh herbs like parsley and dill, cucumber slices, tomato slices
But, if you want something a little warmer or heartier, pache is also a popular Iranian dish that is a soup made from sheep’s head, feet, and other parts!
Lunch and Dinner
Typical Iranian lunch and dinners will be a well-balanced mix of meat, beans, vegetables, herbs, dairy, nuts, and fruits served with rice or bread. The most common animal proteins are poultry, beef, lamb, and fish. Stew over rice is probably the most popular dish throughout the country, but soups, kebabs, and rice dishes are also staple meals.
Now that you can picture some of the common meals enjoyed by Iranians all over the world, it’s time to get up to speed on 3 key features of Iranian cuisine that you cannot do without: rice, bread, and spices.
Rice has not only been a significant staple of Persian food since the first century BCE, it has even been called the “crown jewel of Persian cuisine.” It is daily enjoyed as main dishes, side dishes, and desserts throughout Iran.
Although there are many types of rice cultivated in Iran like champa, domsiah, and gerdeh, they aren’t always easy to get your hands on outside of Iran. However, rice from India with long and slender grains made its way into Iran long ago, so basmati is a great rice to use when cooking Iranian food outside of Iran.
Cooking Iranian rice is like its own art form. It often goes through soaking in salted water, boiling, and steaming before being transformed into its final delicious rendition.
There are 4 primary methods for preparing rice:
- Chelow – plain rice served alongside a stew or kebab
- Polow – like pilaf with ingredients like vegetables, fruits, and beans mixed into the rice
- Kateh – rice that is cooked until the water is absorbed completely
- Dami – a mixed rice dish with all ingredients cooked together in one pot
Before we move onto bread, it would be remiss to talk about Iranian rice without mentioning tadig! Tadig literally translates to bottom + pot and is a golden, thin, and crunchy layer at — you guess it! — the bottom of the rice pot. This crunchy layer can also be created using elements other than rice, like a thin bread or potato slices that line the pot base.
Bread is just as important as rice when it comes to Iranian food because basically all meals are eaten with rice or bread. So, it naturally follows that Iran has a wide range of delectable breads that vary regionally to reflect their neighbors in baking methods and flavor profiles.
- Lavash – a very thin round or rectangular flatbread that is the most common in Iran
- Barbari – a very thick and long oval flatbread that can have fun textures from added seeds
- Sangak – a unique whole wheat flatbread baked on a bed of small stones
- Taftoon – a soft and round leavened flatbread cooked in a clay oven with yogurt as one of its ingredients
- Shirmal – a traditional, aromatic sweet bread that is kneaded with milk
If you’ve been to a Persian restaurant before, one thing that probably comes to the forefront of your memory is the flavor and vibrant color that spices add to your meal. There are many common spices that are widely used in Iranian cuisine like turmeric and cinnamon, but we want to teach you about 5 of the less well-known seasonings that are essential to Iranian cooking so you aren’t lost when picking up an authentic Iranian recipe.
- Iranian saffron – vibrant red and adds aroma and flavor to rice dishes, marinades, stews, desserts, and more
- Dried limes (limoo amani) – adds a potent lime flavor to stews, rice, seafood, and more
- Persian hogweed (golpar) – adds aroma and slightly bitter taste to pickles, stews, soups, and sauces
- Sour grape juice (ab ghooreh) – adds an iconic sourness to sauces, dressings, stews and more
- Rose petals – adds a pop of flavor and aroma to rice dishes, desserts, cold yogurt soup, and more
Easy Recipes to Make at Home
If you want help getting started you can learn how to make our Easy Persian Chicken Thighs with a yogurt-based marinade, fluffy couscous, and fresh cucumber and pomegranate salad. (Plus learn a bit about Persian New Year while you are at it!)
You can also try making our Persian-Inspired Turkey Kofta with delectable spices, a fun flatbread salad, and creamy herb yogurt dressing!
Now that you know a bit more about Iranian cuisine than before, we hope that you’ll try your hand at some delicious recipes or plan a visit to a local Persian restaurant. We are always excited to help home cooks bring more excitement to their dinner tables by having recipes like our Persian Turkey Kofta pop up in curated weekly menus.
You can get access to hundreds of quick and easy recipes when you sign up for a free 14-day trial and try out the convenience of streamlined weekly menus!
If you liked learning about some of the basics of Iranian food, make sure to check out our downloadable Indian Pantry and Middle Eastern Pantry guides. You can also stay tuned for more infographics and how-to articles by signing up for our weekly email below.