Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Iranian Food and Culture


In 1935, the Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi changed the name of his country from Persia to Iran. Changing a name is simple, but shifting an ancient nation into the high gear of modern western civilization is a monumental and complex task.

Beginning with the shedding of women’s veils and the doffing of men’s traditional fezzes, the Shahs reforms spread widely and thrust deeply into many aspects of Iranian life.
In 1979, with the forced exile of the Shah, and the return from exile in trance of Iran’s dominant religious leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his reversal of the Shah’s reforms, clashes between religious factions and between the urban middle class and the disenfranchised poor left a bloody trail of thousands killed or arrested. Despite the death of the Ayatollah in 1989, and a more moderate regime, Iran was politically and economically stagnant. Whether the Shah’s reforms and modernization will gradually seep back to renew and restore ancient pride and vitality in this lustrous land remains to be seen.

Yet in this harsh dry land, despite illiteracy and poverty, foreign dominations and religious disputes, some things remain constant: the innate artistry of Iran’s people and the Iranian philosophy of duality, evident not only in issues of morality but also in balancing sweet and sour, hot and cold, and even light and dark.

Ancient Persian culture abounds with eloquent tales of wit and exquisite paintings. Her cities reflect the genius of sculptor and architect and her peoples participate in crafts of carpet weaving, delicate metalwork, and pottery that have been handed down from generation to generation since prehistoric times. Persian artisans throughout history absorbed the new and subtly blended it with the familiar old ideas, perhaps with some inner vision that their skills would long outlive conqueror and conquered.

Persia, like many other countries, experienced periods of power and times of suffering. It was the Persian, Cyrus the Great, who united the tribes of Medes and Persians and established the Persian Empire about 540 B.C.E. By the time of Darius in the fifth century B.C.E., the mighty Persian Empire dominated the countries from India to Greece and its power was only subdued with the might of Alexander the Great in the early 300s B.C.E. This was the period of great commercial expansion: increased trade, use of coins, building of roads and irrigation tunnels, all of which also included the exchange of ideas. Long ago, Oriental tea and rice had revolutionized Persian cuisine and Persian expansion in turn had spread crafts and arts. With Greek conquests, Hellenistic influences touched everything from the foods on the table (sauces, stuffed vegetables, and methods of food preparation) to architectural design.

A change in religion came with the Arab domination in 640 C.E. Zoroastrianism had been the Persian faith since its founding by the Persian prophet Zoroaster (about 600 B.C.E.). The dualistic faith of Zoroastrianism, teaching that the principles of good and evil struggle for mastery in the universe, was suppressed and replaced by the faith of Islam which appealed to Persians because of its simplicity and emotionalism. Small pockets of Zoroastrian believers are still found in areas of Iran and the Near and Middle East as well as among the Parsees in Bombay, India.

But foreign influences and dominations were not to end with the Arabs. In the next 800 years, Turks and Mongols vied for control of Persia. It was a period that all but wiped out the country’s ancient culture and artistry. In the crumbled small kingdoms of the ancient Persian land, only small pockets of learning kept alive arts, science, and literature, while in the homes parents quietly passed on their skills to their children.

The brief Persian resurrections, under Ishmail I in 1499, who established the Persian Islamic sect of Shiism, and later the rule of Shah Abbas I, who restored order and even promoted trade with the British East India Company were squelched in 1722 by an Afghan army.Later, a tug-of-war between Russia and Great Britain further weakened Persian rulers and increased foreign influence to the point where the despair of the people resulted in the growth of a nationalist movement. This climaxed in 1923 with the election of Riza Kahn Pahlevi as prime minister. The shift to independence, renewal of ancient pride, and vitality had begun.

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