FOODS IN IRAN
Ten percent of Iran’s population consists of nomadic tribes who herd coats and sheep. Fresh milk is not practical in a hot climate; goats and sheep can forage for food in dry scraggy areas where cattle could not survive; hence the title of “poor man’s cow” bestowed on the goat, the producer of milk that makes excellent cheeses and that is also fermented to produce rich buttery yogurt. Most homemakers prepare their own yogurt simply by adding a little yogurt to fresh milk and allowing it to ferment. Spread on a cloth and allowed to dry in the sun, the yogurt culture can be transported as a dried powder then reconstituted. Yogurt is used as it is or diluted with water and lightly salted to form a refreshing beverage. Because yogurt is mildly acidic, it is also used as a marinade to tenderize meats, and as an ingredient in many dishes.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
While the climate of the Middle East is conducive to the growing of fruits, the orchards and vineyards of Iran produce fruits of legendary flavor and size. These are not only enjoyed fresh and ripe as desserts but are also imaginatively combined with meats and form unusual accompaniments to the main dishes. When fresh fruits are not available, a large variety of excellent dried fruits such as dates and figs, dried apricots and peaches are used instead. The list of fruits includes: fresh dates and fresh figs, many citrus fruits, apricots, peaches, sweet and sour cherries, apples, plums, pears, pomegranates, and many varieties of grapes and melons.
While the eggplant is “the potato of Iran,” Iranians are fond of fresh green salads dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and a little garlic. Vegetables such as pumpkin, spinach, string beans, varieties of squashes, and carrots are commonly used in rice and meat dishes.
Tomatoes, cucumbers, and green onions often accompany a meal. A small sweet variety of cucumber is popularly served as a fruit. The term dolmeh is used to describe any vegetable or fruit stuffed with a rice or rice-and-meat mixture: grape leaves, cabbage leaves, spinach, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, even apples, and quince (beh).
To underline both the skill and imagination of Iranian cookery, a few examples of the main ingredients in national specialties would include: duck, pomegranates, and walnuts; lamb, prunes, and cinnamon; spinach, orange, and garlic; and chicken and sliced peaches sautéed in onions and butter, seasoned with cinnamon and lemon juice.
The above are only a few examples of the combinations of meats and vegetables, or meats and fruits plus unusual seasonings that may go into chelo koresh, the favorite Iranian dish that is served at least once daily This dish of crusty baked rice is topped by one of the sauces listed, or one of dozens more, limited only by price and availability of ingredients.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
Lamb is the favored meat. Young, sweet, and tender, lamb is treasured for its taste and texture and is usually combined with rice to form chelo koresh, tah chin (layered rice, yogurt, and lamb) or the many dolmeh dishes. Next to lamb in importance is kid (young goat), and very occasionally beef and chicken. Many varieties of local fish are eaten, but almost no seafood.
An important source of protein is found in the large quantities of beans, legumes, and nuts Iranians consume almost daily. Chickpeas, dried lava beans, white and red beans, dried yellow and green split peas and lentils are used not only in stews with vegetables and bits of meat but also mixed with rice and even toasted and salted to be enjoyed as appetizers. Nuts in rich profusion, especially pistachios, walnuts, and almonds, are used widely as ingredients or garnishes as well as appetizers or to nibble lightly toasted and salted like the beans.
Iran’s beluga caviar, lightly salted sturgeon roe, deserves special mention for it is world famous. Sturgeon and swordfish are served skewered as a specialty dish of the Caspian Sea region, but these fish are also good smoked.
BREADS AND GRAINS
Unpolished long-grain rice or patna is an Iranian staple. Many say that the preparation of rice in Iran is unequaled elsewhere in the world. The exact method of cookery – whether or not to presoak, and how long to cook – depends on the age of the rice. Who else but Iranians concern themselves with the age of rice? The scores of unusual food combinations are actually based on two simple rice dishes: chelo, in which the brown crustiness of the rice is encouraged with the addition of melted butter and egg yolks, then the rice is topped with sauces; or polo, similar to pilaf in which the many ingredients are mixed and cooked together with the rice. Khoresh is the name given to the many sauces that can top a chelo and these are usually only limited by season, not by imagination.
Aside from main dishes, rice may also be heavily sweetened with sugar, syrup, or honey and flecked with almonds and pistachios to prepare a type of shekar polo, a very sweet polo used for special occasions. Finally, rice will likely be the principal ingredient in many stuffed fruit or vegetable dishes called dolmeh.
Second only to rice is the production and use of wheat. There are more than forty types of wheat breads, from very dark to very light, from crisp to limp, and at least one type of flat bread will be a part of every meal. Nane lavash is an example of the thin crisp bread with good keeping qualities, while nane sangak is a fresh yeast bread, baked on hot stones and eaten while still warm. Nane barbari is a flat thick bread sprinkled with cornmeal and sesame seeds and enjoyed warm from the oven. Some barley is produced but it is used mainly as food for animals and only occasionally for human food when wheat crops are poor.
Olive oils, clarified butter, and fat from the “fat-tailed sheep” are used in cooking and salads. Butter is clarified mainly to remove the milk solids and enhance its keeping qualities.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
Fresh fruits are the usual dessert, but the insatiable Iranian sweet tooth finds some satisfaction in the many fruit khoreshes used in chelo, the many cups of hot sweet tea (herbal and regular), candied and dried fruits, and the special occasions when shekar polo and pastries like baklava are prepared in profusion.
One of the distinctions of the Iranian cuisine is the subtlety of the seasonings. The traditional Iranian politeness even extends to limiting garlic in cookery so as not to offend others. Onions and garlic are used only with discretion, but cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, saffron, paprika, fenugreek, marjoram, savory, nutmeg, turmeric, and dill are used with artistry: never overpowering, always gently enhancing the main ingredients.
To balance the natural sweetness of fresh and dried fruits used so often in cookery, the Iranian cook adds judicious amounts of tartness by using one of the following: verjuice, the sour juice of un-ripened grapes; lemon or lime juice; strips of dried limes; dried tangerine peel or tamarind. Powdered sumac, with its chili-powder appearance and sour taste, is a seasoning often used for broiled meats. Pomegranate juice and seeds are often used both for color and tartness. Sweetness and tartness: a skillful balance in Iranian cuisine.
The national beverage of Iran is sweet clear tea, often sipped through a sugar cube. Sweet tea starts the day, breaks the work hours, may accompany social or business engagements and sometimes meals. Tea called chai is always appropriate. But so are the special herbal teas called tisanes, used for a variety of medical “cures,” steeped from flowers such as roses, violets, jasmine, chamomile, and spices such as ginger, saffron, and anise: all fragrant, flavorful, and aromatic.
Next in importance is coffee – more important in some areas than in others. Special rituals surround the preparation and serving of tiny cups of coffee (discussed below) but it is taken with little or no sugar.
Yogurt, diluted with water or sparkling mineral water and lightly salted, is served as a refreshing ink – often with meals – and is called dugh or abdug. Although Muslims do not drink wine, they sometimes allow themselves beer (often taken with the addition of salt), cognac, or Aarak, a clear potent liquor redolent of anise. Large quantities of carbonated beverages and soft drinks are also enjoyed.
Not to be overlooked are the many refreshing non-alcoholic drinks prepared from fresh fruits called afshoreh and from fruit syrups called sharbat. Unique syrups include those made from quince, rose petals, rhubarb, lemon, and even from vinegar scented with fresh mint. Fresh fruit drinks can be made From varieties and combinations of orange, berries, cherries, and melons.