Food Culture and Tradition

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Meals and Customs in Iran


Consideration of others and refinement of manners are as much a part of the Iranian character as appreciation of and dedication to artistry. Shoes are traditionally removed before entering a room and the main meal of the day is always preceded by ceremonious hand-washing and the serving of tea.

The traditional Iranian dinner is set out in serving dishes set on a large white cloth spread over many beautiful carpets. The diners sit around the cloth on soft cushions. It is customary for the diners to eat all foods with the fingers of their right hand. Special short-handled spoons are used for soups and soft desserts, and sometimes visitors are given forks. However, all food is prepared and served in such a way that knives are never needed or used at the table. A simple meal would traditionally observe all of these customs, a more elaborate meal or banquet would differ only in the number and variety of dishes presented.

Where coffee still takes precedence over tea, there is a special ritual to its preparation and serving, and special implements are used. For the purist, the coffee beans are roasted and crushed immediately before brewing. Mihma is the special spoon for roasting the beans, qashuga is the name of the long rod to stir the roasting beans, while hawan is the special brass mortar used to crush the hot, freshly roasted coffee beans. In fact, in some homes, the early morning pounding of the coffee beans and the baking of crisp breads for breakfast is a pleasant awakening for the family.

The rounded Iranian coffeepots, with their long spouts and narrow necks, seem always ready with a fresh brew, whether the woman of the house is being hospitable or the merchant is doing business. In fact, to refuse the offer of coffee is considered an insult. Traditionally, coffee is offered three times after the guests’ arrival and always it must be drunk. This is not a difficult matter as the handle-less cups are very tiny and when one excludes the sediment, there is really not too much to drink. As with food, the cup of coffee is always received and drunk with the right hand. The use of the left hand is considered impolite, but the noisy sipping of the beverage, or rather the thick brew, is indicative of pleasure.

Three meals a day are usual and they begin with a light and early breakfast of sweetened tea or coffee and breads. Sometimes the breads are served with local cheeses. Lunch and dinner are usually similar meals based on hearty portions of rice either made as chelo or as a polo and frequently accompanied with fresh seasonal vegetables, bread and cheese. Iran has a small but fine repertoire of soups but these are not as popular as dishes prepared with rice as a base. In fact, ash, the word for soup, is really part of the Persian word ash-paz or “cook.” This means “the maker of the soup.” For most meals, fresh ripe fruits are the usual dessert.

Throughout the day nibbles of crunchy toasted nuts of all kinds, crisp dried seeds, and roasted beans, all lightly salted, are enjoyed everywhere. Juicy snacks of fresh fruits and the frequent social sipping of tea or coffee allow little opportunity for real hunger. Ajeel is a traditional mix of nuts and seeds that have been simmered in lime juice then salted and toasted. The familiar arrangement of selected fresh fruits that graces tables and is sold by vendors is called miveh.

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