Iranian cuisine is less well known than that of other Middle Eastern countries, but it deserves to be tried. I’ll tell you everithing about it in this post.
Iran is a large country that, thanks to its 4 climate areas, is rich in agricultural products. In addition to saffron and pistachio, for which it is famous throughout the world, it has a huge production of dates, rice and a large variety of fruit and vegetables.In the kitchen, they use plenty of herbs– for example, dill and sweet basil very popular in Thailand – and also spices, but dishes are not spicy or hot, but well balanced.
At home vs at the restaurant
Many Iranians have told me “you can only eat well at home”. As a matter of fact, in my experience taste does not depend on the price of the place, I was disappointed by many “fancy” restaurants and enthusiastic about popular places.
For example, we went to Haft Khan, one of the most prestigious restaurants in Shiraz (NB the one at floor -1, there are several places in the same building). The location was very design, total white with cool lighting, the food was served in a very excellent way, but the taste was so so.
Another disappointment was Abbasi in Kashan, the view from above is amazing, but service and food were poor.
But I aIso found some addresses I loved and I will reveal them to you in a while.
Besides, I was lucky enough to eat at the home of Iranians! Ala’s mother, who I had hosted in Italy, invited us to dinner and made us try many Iranian specialties. I can say that home cooking is worth trying, also to understand which things locals like most.
In Iran you usually eat at the table, but in many places there are platforms where you eat sitting cross-legged and with the food at the same height. It is a bit uncomfortable, but very fascinating.
In touristy places, you will be asked “where do you come from?” and shortly after they will bring you… a flag!
Anyway, I ate many interesting and a few delicious things in Iran. Here they come.
“Dizi” is a very popular dish in Iran. It takes its name from this kind of clay cup in which it is cooked. Honestly, it’s not particularly good, but it’s served ina spectacular way. It is in fact a double dish, when they bring it to you they pour the liquid part into your bowl, then mash the sheep fat and add it to the soup. Here is the first course, which you soak with bread. Meanwhile, they continue to mash the rest of the dizi – a potato, a tomato and the meat – which becomes the second dish.
As an accompaniment you have raw onion and lemon that you can add to taste. The process is fun, but the soup has little taste, while the second part is dry, so you’d better save some soup. To try it, go to Tilit Abgoosht in Tehran; in addition to the classic (480,000 rial – € 4) they also have other types of dizi.
Sharbat (or sherbet)
A classic type of Iranian drink also widespread in the rest of the Middle East. These syrups are flavored in various ways. They are a little too sweet for my taste. The only one I recommend to try, because it is iconic in Iran is the one with rose water and basil seeds, it recalled me a bit Taiwanese bubble tea.
We had our first sharbat on Si tir street in Tehran, it was the only authentically Iranian thing in the midst of “international” street food (with many free interpretations). It costs an average of 40,000 rials (€ 0.35).
A peculiar dish (pronounced fangiùn). It is made with a pomegranate and walnut paste, so it is very sweet, with a grainy texture, which, however, was not bad with meat – chicken in general -. In Italy we are not used to the sweet taste with meat, but if you have tried game with wild berry jam like in central Europe you may have an idea.
You will only find it only in Isfahan. It’s a dessert with meat, but if you don’t know it, you may not notice. The meat is in fact stewed and finely shred, and dispersed inside saffron yogurt. It is garnished with chopped pistachio and dry barberry (a slightly bitter red berry). It is good, but not very light. Try it at Shahrzad, a historic restaurant (a bit overrated).
Clearly Italian gelato is unbeatable. But in Iran they have a certain tradition with ice cream. Not bad the one I bought at the ice cream shop near the Fin garden in Kashan, in the classic flavors: saffron, rose water and chocolate.
In general, I didn’t eat good bread in Iran, but on one occasion I was hit by one taken at a small bakery in the Kashan bazaar.
Ice noudles (faloudeh)
One particular thing that Iranians like to accompany ice cream balls is a kind of ice noudles. They give a crunchy effect that can be nice, but being of plane water, I find they spoil the taste of the ice cream. In Isfahan, Baligh ice cream kiosk in the Vakil bazaar is famous.
When I saw it I had to try it, even though it didn’t look good. In a fast food restaurant that made sandwiches of various kinds. The pasta was dropped them on a platter (vermicelli al sugo). Reheated and tossed in the bread with tomatoes, I could only take a bite. I did it just to be able to tell it. In defense of the Iranians, pasta sandwiches are made only in one region of the country. You can see that I stumbled across an immigrant.
Needless to say, there are no western fast food restaurants (Mc Donald’s, Burger King, KFC, etc.) in Iran, but passing by car we saw this sign.
In the pedestrian street of Isfahan – where the Isfanians like to walk in the evening – there are various shops and even some “cool” fast food restaurants with staff in elegant uniforms and a very modern layout (even with digital screens). In one of these I tried an alternative to the chicken nuggets that were everywhere. Some breaded and fried mushrooms dressed with mayonnaise. I liked them.
As I wrote here, Iran is alcohol-free. Their “non-alcoholic beers” are very sweet sodas, flavored in several flavors. I found them horrible.
In Darband there are a lot of stalls selling canned fruit in bulks. In addition to the various bowls of various types of fruit, you find red or brown leaves. These are pressed fruit, which you can regenerate by boiling it for 1 hour in water and sugar.
It goes along with many dishes, but it deserves an explanation by itself for how much the Iranians care for it.
The complete version features white pilaf rice, a little saffron pilaf rice and stir fried saffron rice, very crunchy (almost raw at times) – called tahdig – all arranged in layers. They explained to me that you do it at home by letting it stick to the bottom of the pan and in fact it is always a little scorched. It’s clearly a very, very distant relative of the Milanese risotto.
An Iranian favorite. The ingredient you do not expect is a herb. The dish is in fact based on rice seasoned with butter and dill. This makes it a tastier rice. The large portion always seemed excessive to me. It is generally accompanied with stewed meat, especially the lamb shank. Try it at Moslem, in the Tehran bazaar (price around € 3). A non-tourist restaurant, run by women giving their profits to charity.
It’s not easy to find so I put the photo and the coordinates. That’s a kind of self service with freshly prepared dishes, with a nice dining room upstairs. Perfect for mingling with Iranians when you arrive in the country.
Alternatively you can try it at Arvand kenar – he also had fava beans there – accompanied with mutton shank (1 million rial – 8 €).
The iconic product of Iran. It is used in many things, from rice, to desserts and ice cream. In this country you will be able to “understand” the taste of saffron – elsewhere they use so little of it.
A funny product that I tried is the crystallized sugar that is used to drink tea. Some put a piece of it between their teeth and drink letting the tea passing through it – you can see that also in the award-winning film A separation.
If you want to buy it to take home, ask the bazaar the one from Mashhad (the city of saffron), the packages are small (3 € for 5 gr). The big piles are not of real saffron.
This typical dish is the best thing I ate in Yazd. It’s meatballs made with lamb, rice, split peas and herbs, served in meat broth. Very good and full of flavor. Try it at Termeh and Toranj (270,000 rials, € 2), one of the restaurants that I most appreciated aesthetically for its internal courtyard with a fountain and platforms where you eat. Here they will give your country flag.
It reminds me of many Middle Eastern eggplant dishes. Ingredients include mint, walnuts and khask (curdled milk). I liked the crispy fried onion that went with it. Good one at Katehmas, a nice restaurant in Shiraz with live music too.
Another regional and beloved dish from Isfahan. It has nothing to do with the Indian dish of the same name loaded with spices and accompanied by rice. The local recipe consists of a very soft flatbread topped with a finely chopped meat with chopped walnuts and almonds and a mysterious spicy legume paste, accompanied by fresh herbs and onion (aside, so you can choose how much to have). Again, there is 2 x 1 because they bring you a cup with the cooking broth soaked in bread and yogurt.
I liked it very much, also for the atmosphere of the place where I ate it, Azam a modern very crowded “fast casual”. Alternatively, you can go to the historic Haaj Mahmoud Shefa’at, in the bazaar near the Friday mosque, you will recognize it by the crowd. I have not tried it but it is characteristic and very popular.
Meat skewers (kebab)
Meat skewers are one of the most popular street foods. In all cities we found a place where to have just for few euros a better meal than recommended restaurants. The choice is between chicken, lamb, beef, liver, offal. The pieces of meat are small – one person can easily eat more than 10 – and in some cases the meat is a little dry. Generally the best is minced lamb. The skewer goes well with flatbread, yogurt and herbs and raw onion (aside).
In Kashan I ate the best lamb, they gave it along with roasted tomatoes. The place has no sign but is here.
A drink loved by Iranians, made with yogurt. Similar to Turkish kyrian, but less liquid and without salt. In restaurants they often serve it in jugs, often covering it with dried mint. It is also found bottled in all stores.
Doug is quite sour and sometimes has a very strong taste almost like goat cheese (not clear why, I think it depends on the curd). But it is very thirst-quenching and for lack of decent cold drinks we drank it a lot.
The most famous sweet in Iran is gaz, the soft nougat. It is good, even if at home I had better ones – clearly the specialty is with saffron. I liked the sohan best, a kind of toffee made with flour, butter and sheep’s lard. The place to get them is the small shop inside the Tajrish bazaar in Tehran.
What’s more refreshing in the torrid Iranian summer than a nice freshly-made fruit juice? In Iran you can easily find small shops and stalls that make them. The classic flavor is carrot to which you can often add a ball of vanilla or saffron ice cream. The fruit varies according to the season, for example in August green melon was very popular.
At the Tehran bazaar there are stalls with long rows of blenders, it’s quite impressive to see them at work.
Good, just a little bit sour, Ash resteh soup. This one is legume and herb based with vermicelli noudles covered when served with curdled milk and sour black mint sauce. The accompanying focaccia-kind bread was also good (bread was not so good in Iran). Among other things, they have as dessert Shoul-e Zard a not very sweet rice pudding with saffron and rose water (small 80,000 rials – € 0.65).