1 GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
Iran is located in southwestern Asia. It covers an area of 1,648,000
square kilometers (636,296 square miles), slightly larger than the state
of Alaska. Iran is geologically unstable, and experiences periodic
earthquakes. In 1978, a deadly earthquake struck eastern Iran, killing at
least 25,000 people.
Air and water pollution are significant problems in Iran. Twenty-five
percent of the rural people do not have pure water.
2 HISTORY AND FOOD
Since the beginning of human civilization in present-day Iran, a series of
peoples has invaded and conquered the region, exposing the area to new
customs, beliefs, ideas, and foods, as well as bringing Iranian customs
and foods back to their own home countries. The ancient Babylonians,
Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks are just a few of the
groups that have had an influence on Iranian culture and its cuisine.
Iranian cuisine is often referred to as "Persian." This is
because, until 1934, Iran was known as Persia. The Persians are an ancient
culture believed to have originated in central Asia as far back as 2000
B.C. At one time, Persian territory stretched as far east as India. Curry
(a spice) was adapted from the people of India and incorporated into the
Persian (now Iranian) cuisine. Modern spicy curry stews demonstrate
The Indians also adapted foods from the Persians. When the Moghuls invaded
India in 1526, they brought with them ingredients from the Persian
cuisine, which they highly admired. A northern Indian cuisine called
is modeled after what the Persians commonly ate: mounds of rice seasoned
with saffron, topped with nuts, raisins, and various meats. Dishes such
(KOFtah, meatballs) and
(POO-lau) are now common to both Iranians and northern Indians.
Several of Iran's most prominent dishes originated from the Greeks,
Arabs, Turks, and Russians. Greece invaded present-day Iran in the A.D.
200s, introducing stuffed grape leaves. Yogurt may have originated from
either Greece or Turkey, where it is also a dietary staple. The Iranian
food rules that categorize foods into "hot or "cold"
is believed to have been derived from ancient Greek theories of medicine
). Dishes made of lamb, dates, and figs were brought into the Persian diet
during the Arab invasion of the 600s.
Three hundred years later, the Turks expanded their Ottoman Empire into
Persian territory. The idea of stuffing leaves, vines, fruits, and
vegetables with various fillings (Turkish
) was reinforced by the Turks.
(meatballs) have become very popular throughout the Middle Eastern
(cubes of skewered meat) is probably the most important introduction by
the Turks—it has become one of Iran's national dishes.
Strong Turkish coffee was also introduced. Once a widely consumed Iranian
beverage, it has now fallen behind the popularity of
(tea). The strong, dark tea is brewed in an urn called a
, a Russian word. Tea most likely originated in Russia.
Dolma (Stuffed Grape Leaves)
- 1 jar grape leaves (available at most Greek, Middle Eastern, and Italian
- 1½ cups uncooked rice
- 1 medium onion, diced
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 cups water
- ½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 2 Tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
- 1 teaspoon fresh mint, chopped
- ¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled
- ½ cup pine nuts
- ½ cup raisins
- ½ cup lemon juice
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Grape leaves are sold in jars at most large supermarkets. In many
Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries, including Iran, cooks
prepare a filling of rice and meat to be rolled up inside the tender
grape leaves. The rolls are then simmered in a savory broth, often
with tomato juice.
- In a saucepan, sauté the onion in olive oil until light brown.
- Add rice and brown lightly.
- Add the water, salt, and pepper.
- Bring the water to a boil and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes, or until water
is absorbed but rice is only partially cooked.
- Make certain rice does not stick or burn.
- Add all the ingredients except the lemon juice and mix well.
- Drain the grape leaves and place 1 Tablespoon of filling in the center
of each leaf.
- Fold the sides in and roll the leaf up.
- Place stuffed leaves in a pot in even and tight rows covering the bottom
of the pan. When the bottom layer is complete, start another layer.
until all of the filling is used.
- Add ½ of the lemon juice and enough water to cover half of the
- Place a plate on the top layer to hold the stuffed leaves down and to
prevent them from unrolling while cooking.
- Simmer over low heat until most of the liquid is absorbed, about 45
- Remove the plate and
from the pan, drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice, and serve. May be
served warm or at room temperature. Serve with Yogurt and Mint Sauce
(recipe follows) if desired.
Makes about 20 to 25.
Yogurt and Mint Sauce
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- ¼ cup fresh mint, minced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- Lemon wedges
- Combine yogurt, mint, and garlic in a small bowl.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper.
(Stuffed Grape Leaves, recipe precedes), cucumbers, or with any salad.
3 FOODS OF THE IRANIANS
Iranian food (also referred to as Persian food) is some of the most
delicious and fresh in its region. It is also quite healthy, using only
small amounts of red meat (usually
Chây (tea), the favorite beverage in Iran, is brewed in a
large, ornate pot called a samovar.
lamb or beef), emphasizing larger amounts of grains (especially rice),
fruits, and vegetables. Although it is often lumped under the category of
general "Middle Eastern" fare, the Iranian cuisine is able
to retain its uniqueness in a variety of ways. One of these ways is
preparing meals with contrasting flavors, such as a combination of sweet
and sour or mild and spicy.
The country's cuisine is largely based on
(rice). It is relatively inexpensive and grown locally, making it an
affordable and readily available staple in the everyday diet. A typical
Iranian meal is often a heaping plate of
(CHEH-loh; plain, cooked rice) topped with vegetables, fish, or meat. It
also provides a cool contrast to spicy meat toppings. The two national
rice dishes are
(POH-loh; rice cooked with several ingredients). There are seemingly
endless varieties of dishes that can be prepared with rice in Iran.
(bread), a round, flat bread that can either be baked or cooked over a
bed of small stones, is the other staple food of Iranian cuisine. There
are several varieties, including
, a very thin, brittle bread served for breakfast, and
(sahn-GAHK), a thicker, chewier variety that is usually marked by small
"dimples" in the crust. Villages often make their own
, while those who live in the city are frequently seen leaving bakeries
with armfuls of freshly made loaves.
Meat, particularly chicken and lamb, is most commonly eaten as
(KEE-bahbs), pieces of meat served on a skewer.
(stews) make popular entrees to most Iranian meals and often contain such
(up-GOOSHT) is a hearty soup made of mutton (sheep meat) and chickpeas.
Soups are drunk directly from the bowl.
(meatballs), vegetables (such as eggplant), fruits (such as quince, an
apple-like fruit), and even yogurt (an Iranian mainstay) are often added
to soups and stews.
Quinces, pears, grapes, dates, apricots, and Iranian melons flavored with
rosewater are typically eaten for dessert.
(HAHL-wah, a sesame treat) and
(bahk-LAH-vah, crisp paper-like pastry layered
with nuts and honey) are common throughout the Middle East. Iranians also
love ice cream and puddings. Although sugared
(tea) is the country's most treasured beverage and
(coffee) is highly popular, Iranians (particularly children) often enjoy
a sweet drink after large meals.
(PAO-loo-den), a rose- and lemon-flavored drink,
(sour milk or yogurt mixed with sparkling water) and fresh fruit juices
can be made at home or bought in cafes and at street stalls.
Kebab Morgh (Grilled Skewered Chicken)
- 2 onions, finely grated
- 6 Tablespoons lemon juice
- 1½ teaspoons salt
- 2 pounds boneless chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
- 4 Tablespoons melted butter
- Small pinch of saffron threads, dissolved in 2 teaspoons warm water
(optional, but recommended)
- Mix the onion, lemon juice, and salt in a bowl.
- Add the chicken and marinate for at least 4 hours.
- Thread the chicken pieces onto metal skewers.
- Stir the melted butter and dissolved saffron into the marinade.
- Brush the marinade onto the chicken.
- Preheat broiler or grill. Grill the chicken for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Baste (occasionally moisten) and turn the chicken as needed.
Serves 8 to 10.
Iranians enjoy grilled meat and poultry. Typically the Iranian Kebab
Morgh (Grilled Skewered Chicken) would include just chicken on the
skewer, but here mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, and peppers have been
Shirazi (Cucumber and Tomato Salad)
- 4 medium-sized cucumbers
- 3 medium-sized tomatoes
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1½ cups lime juice
- ½ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Peel the cucumbers, remove the inner pulp and seeds, and chop them into
- Wash the tomatoes and chop them the same-size.
- Remove all the tomato seeds and let the excess tomato juice drain.
- Mix all the chopped ingredients together in a bowl.
- Refrigerate the mixture until you are ready to serve (no longer than 1
- Twenty minutes before serving, add the lime juice, olive oil, salt, and
- Serve in small salad bowls as a salad or side dish.
- It tastes particularly good with rice and
- Serves 4 to 6.
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup water
- ¼ cup rose water (optional)
- 4 teaspoons liquid saffron (optional, but recommended)
- 1 cup unsalted butter
- 1 cup flour
- Boil the sugar and water together until the sugar is dissolved, then add
the rose-water and saffron. Remove from the heat (but keep warm).
- Melt the butter in a pan over low heat and gradually stir in the flour
to a smooth paste.
- Continue to cook over a low heat until golden in color. Slowly add the
sugar and water mixture, stirring constantly. Remove from heat
- While still warm, spread onto a plate and press down with the back of a
spoon, making a pattern with the spoon.
- Cut into small wedges and serve cold with toast and tea.
Serves 8 to 10.
Dugh (Sparkling Yogurt Drink)
- Plain yogurt
- 1 teaspoon pepper (optional)
- 2 teaspoons salt (optional)
- Dash of mint
- Seltzer water
- Ice cubes
- Fill a tall glass halfway with the yogurt.
- Add pepper, salt, and mint; stir with a spoon.
- Continuing to stir, add enough seltzer water to fill the rest of the
glass; stir well and add ice cubes.
- If a thinner drink is preferred, add more seltzer. For a thicker drink,
use more yogurt.
Makes 1 serving.
4 FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
Almost all (about 98 percent) of Iranians are Shi'ah Muslims. They
follow Shi'ah Islam, the government religion, and celebrate Muslim
holidays throughout the year. Many of the country's religious
holidays celebrate the birthdays of
(religious leaders). One such leader is the Prophet Muhammad, who is
remembered each year with a celebration called
is a day to remember the Prophet's grandson, Husayn, who was
murdered in A.D. 680. On this day, parades typically crowd city streets
and people give money or food to the poor if they can afford to.
Ramadan is the most sacred time of the year for Muslims. For an entire
month, Muslims fast (do not eat or drink) from sunrise to sunset every
day, hoping to cleanse their bodies and minds and remember those who are
less fortunate. Restaurants and food stores are often closed or have
limited hours during this holy month. Ramadan ends with the sighting of
the new moon. The three-day festival marking Ramadan's end is known
. During this time, the month-long fast is broken by community prayer, and
then followed by a large feast with family and friends.
(no-ROOZ), the Iranian New Year, takes place on the first day of spring
(March 21) and is probably the most important festival in Iran. Iranians
of all ages eagerly await this day (literally meaning "new
day"), and look forward to a new beginning and an abundance of
delicious meals and sweets.
begin nearly two weeks ahead of time—planting seeds, buying
clothes, and cleaning homes.
(hoft-SEEN) is a tradition in which tables are decorated with seven items
that symbolize triumph over evil, including
(sah-muh-NOO), a pudding made from flour, sugar, and walnuts, is also
made at this time. For additional good luck, a mother will often eat one
cooked egg for every one of her children.
Beginning on the day of
and lasting for two weeks, feasting and visiting with friends and
relatives takes place while schools and offices remain closed. Iranian
sweets and snacks such as fruits, nuts, pastries, puddings, and tea, are
placed on tables in anticipation of visiting guests. Iranian rice cakes
, a rice dish flavored with herbs, are popular foods. On the thirteenth
day of the New Year, called
(seez-DAH-bee-DAR), it is believed that homes are filled with bad luck.
To help chase it away,
(wheat or lentil seeds grown during
) are thrown out the window and a picnic outdoors is enjoyed. At 5
, it is customary to eat lettuce leaves dipped in a honey and vinegar
dressing, accompanied by tea.
When Iranians make their container of
, or green sprouts, for
they sometimes simply scatter the seeds over a plate and keep them
moistened with water as they sprout and grow. They may also choose to fill
a porous clay pot or jar with water and attach the seeds to the outside of
the jar with strips of cloth until they stick to the moist surface. The
strips are then removed and the sprouts grow upward in
sunlight—green and full.
Sprouts, similar to those grown by Iranians, can be grown by filling a
bowl or other container with sterile potting mix from a plant nursery, and
scattering lentils or grains of barley or wheat thickly across the surface
of the potting mix. The mix should
be watered until it is evenly moist throughout, and then the container
should be covered loosely with plastic wrap to hold in the moisture. The
seeds will sprout if the container is left on a sunny windowsill; the
surface should be sprinkled with water once or twice a day to keep the
After three days, the seeds should have begun to sprout and the plastic
wrap may be removed. When the sprouts are a few inches tall, they may be
tied into a bunch with a pretty ribbon, or snipped and added to a salad.
Lettuce Dipped in Honey and Vinegar Dressing
This is prepared on the thirteenth day of
the Iranian New Year.
- 1 head of lettuce
- 1 cup honey
- ½ cup vinegar, or to taste
- Remove brown leaves from head of lettuce.
- Tear off crisp, green leaves and arrange on a large plate.
- In a bowl, combine the honey and vinegar; stir well.
- Pour dressing onto a small plate or bowl and place in the center of
larger plate holding lettuce.
- To eat, dip lettuce leaves into dressing.
Shir-Berenj (Rice Pudding)
- 2 cups rice
- 3 cups milk
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup rose water (optional)
- ½ cup heavy cream
- Sugar or jam
- Measure the rice into a saucepan, rinse it, and drain off the water.
- Add water and milk to rice in saucepan and cook, covered, over low heat
for about 20 minutes, until rice is soft.
- Add the rose water and cook for another minute or so.
- Add the cream. Serve topped with sugar or jam.
Makes 8 servings.
Iranian Rice Cakes
- 2 cups rice
- 2½ cups water
- 1 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- Bring water and milk to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in rice and
- Simmer over low heat, covered, for about 20 minutes, then remove from
heat and let stand for 10 more minutes.
Tender lettuce leaves are arranged around a bowl of honey-vinegar
dip to be served in the late afternoon of the thirteenth day of
Now Ruz (New Year).
- Melt the butter in a skillet and add the cooked rice, pressing down with
a spatula to form a flat cake the size of the skillet.
- Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour, flattening with the spatula
every 15 minutes.
- The cake is done when it is golden brown on the bottom and the top edges
are lightly browned.
- Remove the skillet from the heat and let the cake cool until it is just
warm to the touch.
- Turn the skillet upside down over a platter, holding the top of the cake
with your other hand. Let the cake gently slide out onto the platter.
- The rice cake may be eaten warm or cold. Cut into pie-shaped wedges to
Serves 6 to 8.
5 MEALTIME CUSTOMS
Upon entering an Iranian home and removing one's shoes at the door,
a gift or reciprocated dinner invitation should be offered to the host.
When the meal is ready to be served, the host will place large platters of
food on top of the
(sof-RAY, tablecloth) that rests on top of a floor rug. Diners sit
cross-legged in front of individual settings of plates, bowls, and
silverware (typically a fork and a spoon). Iranians of the opposite sex
(unless related) do not sit next to one another while eating. Talking is
also kept to a minimum.
Although most meals will offer bread, rice, and meat (often a
), Iranians often choose what foods will be served by following a set of
food rules that originated from ancient Greek medicine. Foods are
classified as either "hot" or "cold,"
depending on the food's heating or cooling effect on the individual
(rather than the food's actual temperature). Hot foods include
meats, sweets, and eggplant. Yogurt, cucumbers, and fish classify as cold.
Iranians try to serve a balance of hot and cold foods. After dinner,
(tea) is commonly accompanies fresh fruit for dessert, although more
elaborate meals or special occasions will include pastries such as
Iranians consume three meals a day, including snacks (usually nuts, seeds,
fruit, or a light yogurt dish).
(breakfast), separate from the typical Iranian fare of lunch and dinner,
usually consists of hot tea, cheese, and fresh baked bread from the local
bakery or home kitchen. Some choose to purchase it from "bicycle
breadmen" who travel from door to door, selling leftover bread for
a reduced price. Northern provinces prefer
(honey) with cooked, cold rice and fish. Central Iranians enjoy yogurt
and soft cream, while southern Iranians prefer cheese and dates.
A child's weekday (Saturday through Thursday) breakfast before
school is often the same as that of adults: tea, honey, bread, and feta
cheese. Similar to breakfast, the light lunch served by most schools
typically includes fresh fruit, dates, pistachio nuts, bread, and cheese.
Maast (Homemade Yogurt)
- 4 cups (approximately) milk
- 1 heaping spoonful plain yogurt
- Scald the milk by heating it justs until it starts to boil.
- Allow it to cool until it feels warm to the touch without burning.
- Add the spoonful of yogurt and mix lightly. Place in a container with a
- Cover with a thick cloth or towel for at least 5 hours well (to maintain
warmth), or until the yogurt has thickened.
- Unwrap the container and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Makes about 8 servings.
Feta Cheese and Vegetable Tray
- 1 bunch green onions, sliced into 2-inch pieces
- Feta cheese, crumbled
- Spicy pickles, sliced into 1-inch long pieces
- 1 red onion, sliced
- ½ pound of sliced turkey
- Small spinach leaves
- 2 or 3 tomatoes, sliced
- Roll up the slices of turkey.
- Arrange all the ingredients on a platter or large, circular dish.
- Serve chilled.
Makes 4 to 8 servings.
Desser Miveh (Persian Fruit Salad)
- 2 seedless oranges, peeled and cored
- 2 apples, peeled and cored
- 2 bananas, sliced
- 2 cups pitted dates, chopped
- 1 cup dried figs or apricots, chopped
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1 cup almonds, chopped
- Place the fruit in serving bowl and pour the orange juice over the fruit
and mix gently.
- Garnish with almonds or coconut.
- Cover and chill several hours before serving.
Makes 6 servings.
6 POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
About 6 percent of the population of Iran is classified as undernourished
by the World Bank. This means they do not receive adequate nutrition in
their diet. Of children under the age of five, about 16 percent are
underweight, and roughly 19 percent are stunted (short for their age).
Unemployment, caused by Iran's unstable economy, helps to
contribute to urban and rural poverty. Such poverty often leads to hunger
and undernourishment. An absence of cooked eggs, beans, lentils, and
nuts from the diet can lead to protein deficiency. Similarly, a lack of
fruits and vegetables can result in an overall vitamin deficiency. Many
families affected by the country's shaky economy cannot afford to
purchase or grow themselves the necessary foods for a healthy diet.
7 FURTHER STUDY
ed. Victoria, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1998. Rajendra,
Vijeya and Gisela Kaplan.
. Tarrytown, New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1996.
Sanai, Hussein, ed.
Iran: The Land of Norooz
. Tehran, Iran: Iran Exports Publications Co. Ltd., 1994.
Iran: Land of the Peacock Throne
. Tarrytown, New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1997.
Epicurious. [Online] Available
(accessed April 12, 2001).
FarsiEats.com. [Online] Available
(accessed April 11, 2001).
Iran. [Online] Available
(accessed April 10, 2001).
The Iranian. [Online] Available
(accessed April 11, 2001).
Iranian/Persian Recipes. [Online] Available
(accessed April 10, 2001).
Mezzetta. [Online] Available
(accessed April 12, 2001).
PersianOutpost.com. [Online] Available
(accessed April 11, 2001).
"The White Balloon." Iranian director Jafar Panahi, 1996. 85
minutes. This is a story of a seven-year-old Iranian girl named Razieh who
asks her mother for money to buy a special goldfish for the
celebration. (Goldfish in a bowl of water are traditionally placed on the
table this time of year.) Eager to purchase one, Razieh travels through
the city of Tehran on her journey to the pet store. As she does so, she
meets people of many different cultures. The differences and similarities
of people from all over the world become apparent in this charming film.