The Food of Iran

Like most Middle Eastern food cultures, mealtimes in Iran are considered a precious family affair. Food is often served in abundance, as a way to encourage sociability, the positive energies conjured of and by a mass gathering, but also to pre-empt the arrival of unexpected guests at the table.

The Food of Iran

‘The cornerstone of every Persian meal is rice’ writes the chef and star of the Netflix cooking show Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Samin Nosrat. Crispy rice (tahdig), and fragrant blends of rice with herbs, spices—such as saffron, Iran’s ‘red gold’—and dried fruits.

Lavash, a style of flat-bread traditionally cooked in a clay oven is also commonly served at breakfast, lunch and dinner, complemented by yogurts and cheeses (alongside more fresh herbs), vegetable stews and popularly, the meat kabab.

The principle of ‘duality’ and of striking a balance between tastes is at the centre of any Persian dish. This is because the Zoroastrian culture is one that subscribes to an ancient belief that disease is caused by a fundamental imbalance in the body between certain elements: hot/cold, wet/dry.

In her cookbook, New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, Najmieh Batmanglij provides an example of this in her son, for whom too much ‘hot’ food—defined as that which thickens the blood and increases the metabolism— does not agree with him, and must be treated with ‘cold’ food—that with special dilatory properties—such as the nectar derived of a watermelon or a grapefruit. For this reason, it is not uncommon in the cities of Iran, to encounter street stalls selling pints of fruit and fruit juices.

The importance of food as both a beacon of community, and marker of cultural identity are most clear in the cities of the Iranian diaspora. In Los Angeles, which boasts the largest population of Iranians outside of Iran, at the intersection of Wilshire and Pico, one finds themselves entering a ‘Little Persia’. The neighbourhood is one entirely dedicated to Persian grocery stores and restaurants, that bring together generations and families of immigrants, reminding them of their shared heritage.

Pilot’s favourite Tehrangeles hotspots:

Shaherzard restaurant

1422 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA, 90024

Here one can expect traditional dishes and family style dining.

Attari sandwich shop

1388 Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA, 90024

A taste of Iran on-the-go. Throughout COVID-19, the deli has also been stocking and selling hand sanitiser.

Mashti Malone’s Ice Cream

1525 N La Brea Ave, Los Angeles, CA, 90028

This was a gem discovered through Jessica Koslow, the founder of the Mediterranean-inspired lunch spot, SQIRL. Mashti’s flavours are all inspired by the dominant tastes of Iran: rosewater, orange blossom, pistachio and cardamom.

Persia has also coloured the food scenes of many parts of South East Asia. Irani cafes were, at one point, particularly prevalent in the Indian subcontinent, following an influx of Iranian immigrants fleeing Islamic persecution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both the interior concept and menu for the UK restaurant chain, Dishoom—based around the biriyani, a dish with semantic roots in the Persian word for fried rice, ‘birinj biriyan’—was borne out of the old Irani cafes of Bombay; these were valued for the way in which their open-door policy, offering food and service to all passers-by, broke down social barriers erected through the strict caste system there.

On the subject of Iran, and of the gastro-diplomacy, we wanted to take this opportunity to feature entrepreneur chef Nasrin Rejali. Nasrin came to the U.S in 2016 as both a single mother-of-three and a refugee. She currently lives in New York.

Pre-pandemic, she supported herself and her three children by catering for public and private events interested in the Persian food scene. Currently she is running cooking classes via Zoom.

If you are interested in learning more about Iranian food, the art of hosting and cooking a meal, sign up to one of her classes. The company, Eat OffBeat, is also wonderful for discovering new cuisines, serving authentic meals and now selling meal-boxes ‘entirely conceived of, prepared and delivered by refugees resettled in New York City’. Nasrin is one of their leading chefs. The website also features a handful of digital recipes to trial from scratch at home.

By Ines Cross

Main image: Persian Cherry Rice, Stephen Howard, Flickr Creative Commons

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