Thoughts on Iranian Food Culture – A Foreign Perspective
I cannot imagine a world without food; just the mere mention of the word gets me salivating over what my next meal will be and where I can get this fantasised feast from.
Thinking about it now, it is a mutual love of food (amongst a few other things) that sparked off a blossoming friendship with my Iranian friend. Wide eyed and naïve, we both started university coming from similar family backgrounds. Being away from home for the first time meant attempting to cook, which was something new to me back then – I’ve always loved my food, but I’d never had to cook it myself before. This is where my friend came in very handy! When she cooked, the smell from the communal kitchen reminded me of home … hearty, good, home cooked food; a strange occurrence in student ‘digs’ as most of the other students would eat baked beans straight from the tin or bung a ready meal in the microwave. We bonded over some ‘zeresk polo’ (saffron chicken and rice) that she begrudgingly, albeit proudly, let me taste (she doesn’t like to share food, much like myself!)
From that moment on, I wanted to know all I could about Iranian cuisine. I soon learnt that rice is the all important element to any Iranian meal and, boy, do Iranians know how to cook their rice! I’m not talking about plain, bog-standard boiled rice; I mean rice that’s beautifully seasoned with saffron or subtly infused with raisins, nuts – or my personal favourite – barberries (which I will come on to later). I am yet to taste all the different varieties of Persian rice dishes, but I can safely say that the best part of any rice dish is ‘tahdig’ (the tasty crust at the bottom of the pan). This is something that I am determined to perfect myself!
In addition to rice, meat is the staple of a traditional Iranian diet, which is yet another reason why I love the food so much. The kebabs that I have tried, both at my friend’s house and in Iranian restaurants, are to die for – they are tender, moreish, and literally bursting with flavour.
From what I have observed, Iranians do not tend to snack much, especially on anything sweet. Nibbles consist of crunchy toasted nuts and seeds, which are lightly salted and are extremely appetizing. If you are craving some sweetness and you happen to be in an Iranian’s house, then don’t worry! Iranians will use any opportunity to get out the fruit bowl which, from my experience, is always overflowing with healthy goodness! I have even been made a particularly yummy fruit smoothie for breakfast after staying the night at my friend’s house and, needless to say, it was a better and more effective hangover cure than my usual junk food binge.
In general, the best description I can give of Iranian food would be a colourful, healthy, and simple yet flavoursome meal shared with family and friends. I love the use of fresh ingredients and the wonderful array of flavours used by adding herbs, light spices and fruit, resulting in dishes that are rich in flavour and mild, as opposed to being spicy.
Another thing I love is how Iranian food is served – they definitely don’t do things by halves. They set out their food beautifully in a variety of serving dishes, and there is always lots of it. Every meal is a flavoursome feast. Coming from a Portuguese/Goan background, I always wondered why my English friends served up such small portions and really appreciated the effort when I’d see my friend’s family go to so much trouble when I visited.
It’s not all about the food however, after meals I love being served Iranian tea, drunk from a clear glass and enjoyed with a sugar cube. Tea is another thing that Iranians are very particular about; they don’t mess about with tatty teabags opting for loose leaf tea, which is brewed for a very long time. The flavour is intensely strong and fragrant. The most peculiar thing about it all is the use of the sugar cube; this is not simply mixed in the tea but dipped into the liquid and sucked whilst drinking, a uniquely pleasant experience!
In terms of food culture and tradition, one thing I cannot fault is Iranian hospitality. Iranians are extremely well mannered – they remove their shoes before entering a house and welcome everyone warmly with hugs and kisses. Consideration of others is also of high importance and is something I have noticed each time I have visited an Iranian household. I was taken aback by how warmly I was received when I first visited my friend’s house, and how I was welcomed back in as long-lost family thereafter. There is an eagerness to ensure that guests are well looked after, which is very admirable. On one of my visits to my friend’s house I discovered barberries, which I immediately fell in love with, My friend’s mother noticed how much I liked them and since then will quietly put a generous plate full of them in front of me whenever I visit; leaving less for the main dish and more for me!
Like my own family, food is what brings everyone together and it is the kitchen and dining table that remains the heart of the family home. In my opinion, it is this image that epitomises Iranian food culture: families sitting, talking and laughing around the table, united to eat a meal made with love.