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10 Persian Dishes You Need to Know MORE THAN JUST KEBABS

Rose water. Saffron. Fragrant rice. Mountains of fresh herbs. Tart, creamy yogurt. Succulent char-cooked meat. Sweet-sour pomegranate molasses. If these foods and flavors speak to you, chances are you would love Persian cuisine, if you don’t already. The region has been capturing the imagination of chefs all over the country, but don’t call the food Middle Eastern. Persian food is different from that of its neighbors. Known for its sweet, sour, floral and fruity notes, you won’t see dishes that pile on many spices at once, or rely on extreme flavors. It’s all about delicacy and balance.

If the food of Iran has remained somewhat of a mystery to diners in the U.S., that may be intentional. Unlike, say, the French, who’ve created a culture of dining out, the finest examples of Persian cooking are showcased privately, in the home. It also doesn’t help that Persian cooks are notoriously secretive. They’re the best hosts in the world and will feed you until you burst, but you’ll rarely get to see what goes on in the kitchen.

So, how do you get to taste Persian food without getting an invitation from a home cook? Luckily, a wave of Iranian immigrants that settled in the U.S. around the 1979 Iranian Revolution, particularly in and around LA — a stretch of Westwood Boulevard is affectionately known as Tehrangeles — has sewn the seeds of this elegant, wonderfully delicious cuisine stateside. These are the 10 Persian dishes you need to know for a true taste of Iran, in America.


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Kismet's jeweled rice. Photo by Oriana Koren

1. Tahdig

“I would imagine in Persia, if a would-be bride didn’t know how to make rice, she would be sent right home,” says food writer Anissa Helou, author of the forthcoming cookbook The Food of Islam. There are many preparations of rice in Persian cooking, from the most basic — long-grained rice that’s been rinsed, soaked, par boiled and steamed, so it’s fluffy and fragrant, then drizzled with butter and saffron water — to an elaborate jeweled rice like shirin polo (sweet pilaf), made with slivered pistachios and almonds, orange rind, barberries and saffron-scented carrots. But the most prized part of any rice dish is the tahdig, the crispy, golden crust that forms at the bottom of the pot.

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2. Fesenjan

“If there is a cliché Iranian food, this would be it,” says Helou of this sweet-and-tart poultry stew, which many consider to be the national dish. Though in Iran fesenjan is traditionally made with duck, in the U.S., you’re more likely to find the stew made with chicken. The other main ingredients of pomegranate molasses and ground walnuts infuse the dish with a sweet and sour, earthy flavor.

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3. Kebab koobideh

In Iran, the kebab is one of the few foods you’re more likely to eat out at a restaurant than in the home. The meat-on-a-stick is typically marinated, charcoal grilled and threaded over flat, metal skewers that look like tiny swords. They can be minced, cubed or sliced, and are usually chicken, lamb or beef. “Koobideh is Iran’s signature kebab,” says Andy Baraghani, an editor at Bon Appétit and an avid Persian cook. The ground-meat kebab is made from beef, lamb or a combination of both, and is usually flavored with a combination of saffron, turmeric, grated onion or onion juice, salt and pepper. “It’s the street-food dish,” says Baraghani. “But you don't get it at a cart. You go to a kebab house for this type of dish.”

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4. Mast

"Mast" means yogurt in Farsi, and Persian yogurt is its own style — thicker than American, thinner than Greek, tart and incredibly creamy. Yogurt is the base of some of the country’s most popular condiments. Mast-o-khiar is doctored with thin-skinned Persian cucumbers, crushed rose petals, salt and pepper, while mast-o-musir, made with pungent Persian shallots, is a classic accompaniment for kebabs.

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5. Kuku sabzi

What came first, the herbs or the egg? That’s the question you may be compelled to ask when eating kuku sabzi for the first time. The green-hued omelet is made with a copious amount of mixed fresh herbs, which may include dill, cilantro, parsley, spring onion, scallions — whatever’s good — plus turmeric, dried fenugreek and in some renditions, barberries or walnuts. The fragrant dish is made for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, but it’s also an everyday food. “In the West using a lot of herbs seems extravagant, but not in Iran,” says cookbook author Helou. “In the market in Iran they have a wonderful machine that grinds the herbs for you.”

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6. Tea

Iran’s hot beverage of choice? Tea, tea, tea. “It’s not a coffee culture, it never will be,” says Bon Appétit​'s Baraghani. The daily ritual of tea drinking in Iran may start with a strong-brewed glass of black tea as a wake-up call. After that comes another glass of tea (which may be mixed with rose petals or orange blossoms) with breakfast, tea with lunch and so on — it’s not uncommon for people to drink eight to 10 glasses daily. Depending on the time, the hot drink may be enjoyed with a different treat, such as dried fruit, a cookie or spoon sweets. Another common accompaniment is a rock candy swizzle stick, or a cube of sugar flavored with saffron that you put between your teeth and sip through.

Types include black tea with orange blossom and quince, and borage tea, which Sadr says lowers blood pressure. At his parties, he also serves sweets, such as the accidentally gluten-free rice-flour-poppy-seed-rose cookie called na’an berenji.

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7. Bastani sa’labi

Iran has an evolved sweets culture, but when it comes to dessert, it may be best known for its ice cream. Bastani sa’labi, flavored with saffron syrup and rosewater, doesn’t have any eggs — it’s thickened with sahleb, which is a powdered orchid root that gives an especially creamy taste and an ever so slightly chewy texture. It’s most commonly sandwiched between thin wafer cookies.

8. Torshi

One of the most prominent flavor profiles in Persian cooking is sour, and that sensation might be best demonstrated by the sharp, vinegar-cured pickles called torshi. Some of the most common varieties are torshi bademjan, whole eggplant pickled with dried tarragon, mint and other herbs and spices; torshi maloot, a relish of cauliflower, peppers and carrots, like a Persian giardinera; torshi khiar shoor (Persian cucumber pickles); and seer torshi, a special garlic pickle that ages for several years before it’s eaten.

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9. Sangak

There’s more to flatbread than pita. In Iran, there’s pillowy nan-e barbari, a foot and a half of ridged bread dusted with nigella seeds. There’s taftoon, a tandoor-baked wheat bread. But the most beloved of them all may be sangak. The thin, lightly charred blanket of flatbread is baked in an oven over hot pebbles, and served with everything from savory breakfast to a dinner stew.

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10. Sabzi paneer

Like the French’s bread and butter, sabzi paneer is a fixture at most every Persian meal. The platter of assorted fresh herbs, such as mint, wild chives and tarragon, radishes, a feta-like cheese, salt-water soaked walnuts and flatbread functions as an appetizer, a palate refresher and an accompaniment to whatever may be on the table.

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