The history of Persian cuisine is more than 2,500 years old: The culinary practices are deeply rooted in the culture associated with not just modern day Iran but also the Persian empire from which it evolved. In 550 BCE, the borders of the Persian empire expanded when Cyrus the Great triumphed over the Greeks and Egyptians, and Persian food culture was carried into conquered lands. Centuries later, the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, the Mongols, and the Arabs. These conquerors, in turn, carried Persian culinary practices to other lands, including the rest of the Middle East, the Arab world, and India. Despite Persian cuisine’s impact on the cultures of these lands, this ancient cooking culture is still not well known to many in the West.
Persian cuisine offers a delicate balance of contrasting flavors that have evolved over centuries, and is seasonally focused, nutritionally balanced, and remarkably varied. To build these flavors, Persian home cooks use techniques such as blending nuts and fruit into meat braises and rice dishes. They also utilize a unique cooking method where rice is parboiled, drained, and then steamed, incorporating a wide array of fresh and dried herbs as well as the use of delicate souring agents and unripe fruit.
To get you started, I’ve put together a list of essential ingredients for cooking Persian recipes. (For some, I’ve included the Romanized pronunciation of the Persian language names.) Many of these ingredients, such as saffron and pistachios, are well known to Westerners because of centuries of Persian cuisine’s unrecognized influence on other food cultures of the world. While these pantry staples are readily available at supermarkets, there may be some ingredients that you may not be able to find in your local grocery store.
In metropolitan areas of the United States and Canada where there are significant Iranian communities, you will find dedicated Persian markets. If that option isn’t available to you, the next best brick-and-mortar sources would be Middle Eastern, Afghani, and Mediterranean markets, followed by Indian or Turkish stores. There are also online stores that specialize in Persian ingredients, like Kalamala Persian Grocery, Sadaf, Persian Basket, and Tavazo. If you’re looking for high-quality spices, I recommend Penzeys, Kalustyan’s, and The Spice House. With these ingredients in hand, you’ll be able to prepare a wide variety of Persian dishes at home.
There is almost always some form of dairy present at a Persian meal. Plain full-fat yogurt made from cow, sheep, and goat milk is ubiquitous in Persian cookery. It shows up not only as a standalone item or condiment, but also as a visible team player in both savory and sweet creations, including appetizers, side dishes, soups, rice dishes, desserts, and beverages.
Although Persians generally do not cook with cheese, a white, feta-like, brined cheese called Liqhvān (named after the town in northwestern Iran where the cheese has traditionally been made) is often found on the table. It is a key breakfast item eaten with flatbreads like barbari bread. It also appears on lunch and dinner tables as part of a ubiquitous starter plate of fresh herbs called sabzi-khordan. If you can’t find Liqhvān feta-like cheese, the next best alternatives are French and Bulgarian feta-like white brined cheeses as their softer, creamier textures and flavors are much closer to the Persian Liqhvān cheese.
Kashk is a product of the yogurt-making process. Churning yogurt creates two by-products: butter and a leftover liquid known as doogh. The doogh is boiled down into a thick creamy paste that’s strained and dried in the sun―this is kashk. It acts as a souring agent, packing flavor into thick soups like āsh-e-reshteh, porridge-like dishes including halim, and vegetable dishes such as kashk-ō-bademjān.
To use kashk in cooking, dried chunks are ground and rehydrated with water into a creamy paste. Jars of concentrated liquid kashk (which is strained but not dried) can also be purchased from Persian and Middle Eastern markets and, when cooking with it, must be thinned with water. The dried and liquid versions are interchangeable in cooking. Liquid kashk must be refrigerated after opening, and has a rich, creamy texture with a unique tartness and mild pungent flavor, whereas the rehydrated dried kashk may have a slight gritty texture.
Herbs and Aromatics
Herbs play a critical role in Persian cookery as they are used across all types of savory dishes. Although there are specialty and regional herbs grown in Iran, the most common herbs used are basil, dill, mint, flat-leaf parsley, spinach, thyme, bay leaf, garden cress (related to watercress), cilantro, oregano, tarragon, summer savory, Persian leek, and fenugreek. Of those, parsley, Persian leeks, and cilantro are the most frequently used.
Persian Leeks (Tareh)
Persian leeks have a mild oniony flavor. They resemble a common leek in appearance but are much thinner and smaller. They are often incorrectly labeled garlic chives or spring onions, but are different from those plants. Large amounts are used along with other herbs in traditional soups, meat braises, meat dumplings, and stuffed vegetables. Although dried Persian leeks are readily available in Persian and Middle Eastern markets, they lose much of their flavor once dried. If you can’t find them fresh, you are much better off substituting the green parts of common leeks or scallions.
Fenugreek Leaves (Shambaleeleh)
Fresh fenugreek leaves are slightly bitter, but once cooked, they take on a subtle bitter-sweet flavor and a pleasing aroma that fills the entire kitchen. It is the herb that defines the most famous Persian braised-meat dishes like ghormeh-sabzi, a meat (lamb or beef) braise with red kidney beans, a medley of herbs (fenugreek, cilantro, parsely, Persian leek, and spinach), and whole dried lime. It is hard to find fresh fenugreek, but the dried version works well and is readily available in most spice shops or any Persian or Middle Eastern markets. Practically all Persian cooks use fenugreek leaves in its dried form and almost all recipes call for its crushed dry leaves. It is a powerful dried herb, so a small amount goes a long way.
Nuts and Fruit
Fruit (both fresh and dried) and nuts play a major role in braised meats, rice dishes, sweets, and snacks.
The most essential ones to have in your Persian pantry are pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts. Pistachios (pesteh) are one of the most important nuts in the Persian kitchen; slivered or ground unroasted pistachios are typically used to provide a beautiful bright green color to dishes. Pistachio slivers are used in some special-occasion rice dishes like sheereen-polow (steamed rice flavored with pistachios, candied orange peel slivers, and saffron). As for desserts, pistachios are used in Persian-style bāghlavā, as well as a wide array of cookies and custard-like sweets.
Persians rely on dehydration and pickling to preserve the vast amount of fruit grown in Iran. The resulting fruit has vast culinary applications. Many savory and sweet dishes call for dried apricots, peaches, sweet or sour cherries, raisins, figs, as well as several special ones including white mulberries, barberries, and a variety of sour plums.
When purchasing these types of dried fruit, they should be firm to the touch and pliable, not bone-dry and brittle, with a vibrant color. The fruit should smell sweet without any traces of sulfur dioxide). I usually buy mine from bulk containers in brick-and-mortar stores where I can see, touch, smell―and even taste test a few―before buying. I store unused portions in airtight containers in cool, dark, dry places. If you have room in your refrigerator, you can store them there; they will last much longer and retain their color better.
- Dried White Mulberry (Toot): The white mulberry tree, also known as the silkworm mulberry, is widely grown in Iran. Its fruit, the fresh white mulberry, is the size of a red kidney bean and is an incredibly sweet berry with a delicate, honeyed flavor. I have childhood memories of cartons of fresh white mulberries in neighborhood greengrocers covered with buzzing honeybees. Dried white mulberries are a primary ingredient in several important and common Persian snacks and street food called ājeel. In addition, dried white mulberries are a very popular substitute for white sugar in hot tea.
- Dried Barberry (Zereshk): Barberries are the tiny, bright red fruit of a spiny shrub. Rich in vitamin C and pectin, they’re sharp and tangy in flavor. Barberries are used widely as a souring agent in rice dishes, braises, and egg-centric dishes where they provide brilliant dots of vivid red as well as bursts of intense flavor. By far, the most famous dish barberries are used in is zereshk-polow, which adds dried barberries during the steaming stage of the rice cooking process.
- Dried Sour Plums (Āloocheh): Ranging in color from golden orange to deep brown, dried sour plums are available sweet, salty, or salty-sweet. The ones used for cooking have varying levels of sourness and are used as anotherr souring agent in Persian cookery. They are often used in meat braises and stews. The most popular kind is aloo-bokhara; it has a deep orange color similar to that of dried apricots and is often used whole, whether cooked in a braise or eaten as a snack.
There is a myriad of dried spices used across the Persian cookery landscape. The most important ones to have handy in your pantry include turmeric, sumac, saffron, dried lime, cardamom, cinnamon, caraway, cumin, and fennel.
Saffron is one of the few spices that is equally used across savory dishes and sweet delicacies. Very little saffron is needed for most Persian culinary applications, where threads are typically ground fine and carefully steeped in water; the resulting liquid is then used for cooking. Most of the time it is poured on top of a pile of steamed rice dishes. It is also used in custard-like sweets, halvās, ice creams, and some hot and cold beverages. You can make liquid saffron in small batches (no more than 2 tablespoons at a time) and refrigerate any unused liquid in an airtight container—it should last a few weeks. Store dry saffron (threads or ground) in an airtight container in a dark, cool, dry place.
After salt and ground black pepper, turmeric is the next most frequently used spice in Persian cookery. The part of the turmeric plant that is used as a spice is its rhizome. While dried whole turmeric is available in some markets, grinding turmeric into its powdered form is challenging and time-consuming. You are better off starting your turmeric journey the same way most Persian home cooks do: with its powder form. Ground turmeric is a deep golden-yellow color with an intense, enticing aroma and a hit of peppery taste. Although culinary references refer to turmeric as a spice, in Persian cookery, it is often used as a primary component in an aromatic vegetable flavor base along with chopped onions. In this manner, turmeric serves as the foundation of flavor for a wide range of braises, soup-like dishes, meat dumplings, stuffing for vegetables, fried foods, and more.
Sumac has a sour citrus flavor that provides a much more balanced and complex sour kick than lime or lemon juice. It is primarily used in its ground form. Its color ranges from deep crimson to reddish-brown, which adds a burst of color to many dishes. In many Persian restaurants, particularly those that specialize in kabābs, you will find sumac in a shaker on every table next to the salt and pepper.
Dried Lime (Limoo-Omāni)
Dried lime is another key souring agent used in Persian cookery. These are made by drying Persian limes (which we know simply as limes), which have a complex, citrusy flavor and a unique musky aroma unlike any other souring agent.
Dried limes are used both whole and ground. When used whole, the outer brittle skin is pierced in a few places and simply dropped into braises and stews at the beginning of the cooking process. Whole dried lime is a key ingredient in two of the most popular and well-known braises: yellow split pea khoresh (a braise of lamb or beef) and ghormeh-sabzi khoresh (a braise of lamb or beef with a mixture of five or six aromatic green herbs). In ground form, it’s used as a condiment and is sprinkled on cooked and raw dishes right before they are served.
Green cardamom is the variety used in Persian cookery. It is extremely fragrant and known for its nuanced sweetness and warming effects. As a starting point for your pantry, it is sufficient to have whole seeds, removed from the outer pods. You can easily grind the seeds yourself for recipes that call for ground cardamom. It’s best to use a light hand with the spice, as too much of it will mask all other flavors and potentially ruin the dish. Cardamom is mostly used in sweets like cookies, cakes, Persian-style bāghlava, bars, custard-like sweets, ice creams, jams, compotes, and in some hot beverages.
Liquid flavorings like vinegar and citrus juices (particularly lime and Seville orange) play a major role in the flavors and aromas of Persian cuisine. In addition to fresh juices, the following are particularly characteristic of Persian cookery.
Verjuice is one of the most common liquid acids in the Persian kitchen. To produce verjuice, unripe green grapes are harvested, crushed, and filtered. The juice is a bit tarter than vinegar and citrus juices with a subtle sweetness and an elegant raw green aroma. It is primarily used in braises and soup-like dishes.
Rose Water (Golāb)
For centuries, rose water has been used for its intense floral fragrance across the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. It is produced through the distillation of damask rose petals, a variety that grows abundantly in Iran. Rose water is colorless and has a strong floral aroma. It is widely used in desserts like ice creams and other frozen delights, cookies, cake-like confections, custard-like sweets, baghlavā, deep-fried syrup-covered desserts, jams. It’s also incorporated into beverages such as teas and sharbats, a popular class of cold drinks made by mixing water with different types of fruit syrups and a bit of distilled aromatic liquid like rose water.
Pomegranate Molasses (Robb-é-Anār)
On the sweet-and-sour side is the magical pomegranate molasses. Although English language texts refer to it as a “molasses,” the syrup contains no added sugar. Pomegranate molasses is prepared by gently boiling fresh pomegranate juice over an extended period until it reduces into a deep, dark crimson syrup. It is used in braises like fesenjān (a braise of meat, crushed walnuts, and pomegranate molasses), as well as in soups, vegetable dishes, kabābs, fish dishes, condiments, and marinades.
Starches (Grains, Beans, Legumes, Flours, Noodles)
In a typical Persian kitchen, one will find a wide range of plant-based starches in the form of grains, beans, legumes, flours, and noodles. The most important of these include white long-grain rice, yellow split peas, fava beans, chickpeas, red kidney beans, lentils, mung beans, black-eyed peas, wheat berries, bulgur, wheat starch (used as a thickener in Persian pudding-like sweets), rice flour, chickpea flour, and Persian wheat noodles.
Fava Beans (Bāghāla or Bāghālee)
Fava beans, also known as broad beans, are used in a wide range of dishes. Fresh fava beans are available in mid-spring and, in recent years, have become widely available in many grocery stores and farmers markets. Most recipes call for double-skinned beans that have been removed from the pod and skinned. Dried and canned beans can be used interchangeably and are also available in specialty markets, but lose much of their natural flavor and tenderness. Instead, I recommend using frozen skinned fava beans that are available at Persian and Middle Eastern stores year-round.
Yellow Split Peas (Lapeh)
Yellow split peas are the dried, peeled, and split seeds of the yellow variety of field peas. They are popular not only in Iran but also across the Indian subcontinent, where they are referred to as matar dal. Yellow split peas are used in meat braises, soups, meat dumplings, and stuffed vegetables. There are two types of Persian yellow split peas sold in Persian and Middle Eastern markets: a slow-cooking variety and a fast-cooking variety, though the latter isn’t typically used in Persian cooking. The slow-cooking variety is ideal for braises and soups, as they will not fall apart during cooking and provide an additional layer of texture to the dishes. Two well-known dishes featuring yellow split peas are khoresh-é-gheimeh (a meat braise with yellow split peas and dried lime) and koofteh-tabrizi (grapefruit-size meat dumplings from the northwestern city of Tabriz).
Persians have a great love and respect for their rice dishes. Traditionally, rice is more expensive than bread. Although you will find some sort of Persian flatbread at every meal, that is not the case with rice. Rice is more special than bread. If the primary dish of the meal is some sort of thick soup (āsh), meat dumpling (koofteh), or stuffed vegetables, then there won't be rice. When present, Persian rice dishes―ranging from snow-white chelow (parboiled and then steamed white long-grain rice) to highly elaborate polows (where a wide range of vegetables, meat, nuts, and/or dried fruit are incorporated into the rice cooking process)―are the central focus of the meal.
Due to its limited supply, the high-quality rice grown in Iran is difficult to find in the West (Iranian rice is only grown on the coastlines of the Caspian Sea; it is rarely exported). The most precious varieties of rice grown in Iran include: dom-siāh (meaning black tailed), amber-boo (meaning amber scented), darbāri (meaning royal court), and sadri (meaning high level). Compared to Indian or Pakistani basmati rice, Iranian rice varieties are more aromatic and result in longer grains of cooked rice. High-quality Indian or Pakistani basmati rice is an excellent alternative.
A unique aspect of Persian rice cookery is the method in which the rice is cooked twice―parboiled first, drained, and then steamed. This yields a light, fluffy, and fragrant mound of rice where each grain is separate and plump. In addition to savory dishes, rice (and rice flour) plays a major role in Persian sweets such as sholeh-zard (highly-saffroned, spoonable rice pudding) or masghati (a rose water-flavored sliceable custard).
Persian Wheat Noodles (Reshteh)
Contemporary Persian noodles, whose primary ingredients are wheat flour, water, and salt, are still made in a similar fashion to their ancient relatives (there are documented references to reshteh from the 13th and 14th centuries; the word Reshteh in Persian means string). However, there are some minor differences: the ancient preparation yielded a thinner, more brittle product, while contemporary noodles are slightly thicker and stiffer. In addition, modern versions aren’t made by hand. Rather, they’re made by machines similar to pasta extruders.
These ribbon-like wheat noodles are primarily used in some thick soups and rice dishes. Two popular noodle dishes are āsh-é-reshteh (a thick hearty soup made from a half-dozen types of fresh herbs, several types of dried legumes, and wheat noodles) and reshteh-polow (a rice dish with toasted wheat noodles). If you can’t find them, Asian flat wheat noodles, such as Chinese mee pok noodles, are an acceptable substitute.