Food In Iran

One heads for Iran expecting traditional Middle Eastren fare with the occasional variation to the norm. However, a treat is in store for the visitor to Iran, where one finds that the Persians are sophisticated eaters and cooking is an important part of their lifestyle.

NO doubt the best food is prepared and eaten in the home, where dishes require considerable preparation, marinades and slow cooking. As few or no supermarkets exist, produce is always fresh, available from their local bazaars, and regional specialities are highly prized.

Their bread is flat and thin and served with every meal. At breakfast one can roll it around cheese, fruit or jams, such as fig, rose, strawberry and carrot marmalade. At lunch or dinner the bread can be used with a dip or to soak up the remains of the delicious sauce from a casserole.

Almost every meal, either at lunch or dinner, commenced with soup. At times they were a rich broth with minced balls of lamb or finely diced lamb with spinach, split peas, lentils, parsley and dill. On most occasions we were served a vegetable soup with a barley base and with saffron and a range of spices. Available with the soups were a small jug of lemon or lime juice, which one was expected to liberally apply for a sharpness integral to the flavour.

Served at the same time as the soup was a bowl of yoghurt, either plain or with cucumber, garlic, chives or dill as a flavouring. At the outset one had a few mouthfuls due to its reputation as a traveller's protector, but the quality and its refreshment soon had one downing two bowls a day on top of spoonfuls at breakfast.

With the main dishes came the basic food of Iran, rice. Although cooked and presented in different ways, the rice was always long-grained, light and fluffy with excellent flavour, yet often pilaf-like with saffron, dill, pomegranate or sour cherries. Pats of unsalted butter were served with the rice to enable one to make a crater in the rice, add the butter which soon melted, and then blend it in with the rice.

A form of kebab, either lamb, chicken, fish or mixed, came with every meal, together with a salad and rice accompaniment. The meats had always been marinaded for some time and were nearly always tender and delicious.Cooked vegetables were available as a separate dish as well. Accompanying dishes were mainly stews, mostly vegetable or vegetable based with meat added. Hot spices such as chilli were not used, but saffron, turmeric, dill, fennel, mint, oregano, pomegranate were used together with different nuts. The vegetables included beans, spinach, potatoes, tomatoes and often egg-plant, with quince also a popular base.

Kufteh or meat balls in the north were delicious, the larger ones being a meal in themselves.

Dolmehs or stuffed vine leaves were excellent, but the two dishes which lett a lasting impression were Dizi and Fesenjan.

Dizi is a rich stew of lamb, chick-peas, tomato, onion and turmeric, served in a stoneware bowl. One drains off the liquid into a soup bowl, devours the soup, then pummels the remaining meat and vegetables into a meaty gruel to be eaten with bread having removed any bone. With this dish, as well as others, one is offered a spicy yoghurt drink called Dugh. Dugh is very salty, but mixed with mineral water is quite refreshing.

Fesenjan was the winner amongst our group. It consists of duck (or chicken) simmered with crushed walnuts, pomegranate juice and lemon juice. Outstanding on the many occasions presented to us.

Quality fresh fruit was offered to us to complete a meal, with sweet and delicious melons, pomegranates tasty but full of pips, bananas, apples, oranges, mandarins and strawberries.

Because of this we rarely had deserts, especially as creme caramel or fruit salad and ice-cream were the only ones on offer. At times one was offered baclava and halva, so few resisted these rich and delectable tid-bits.

While travelling on the bus we were offered fresh dates (not dried like those at home), tiny dried figs, pistacchio and mixed nuts, together with local biscuits. The fabulous biscuits were mainly short-bread pastry filled with a mixture of dates, cinammon and pistacchio or hazel nut.

Ali, our excellent Persian tour operator, ordered for us at each restaurant, ensuring that a new delight was offered at almost every meal and that we sampled a speciality of the different regions. He also ensured that our favourite dishes were repeated. As a result we have never enjoyed the dining as much on previous tours nor had such consistently good fare.

Colin and Melinda Daniels