Being a follower of a vegetarian diet a month in Iran was not the best experience at gastronomic level, with some exceptions to this diet, often through ignorance or language barrier, others by not refuse a meal kindly offered as in the Ashura Day.
So the famous Iranian cuisine was unexplored and may not my experience do justice to what is eaten in Iran.
But in terms of restaurants, for those who do not intend to go to the upper range, there aren’t many options, except the so-called fast-food, which are basically kebaks, burgers and falafel. This lack of options reveals that people often do not do a lot of eating out, which is understandable in a country where many women are still domestic.
Hot and Cold
According to the Iranian tradition the meals should be balanced between hot and cold food, and this is nothing to do with the temperature that they are cooked or consumed but comes from their intrinsic properties, with hot foods speed up metabolism and cold foods to slow down. Examples of hot foods: meat, sugar, wheat, alcohol, dried fruits; cold food is yogurt, fruit, vegetables, rice…
Meat dishes are consumed often with a mixture of raw vegetables, including spring onions, radishes, mint, coriander, lettuce, arugula… and yogurt that is often present at meal, balance the energetic value of food.
The traditional breakfast in Iran has the obligatory presence bread, which appears in various forms but always following the tradition of Middle-East flat breads, ant that can be long or round shape. Accompanying bread, is the cheese, butter, tomatoes, cucumber, dried fruits, nuts, dates, honey, tahini … and the ever-present tea that is consumed throughout the day and indispensable in the mornings.
So, balancing bread, nuts and dates, joins the yogurt, tomato and cucumber … and tea, which like rice are considered neutral food.
Are undoubtedly a strong presence in Iranian diet, with yogurt to be preset at meals, cheese for breakfast, milk-based sweets, butter served on top of rice …
Clearly dominates the uncured white cheese made from sheep’s milk, more or less creamy, sold in roughly square blocks. In the markets the ripened cheese is absent. The dairy shops, beside cheese also have yogurt and butter, exposed in freezers in large blocks easily identified by the yellow color and the fingerprints as a kind of “decoration”.
There are many pastries dedicated to the manufacture and sale of sweets, where the cakes follow the French style pastry but in a less sophisticated version, with biscuits and cream cakes. In some more sophisticated areas of the big cities you can find the traditional Turkish sweet baklava.
However the Iranian sweets has much more to offer, with each region associated with at least one specific sweet. In Fuman the Koloocheh, a stuffed cookie with a sugary paste, Esfahan, the Fereni, a milk pudding with dates syrup, in Shiraz the Foloudeh a kind of noodles served ice cream and drizzled with rose-water, in Yazd where the sweets have a strong tradition stands the Iranian version of baklava, which here doesn’t have the thin layers of puff dough, being more compact and stuffed with almond paste. Kashan is famous for rose-water and sweets from using it.
Everywhere, in shops or bazaars, you can find halva, a more or less smooth paste made of flour, butter or oil, and sugar or honey, flavored with spices like cardamom and cinnamon. It is found in rectangular blocks where it is sold by weight, or packaged. The tahini is also very popular in Iran, where this rich sesame past is mix with honey. In Yazd lies one of the best combinations: tahini with halva.
Definitely Iran is not a street-food country, with the exception od some vendors circulating in the bazaars streets and occasionally in the surrounding areas, with baked broad beans that are seasoned with vinegar, and others selling sweet potatoes, beet-root and other roots cooked in sugar syrup.
In Tabriz had happy encounter with a rustic sort of wrap, with the bread to be stuffed with roast potatoes, boiled egg and salad, resulting in a meal that can fill your stomach for a few hours.
The markets are sometimes fruit juice vendors freshly made; but in small shops scattered around the town, the so-called juice bars have a wider offer (apple, orange, pomegranate, melon, carrots…) and are a good option to gain energy and combat the heat with a cool drink .
A sweet mixture of water and chia seeds, which gives it a certain texture and consistency is also very popular and refreshing.
Fruit and Nuts
In terms of fruits there’s a bit from everything, with the month of October filling the markets with the appetizing pomegranates and delicious grapes. But are also available in big quantities find watermelons and delicious apples and juicy peaches. Bananas are also common but they are probably one of the few tropical fruits available here.
But the focus go to the dry-fuits: prunes, raisins, apricots, figs… lying in many varieties and presentations (some sweeter, some more acidic, others a bit salty, etc. ..), with the dates having a special place here in Iran, being part of the daily diet as in the preparation of dishes or consumed simple for breakfast or as a snack during the day. The city of Bam and the Kerman region are particularly famous for dates, that are commercialized in the fresh version, sweet and soft, having to be kept refrigerated. In other places around Iran are more popular and easy to find the more dry dates, sugary and stick but also delicious.
Nuts, which include, walnuts, almonds, cashews and pistachios are everywhere… and can be found simple, roasted, salted, spicy… in October, perhaps because the pistachio seasons you can find so-called “fresh” with a thin layer of skin that covers the shell, with a most tender and sweet nut than dry version commonly found.
Tabriz and Bandar Abbas, curiously the first and last stop on this journey in Iran, were the places where I found a greater variety of nuts and dry-fruits.
Ash-e reshteh and halim
The ash-e reshteh is one of the best gastronomic memories of Iran, since in terms of vegetarian food there are not many options in restaurants. A soup made from vegetables, lentils, beans and noodles, cooked in pans giant until all ingredients were almost broken (and this includes the noodles that are not “al dent”), resulting in a consistent and thick soup. This soup alone is a substantial meal being sometimes accompanied by bread. Depending of the places the ash-e reshteh can be served with a topping of fried onions, a blend of herbs in oily paste, or some drops of Kashk, a kind of thick and sour cream. Great meal.
The halim (haleem) resembles more a puree, made with wheat-based grain, milk and meat (lamb or turkey), which are cooked together for a long time until reach a thick puree; there are other version with saffron that gives it a yellow color. Meat gets crushed until reduced to almost invisible wires. It can be served plain or with sugar and cinnamon is often consumed for breakfast… a kind of porridge but richer and caloric.
Generally shops selling ash-e reshteh also sell halim, dedicated exclusively to preparing these dishes, having no more options. Many of these shops do not even have space for dining inside, being only for take-away.