Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Persian Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan Persian cuisine with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Kurdish cuisinehere to read her column about Levantine cuisine, and here to read her column about Uzbek cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Persian Cuisine

Persian cuisine, also known as, ‘Iranian Cuisine’ is an amalgamation of the general eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and Far East cuisines with ingredients originating from China, Turkey, India, Greece, nations within the Caucasus, Russia, and Levant nations.

Similar to the general Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines that utilize an âm du’o’ng, or yīn yang, approach to food/ingredient pairing, in which foods categorized as hot or warm complement those classified as cold or cool, respectively, without these categories referencing the temperatures of the foods, Persians utilize the hot and cold categories of food. However, unlike Viet and Chinese cooking which use these categories to enhance and balance flavors, the Persians use these categories to describe the effect of certain foods on the body, the digestive processes, and the body’s metabolism.

Persians believe that in order for our bodies to function at optimal levels, there needs to be a balance of hot and cold foods within the person’s diet.

It is believed that cold foods, such as cucumbers, aubergines (eggplants), or a Persian potato salad (such as Salad Olivieh) slow down the body’s digestive processes making a person feel more tired as the body requires more energy to digest the food while hot foods, such as carrots, herbs, and walnuts, speed up the digestive processes and metabolism making a person feel more energized, awake, and aware.

Lentil polo with brown rice
Lentil polo with brown rice. Image credit: @van_cafe_tehran. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Persians, especially those who practice Zoroastrianism, or are descended from/associated with people who did, believe that in order for our bodies to function at optimal levels, there needs to be a balance of hot and cold foods within the person’s diet. Therefore, every dish is made with an antithesis to the main ingredient. For example, as rice is considered to be a cold food, rice dishes are often made with a range of herbs and spices including cardamom, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, salt, and pepper which are all categorized as hot foods. This balancing principle also extends to sweets and desserts which might use a hot ingredient such as mint or rose water to balance out the main cold ingredient, which could be sugar or yogurt. Sour foods are also often paired with sweet or savory foods to aid in digestion as it is believed that the acidic properties of sour (pickled or fermented) foods help to break down fats in foods eaten.

The Staple Rice

Typical Persian main dishes consist of rice. This was originally solely for the court cuisine of the Safavid dynasty and wealthy people in the early to mid-1500s. However, by the end of that century, it became a more mainstream ingredient (alongside bread) used as a staple within the general cuisine. The most common rice dishes include chelow, kateh, polow, and dami.

Until the late XVI century rice was reserved solely for the court cuisine of the Safavid dynasty and wealthy people.

Chelow, or chelo, is steamed white rice that is made by soaking and parboiling the rice before draining and steaming it to create a fluffy rice with separate grains. It is known for having a tahdig, which is a golden crust of rice at the bottom from the rice sticking to the bottom of the pot and toasting from the heat. Chelow is often served with a stew layered over it.

Unlike chelow, kateh is made by cooking the rice in boiling water until the water is completely absorbed (and evaporated). This results in sticky rice which usually does not have a tahdig.

Sabzi polo (Fresh herb and garlic rice), vegan persian cuisine
Sabzi polo (Fresh herb and garlic rice). Image credit: @theiranianvegan. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Polow, also known as ‘polo’, is the Iranian version of pilau (pilaf) is essentially chelow that incorporates layers of fried fruits, vegetables, and nuts amongst the rice prior to it being steamed (after being drained). More often than not, polow is made using a broth or stock in place of water to impart a deeper flavor into the rice. There is a wide range of polow dishes which include sabzi polow (polow made with green herbs), morasa polow (made with barberries, raisins, orange peel, carrots, pistachios, and almonds), adas polow (made with lentils, raisins, and dates), shirin polow (made with carrots, raisins, and almonds), baqali polow (made with fava beans and dill), dampokhtak (made with turmeric and lima beans), and kalam polow (made with cabbage and herbs).

Dami is rice that is cooked similarly to kateh, but with the inclusion of a towel or foil between the pot and lid to prevent steam from leaving the pot. This is the same method used by Nigerians when making Jollof rice. However, unlike Jollof, additions to the rice for dami include other grains, legumes, or beans which will cook through as the rice cooks other ingredients could also be included for variants of dami and a tahdig is also achievable and can be found on some dami.

Rice is also often used to make desserts such as sholezard (a saffron rice pudding made of rice, saffron, sugar, rosewater, and cinnamon) and shir-berenej (a cardamom rice pudding).

vegan persian cuisine
Lubia Polo/Rice and beans served with tofu kebabs and vegan mint yoghurt. Image credit: @persianveganrose. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

The Accompaniment to Rice – Stews

Stews are often served layered on top of freshly made chelow or served beside the rice. Persian stews can often be made meatless without compromising on taste or nutrition. Popular stews include ghormeh sabzi, khoresh e bademjan, khoresh e qeyme, khoresh e qarch and khoresh e alu-esfenaj.

Persian stews can often be made meatless without compromising on taste or nutrition.

Ghormeh sabzi is a green stew made by simmering a mixture of kidney beans, spinach, leek, tofu, fenugreek leaves, parsley, coriander (cilantro), dried Persian limes, and spring onions (green onions/scallions) in a pot. Meat substitutes can be included to make the stew more filling. It is often served during Nowruz (Persian New Year) in March. In stews such as this, herbs are used as a main ingredient or ingredient that makes up the dish as opposed to being used as a garnish or to add a little flavour to the stews as is common in most “Western” cuisines.

Khoresh-e-Fesenjoon. Image credit: @plant_basedpersian. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Khoresh is a type of Persian stew that consists of herbs, fruits and/or nuts with tomato purée (tomato paste), pomegranate juice and saffron. Meat substitutes can be added to them to make them more filling and more similar to their more conventional/common version. Some common khoresh stews are khoresh e bademjan, khoresh e qeyme, khoresh e qarch, and khoresh e alu-esfenaj. Their bases are similar. However, their differences lie in some of the main ingredients. For example, khoresh e bademjan is made with aubergines (eggplant), tomato, and verjuice (a green sour acidic green juice made from unripe grapes, apples, and lemons). Khoresh e qeyme is made with split peas, chips (French fries) and dried Persian limes, khoresh e qarch is a mushroom stew, and and khoresh e alu-esfenaj is a prune and spinach stew.

vegan persian cuisine
Āsh. Image credit: @parisas_vegan_life. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Soups

Soups within the cuisine are often thick, but not as thick as the stews while also generally not being light and brothy. Thicker soups are known as, ‘āsh’ and they are more traditional to the cuisine of Iran than other soups. Some of these soups include adasi, āsh e anār, gazane, kalehjoosh, and sup e jow.

Adasi is a lentil soup made by cooking green lentils and piaz dagh (sauteed onions) in a broth, or water, with garlic, and spices. It is eaten regardless of the time of day. Therefore, it can be served as a breakfast food as well as a lunch or dinner meal.

Soups within the cuisine are often thick, but not as thick as the stews while also generally not being light and brothy.

Āsh e anār is a thick soup made from pomegranates (seeds and juice), lapeh (yellow split peas), onions, garlic, herbs, and spices. The most common herb used to make āsh e anār is mint.

Gazane is a soup made from stinging nettles, onions, garlic, chickpeas, lentils, pomegranate molasses, green leafy vegetables, herbs, and spices. It is believed to be a very healthy and medicinal soup due to its high levels of some vitamins and minerals as well as its ancient uses as a diuretic and for treating or easing conditions such as joint pains, acne, arthritis, and hay fever.

vegan persian cuisine
Spinach āsh. Image credit: @parisas_vegan_life. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Kalehjoosh is a thick soup (āsh) made from green lentils, white beets, and chickpeas. It also contains kashk which is usually only found vegan when intentionally made by a vegan trying to replicate it for a recipe. Kashk is, essentially, dried balls of strained yogurt. Therefore, substitutes can be made by drying storebought vegan strained yogurts or vegan Greek yogurts.

Sup e jow is a barley soup made by simmering grain barley, leeks, onions, carrots, Persian limes, herbs, spices, and verjuice (or grape molasses) in stock until the barley and carrots are tender and the soup thickens. Sometimes, it includes sour cream. This can be excluded or substituted by using a vegan sour cream.

The Staple Bread

Dishes that do not accompany rice often accompany bread in some form. These are traditionally flatbreads. However, some non-flatbreads have been adopted from other cuisines. These include the French baguette. Some common Persian breads are lavash, sangak, and barbari.

vegan persian cuisine
Image credit: @parisas_vegan_life. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

The most common Persian bread is lavash. Lavash is a flaky round thin flatbread made from leavened dough and baked in a tandoor oven (a cylindrical clay or metal oven). Sangak is a rectangular or triangular stone-baked flatbread made from a leavened whole wheat sourdough dough. Barbari is a thick oval flatbread. It is often topped with sesame seeds and/or black caraway seeds. Similar to the German pretzel, it has a distinct brown skin achieved through the Maillard reaction caused by baking the bread dough after it is glazed with a mixture of baking soda, flour and water.

Vegan Persian Recipe – Khoresh Gheimeh/ Khoresh e qeyme by Parisa Purranjbar

This stew is one of the most popular Persian dishes. It is a yellow split pea stew that is served with chips (French fries), fried aubergines (eggplants), and fried tomatoes. It is also served with rice and can be served with a salad too.

This recipe was developed by Parisa Purranjbar (@parisas_vegan_life on Instagram) for IranVeganTravel.com, a website in which she shares vegan versions of Persian recipes while giving people a vegan-friendly experience of Iran (in collaboration with Sina Poures’hagh).

Image credit: @parisas_vegan_life for @iranvegantravel. Click on the photo to see the full post on Instagram.

Click here to see the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

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