Fresh Classics

Persian recipes accessible to the everyday cook


Fresh Classics
by Jila Dana-Haeri & Shahrzad Ghorashian

New Persian Cooking (I.B. Taurus, 2011) offers an enticing introduction to traditional Persian cuisine through recipes that are accessible to the non-professional cook and are based on ingredients that are readily available in the West. Featuring beautiful photographs by award-winning food photographer Jason Lowe, this book will be essential for anyone interested in sampling Persian cuisine and expanding their cultural horizons. In this extract from the introduction, Jila Dana-Haeri and Sharzad Ghorashian discuss the unique elements of Persian cooking and explain how it differs from other cuisines. To explore recipes from the book, why not try some traditional dishes for Persian New Year (Norouz)?

Persian cuisine is quite distinct from other Middle Eastern styles of cooking in the way it emphasizes presentation, colour and fragrance. It combines herbs and spices with the main ingredients to create intriguing layers of flavour and aroma, none of which overwhelm the others. It is also healthy because it is based largely on using fresh ingredients at their seasonal peak, and does not rely heavily on meat: many of the recipes are suitable for vegetarians. It offers plenty of opportunity to be innovative with recipes, adapting them to the tastes of your family and guests.

Persia’s geography, history and cultural influences have shaped the diversity of ingredients and the methods of cooking in one of the world’s oldest and most sophisticated cultures. Persia – or Iran – has been subjected to repeated invasions, but it has maintained its culture, language and identity throughout the centuries. The vast size of the country encompasses a wide array of local dialects, lifestyles, regional traditions and customs, not to mention an extraordinary variety of landscapes and climates. All these are reflected in the country’s food. In the north, around the southern coast of the Caspian Sea, the landscape is lush and green and as a result of plentiful rainfall there is great diversity of fruit, vegetables and herbs. The northern regional cuisine features simple, fresh notes of taste and aroma, and there is a preference for sweet and sour flavours, as opposed to spicy. Further south, in the provinces near the Persian Gulf, where the climate is drier, the season for fresh ingredients is much shorter and the variety available is not as great. There is also a long tradition of trade through the sea routes with spice-rich countries like India. The resulting cuisine is more complex in taste than in the north of the country, with long notes of spices, tamarind and chillies.

Aash-e maast, a thick and heart soup flavoured with creamy yoghurt.

Visitors to Persian courts throughout the centuries have commented on the lavish feasts they experienced. Until the early twentieth century Iranian rooms were filled with colourful carpets, and it would be on these carpets that the meal would be laid out. With plenty of cushions for support, families gathered around the sofreh, a tablecloth spread on the carpet over a thick cover, often made of leather. Even today, in some households the tradition of sofreh is still alive. All the dishes – aash (soup), rice and khoreshts (dishes combining vegetables and meat in a rich sauce), fresh herbs and salads, bread and feta cheese – were set out on the sofreh. Everyone helped themselves and food could be eaten in any order. Tucking into little parcels of cheese and fresh herbs wrapped in a piece of bread made a fitting end to the meal. After the sofreh was cleared away, tea and home-made sweets would appear. Tea – never drunk with milk – was served in small, waisted glass tumblers that showed the rich amber colour of the drink. Sweets included noghl (sugar-coated almond sticks perfumed with orange blossom water or rose water), dates and baklava, among others.

Food has always been an important element in the Persian way of life. No one knows when or where the world’s first cookbook was written, but history suggests that the Persians can stake a claim. We know that the armies of ancient Persia took their food seriously. In the wars between Greeks and Persians from the sixth to the fourth century BC, military cooks were expected to participate in the fighting. The more elevated cooks who catered for the king and his generals had to dictate their cooking procedures to soldiers or prisoners of war who were literate, so that even if the cooks were injured or killed during the day’s fighting, their leaders’ appetites could be satisfied in the evening.

The ancient Persians were great lovers of wine, and today the traditional Persian grape Shiraz (Syrah) is grown all over the world. The red wine it produces is a wonderful complement to many Persian dishes. Although wine drinking has been discouraged in Iran since the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, Iranians have continued to produce and drink wine through the centuries, with or without the approval of the authorities. Persian poetry is awash with references to wine and the joy of drinking, whether in the mystic sense or otherwise.

From grapes to wheat and rice, Iran’s diverse climate, physical geography and terrain are ideal for growing a vast array of agricultural products. The land of Persia forms part of the fertile band that stretches from the foothills of the Himalayas to the western coast of the Black Sea. Bordered by the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf to the south, the Zagros mountain chain dominates the west of the country. Especially on the Caspian lowlands and well-watered Elburz mountains in northern Iran, fruit and vegetables are particularly tasty; dairy products, enjoying the same conditions, are also exceptionally good. Many native Persian plants, such as pomegranates, saffron, pistachios and various herbs, bring their own unique colours and flavours. Persian cuisine has used the natural advantages of highquality, fresh ingredients to develop some exquisitely subtle but complex tastes.

The coming together of fresh dill and braod beans with rice in Baghala polo (above) is spring on a plate.

Lamb is the meat traditionally used in Persian cooking. However, in recent times beef has replaced lamb in some dishes. Chicken has always been very popular and widely used. Game birds are eaten as seasonal delicacies. The varieties of fish available in the Caspian Sea in the north and the Persian Gulf in the south are very different and regional recipes have developed in coastal areas.

Seasonal variation – many parts of Iran have cold winters and very hot summers – has always shaped the nature and diversity of Persian cooking. Globalization and the flow of worldwide trade have to some extent reduced the seasonality of ingredients, but traditionally, as different ingredients appear in the marketplace throughout the year, seasonal change is reflected in popular recipes. Okra and lamb khoresht (Khoresht-e bamiyeh) and broad beans and dill rice (Baghala polo) are just two examples.

The combination of fresh and cooked food eaten over the course of a day has a good nutritional balance. A traditional Persian table offers combination of proteins from animal and plant sources – the healthiest way to meet your body’s protein requirements. A side dish of yogurt, mixed with cucumbers and mint or beetroot or celery, has many nutritional benefits, while a fresh bouquet of herbs provides enough vitamins and antioxidants to boost your immune system on a daily basis. Fruit, rich in vitamins and fibre, is the most popular end to a rich meal. On hot summer days slices of ruby-coloured watermelon and sweet chilled rock melon (kharbozeh) are much in demand. A large bowl of colourful seasonal fruit adorns the coffee tables of most households in Iran.

Modern Persian cooking reflects its varied heritage, but has also evolved to encompass trends in healthy eating. Drawing on the tradition of serving fresh herbs and yogurt with meals, salads and yogurt side dishes are important features of today’s dinner table. The move away from animal fats to vegetable oils is a relatively recent major change in Persian kitchens. Modern cooking puts more emphasis on baking and grilling meat and vegetables, wherever possible, rather than frying them.

Whay not try some of the recipes from New Persian Cooking with some traditional dishes for Persian New Year?


Jila Dana-Haeri (left) is an expert on Persian cuisine. Jila grew up in Iran where she learnt cooking in her family kitchen. As a doctor she is acutely aware of the need for a healthy, balanced diet, which is reflected in her recipes. Jila lives in the English countryside where she entertains family and friends with her Persian dishes.

Shahrzad Ghorashian (right) previously worked at the BBC. She now divides her time between Cannes and London and shares Jila’s passion for the food of her native Iran.