Persian food beginner's guide: 13 dishes you must try

Keen to try the basics of Persian (Iranian) cuisine? Kav Dadfar takes us through some of the most popular dishes, from aubergine dips and sabzi polo, to a host of rich koreshts (stews)...

5 mins

The origins of Persian food are complex, as is Iran's long and turbulent past. Over 2,000 years ago, the Persian Empire stretched as far as India and, since then, Iran's cuisine and culture has been influences by various invading nations throughout history – the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Russians and Turks among them.

Today, food is a big deal for Iranians. Family gatherings often involve multiple hot and cold dishes, never-ending amounts of berenj (rice) and plenty of encouragement to keep eating more.


If you've never tried Persian food before, be adventurous and start with these delicious dishes…

1. Rice and tahdig

Look out of the tahdig in any Persian rice dish (Shutterstock)

Look out of the tahdig in any Persian rice dish (Shutterstock)

Not a dish on its own – but an integral part of Persian cuisine is the soft, fluffy basmati rice that accompanies each meal. You'll never find a traditional meal at a dinner party, or even a family meal, without it.

One of the most delicious elements of Persian rice is what is called the tahdig. It's a crispy, golden layer of rice or potato, sitting right at the bottom of a pan. It is the most sought-after part of any rice dish. People have been known to fight over it! 

2. Chelo kebab

How would you have your chelo? (Shutterstock)

How would you have your chelo? (Shutterstock)

Chelo, simply meaning plain-cooked rice and kebab, is a must for anyone wanting to take their first steps into Persian cuisine.

There are various options for which protein to have with chelo. There's koobedeh, which is ground meat mixed with minced onion and seasoned with salt and pepper. Then there is bargh, a thinly sliced lamb fillet, often marinated overnight in lemon juice and onions. Don't forget chenjeh, a lamb fillet marinated, diced and then grilled. Or joojeh, which is marinated chicken, basted with butter and saffron.

All cooked on a grill, they are tender, juicy and delicious. Your chelo kebab will be accompanied with a grilled tomato, some sumac (a red spice made from dried berries) and a knob of butter to mix into your rice.

3. Sabzi polo

Sabzi polo (Shutterstock)

Sabzi polo (Shutterstock)

Roughly translating to 'herbed rice', the name sabzi references various green herbs – such as dill, coriander and parsley – that are generously mixed into the rice to create this dish.

Typically, it's served with fish; which kind depends on where in Iran you are. Traditionally, in northern Iran, sabzi polo is served with a fried fish called mahi, and in southern Iran, stuffed and baked fish. Most often, this meal is eaten during Norouz (Iranian New Year). 

4. Baghali polo ba mahiche

Baghali polo ba mahiche (Shutterstock)

Baghali polo ba mahiche (Shutterstock)

Baghali polo is a fragrant rice dish made with broad beans, dill and saffron. It's then served with succulent, fall-off-the-bone mahiche (lamb shank).

One of the most popular and well-known dishes in Iran, its origins date back centuries. Fun fact: it's also a very popular choice to serve at weddings.

5. Ghormeh sabzi

Khoresh-e ghormeh sabzi is sometimes referred to as the national dish of Iran, so it's a must-try for anyone exploring these different flavours.

It is a tangy and citrusy slow-cooked stew (khoresht) made with herbs, red kidney beans and lamb chunks. Parsley, coriander, chives and fenugreek provide the stew's base, while Persian dried limes add a subtle, sour flavour. Of course, it's best served with steamed rice.

6. Zereshk polo ba morgh

Zereshk polo ba morgh (Shutterstock)

Zereshk polo ba morgh (Shutterstock)

Literally meaning 'barberry rice with chicken', this famous Persian dish is a favourite for get-togethers and dinner parties (mehmooni) because of its relatively simple cooking process compared to other Persian dishes.

Barberries (zereshk), grown in eastern Iran, are extremely tangy, so they're sometimes mixed with sugar when being cooked, adding a sweet and sour taste to the rice. The chicken is cooked in a saffron and tomato sauce, and the barberry rice is served separately alongside.

7. Khoresh-e fesenjan

Khoresh-e fesenjan (Shutterstock)

Khoresh-e fesenjan (Shutterstock)

This koresht is an iconic Persian stew that combines bold flavours to deliver a taste like no other. Made with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses, fesenjan (or fesenjoon) has a thick and creamy sauce that is dark brown, with a nutty, sour and sweet taste that varies depending on which molasses are used.

It can come with a variety of different meats such as duck (in northern Iran), chicken, or as I had it when I was younger, with meatballs. As with all koreshts, it is served in a separate dish along with saffron rice.

8. Gheimeh

Gheimeh served with chips (Shutterstock)

Gheimeh served with chips (Shutterstock)

Unlike other Persian stews, that usually contain larger chunks of meat, this khoresht is traditionally made with small cubes of lamb (though it can also be made with beef). Gheimeh is the name of the method for cutting meat into small pieces.

This delicious stew combines lamb (or beef), split chickpeas, tomato sauce and various spices such as turmeric and cinnamon. The result is a rich and flavoursome stew.

Different regions of Iran have their own variations of this dish. The most popular two are either gheimeh sibzamini, which is served with crunchy potato chips over the top, or gheimeh bademjan, where fried aubergines replace chips.

9. Ashe reshteh

Ashe reshteh (Shutterstock)

Ashe reshteh (Shutterstock)

This soup consists of thick noodles, chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans, kashk (yoghurt whey), fried onions plus mint oil. It is a traditional meal eaten on the 13th day after Norouz, the Iranian New Year.

The day is called Sizdah Bedar, meaning 'getting rid of 13' and marks the end of the New Year celebrations. People will spend the day outdoors enjoying a picnic with the family, while tucking into bowls of ashe reshteh.

10. Essential starters and side dishes

Kashke bademjan (Shutterstock)

Kashke bademjan (Shutterstock)

A classic Persian meal usually consists of several hot and cold dishes. Many of these dishes are served as starters in restaurants, but they can also accompany the main meal. Here are a few favourites...

Salad shirazi: A light and delicious salad that is eaten as a side dish with many rice and stew dishes. As the name implies, it is believed this salad originated from Shiraz, a city in the south-west of Iran. It is made with just three main ingredients: cucumbers, tomatoes and onions, plus an acidic dressing.

Mirza ghasemi: Originating from northern Iran, this vegetarian appetiser (or main course) bursts with garlic, smoked aubergines, tomatoes, and eggs. It is eaten with either some fresh naan or taftoon bread if a starter, or with rice as a main course.

Kashke bademjan: This thick aubergine-based dip is a favourite; just dunk in it with some bread. Kashke is a type of whey made by draining yoghurt, while bademjan means aubergine in Farsi. The whey is salty and tangy, perfectly complimenting the richness of the aubergine. 

Mast: Yoghurt is another common side-dish or appetiser. The two main variations of this are mast-o-khiar (yoghurt and cucumber) and mast-o-musir (yoghurt and Persian shallots).

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