My mother, born in Baghdad, Iraq, spent most of her formative years in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and my father was born and raised in Tehran, Iran. Both came to the United States as teenagers in the 1960s. At any given time in our house, people were speaking English, Spanish, Farsi and occasionally Arabic.
Although my father and most of his immediate family came to the U.S. well before the Iranian revolution, the rest of our extended family came in droves after the revolution in 1979. I often wonder if this is why many of us refer to ourselves as Persian rather than Iranian, referring to the rich history and ancient cultural ties to prerevolutionary Iran and the land that used to make up the Persian Empire.
When I think about Persian dishes I have enjoyed throughout my life, my memories swirl around big family get-togethers and Shabbat dinners. I can close my eyes and conjure up the intoxicating scents of savory herbs mingling with buttery rice. Today, the vast majority of Persian Americans live in Los Angeles, aka “Tehrangeles,” including most of my father’s side of the family. When we visited my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and an enormous extended family, the first stop upon arrival was always my grandparents’ condo in the Westwood neighborhood, a Persian-American hub. My grandmother always had something cooked and ready for us, and the heavenly smell would envelop us as soon as we stepped out of the 11th-floor elevator. The aroma of seasoned rice, chicken soup and gondi, a Persian-Jewish dumpling made of chicken or turkey and chickpea flour (our version of the matzo ball), was like a cozy hug welcoming us inside.
Late-night dinners at relatives’ homes featured so many dishes, we couldn’t possibly taste them all — but oh, how we tried. In Persian culture, food and hosting are synonymous with love, and “the more, the merrier” are words we live by. Since Persian families tend to be large and close-knit, even the most casual get-togethers can grow into big events with music, sometimes dancing and singing, and masses of food.
The most well-known and well-loved dishes are universal, as are the ubiquitous fragrant rice and stews. A typical Persian dinner includes seasoned, roasted chicken; at least two khoresht (stews) and different kinds of rice — always chelo (plain white rice) and at least one kind of seasoned rice. Also served are salad; a sabzi platter of fresh herbs and radishes; and the crowning glory of Persian rice dishes, tadig.
The centerpiece of the meal — the most anticipated dish of all — is literally found at the bottom of the pot. If you use a nonstick pot and pour extra oil into the rice as it steams (and if you’re lucky), the rice at the bottom slowly fries to become a beautiful, crunchy golden disk.
People take great pride in presenting their rice disk when it comes out in one whole piece. Sometimes, thin slices of potato are placed at the bottom of the pot, where they fry embedded in crunchy rice. My mother adds whole coriander seed for a delicious pop of floral flavor in each bite. There’s no time for niceties when tadig hits the table — it will be gone in the blink of an eye. It can be enjoyed on its own or you can flip the tadig on your plate crunchy-side-down and spoon khoresht on top, then sprinkle with sumac, our goes-on-everything spice.
While the flavor profiles and ingredients in Persian cuisine differ slightly among Jewish and Muslim styles of cooking, several key seasonings are central to all Persian cuisine:
Za’faran (saffron), also known as red gold, is the most expensive spice by weight; ounce for ounce, it is pricier than gold. Iran produces about 90 percent of the world’s saffron, which is used sparingly to impart a slightly astringent flavor and golden hue to foods. It is most commonly used in making chelo and usually appears in the center of the tadig. Saffron should be crushed and then “bloomed” (brewed) to release its full flavor.
Limoo omani (dried lime) is quite possibly the most important flavoring used in Persian (and Iraqi) cooking. It looks like a dark shriveled ball and offers a unique sour-bitter taste. It is used both whole and ground as a coarse powder. When used whole in stews, limoo omani softens during cooking and can be pressed to release more of its tart flavor. A brave few (myself included) pluck it out of stew and eat it whole.
Sumac is made from a ground berry and has a citrusy, tangy flavor that brightens and highlights food. It is added to white rice, stews (especially ghormeh sabzi), bread and butter, feta, hummus and more.
Advieh means “spice” in Farsi and is a blend of aromatic spices similar to garam masala or five-spice seasoning. While several variations exist, advieh contains some combination of turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, cloves, black pepper and sometimes dried rose petals. Different combinations are used for different dishes, and it’s not easy to get Persian cooks to reveal their special blends. Advieh is used sparingly mostly in chicken and rice dishes; about one teaspoon is all you need to transform the dish.
Gol-ahb (rosewater) is another important flavor. Used in nearly all desserts, sometimes in combination with cardamom, it also is delicious and refreshing in hot or iced tea. My favorite use is adding a few drops to watermelon.
My family left Iran but brought the best of Persian culture with it: love of family, dedication to community, the most amazing food — and, wow, do we throw a great party. Nooshe jon (May it nourish your soul)!
Monks K. Iran’s homegrown treasure: the spice that costs more than gold. CNN website. Updated September 3, 2015. Accessed February 8, 2019.