A Heritage Worth Renewing
Mention Persia (modern-day Iran) in everyday conversation, and you will likely evoke immediate images of Persia’s rich cultural heritage—ornate woven carpets or the elegant poetry of Rumi, for example. However, Iran also deserves to be known and celebrated for its rich and varied traditional cuisine.
In the past, traditionally prepared items that featured raw milk and bone broth were commonplace in the animal-fat-rich Iranian diet. These included Lighvan, a semihard cheese made from raw sheep’s milk (or a combination of raw sheep’s and goat’s milk), and Ab-goosht, a peasant stew that translates literally as “meat water” because it relies on the core ingredients of lamb shanks and neck bones to create a broth abundant in minerals, gelatin and collagen. Nowadays, unfortunately, the Iranian diet is much more likely to highlight cheap (in the short term) food industry standards such as vegetable oils, margarine, soy and sodas. Iran also has succumbed to Western fears about animal fats. As a result of this ongoing “nutrition transition,” diet-related chronic diseases are on the rise and are a leading cause of mortality.1
From the 800s AD onward, Persia was internationally admired for its scientific and cultural leadership. The influential eleventh-century Persian philosopher and scientist Avicenna (980–1037 AD), author of The Book of Healing and the five-volume Canon of Medicine, recognized the relationship between sound dietary practices and good health. Avicenna’s seminal works lauded the virtues of nutrient-dense animal foods, including yogurt cultured from raw milk, bone broth, and meats such as veal, lamb and goat (with organ meats, of course). In the second volume of the Canon, Avicenna observed that milk should come only from “animals that have been fed from the most nutritious plants in a wide area” and also noted that “boiling the milk will make it rancid for the temperament of human beings.”
Advocates of traditional Iranian medicine—writing about Avicenna’s sensible viewpoint on “health preservation” in the Iranian Journal of Public Health in 2013—suggest that contemporary medicine has strayed from Avicenna’s observation that it is possible to prevent disease “by obeying healthy nutrition principles.”2 Avicenna certainly would not have condoned modern ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, nor would he have known what to make of Iran’s modern epidemics of fatty liver and heart disease.
INFLUENCES AND INGREDIENTS
Officially considered part of the Middle East, Iran shares borders with Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Due to its central location on the Silk Road trade route, Iran’s cuisine also was influenced by travelers from Europe, the Far East and Africa. These diverse culinary traditions and a variable climate with seasons have helped shape as well as disseminate Iran’s unique and legendary cuisine.
Iran’s traditional dishes revolve around whole-foods ingredients such as red meat (especially lamb and lamb fat), fish (primarily in Iran’s coastal areas) and, more recently, chicken; dairy products made from full-fat sheep and goat milk; rice and wheat; aromatic and other vegetables; nuts such as pistachios, almonds and walnuts; fresh and dried fruits, including pomegranates, quince, apricots, prunes and dates; and distinctive herbs, spices and flavoring agents such as mint, parsley, saffron, cinnamon and rosewater. A number of Iranian dishes use unripe fruit to deepen flavors and add tartness, including fruits such as sour grapes, sour cherries, barberries and green plums.3
Iran’s agricultural abundance also lends itself to a wide variety of pickled vegetable and spice combinations called torshi, which are consumed with most meals. Persian torshi tend to use vinegar rather than lacto-fermentation as their mode of preservation, however.
FERMENTED DAIRY PRODUCTS
Iran’s climate and culinary traditions have long been conducive to dairy products, especially fermented dairy. The Encyclopædia Iranica asserts that fifty years ago milk and dairy products often supplied from 12 to 25 percent of average daily calories.4 In modern times, consumption of dairy products appears to be declining5 as well as shifting toward industrially produced dairy.
Traditionally, raw-milk cheeses such as lighvan have been ripened in brine without a starter culture, a process that yields an abundance of gut-friendly microflora, including numerous strains of lactobacilli.6 Likened to a “Persian feta,” lighvan is made by coagulating milk, packing the curd into triangular cloth bags to drain, and placing the drained blocks (covered with salt) in earthenware pots until ready. Other flavorful artisanal cheeses such as siahmazgi also are microbiologically diverse7 and have a high fat content.
Unfortunately, with the advent of industrial cheese production and imports, artisanal cheesemaking in Iran has suffered. A market research company’s 2015 report on cheese in Iran states that “consumption of packaged cheese is becoming widespread and unpackaged products are becoming less popular, even in rural areas of Iran.”8 This report also notes that “demand for unspreadable processed cheese, especially pizza cheese, is expected to grow at a very fast rate in response to the rapid surge in consumption of fast food.”8
Iranians traditionally also have produced a variety of yogurt-based foods and beverages. According to one Iranian-American blogger, Iranians “have a major yen for yogurt,” consuming it as a condiment, side dish or sauce accompanying most lunches and dinners, or as a principal ingredient of dishes such as chilled cucumber and yogurt soup.9 Doogh is a yogurt drink made with yogurt, mint, salt and pepper, traditionally brought to a fizzy or effervescent state by adding bulgar rejuvelac, or, in more recent times, through the shortcut of soda water.10 The Tehran Times calls doogh “the Persian Coke” because of its popularity in Iran and its commercial packaging in glass bottles similar to old-fashioned Coke bottles.11
A fermented dairy product called kashk (made from drained yogurt or drained sour milk) is another widely used ingredient in Iranian cuisine. Mentions of kashk can be found in Ferdowski’s epic tenth-century poem Shahnameh about pre-Islamic Iran. In the present day, kashk exists in both liquid form and as a dried powder that can be reconstituted with water. In terms of its role as a flavor enhancer, one food writer describes kashk as “an added creamy-like ingredient” that “plays the same role as anchovies, tomato paste and parmesan rind do to add depth of flavor to any given food,”12 while another writer characterizes it as having an umami flavor “somewhere in between parmesan and goat’s cheese.”13 The word kashk can also refer to a mixture of wheat or barley fermented with sour milk or yogurt. (The Lebanese relative of this ferment is kishk.)
SOUPS, STEWS AND GRAINS
Cookbook author Yasmin Khan notes that soups are fundamental to Persian cuisine. According to Khan, a clue to the centrality of soup in the diet is the fact that the Farsi word for “cook” is aashpaz, which means “soupmaker.” 13 Iran is known for its wide variety of thick stews (khoresht) and soups (āsh), many of which use lamb or other meat bones to create a flavorful and nourishing broth that surrounds some combination of meat or fish, grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices. Āsh-e doogh, for example, is a yogurt-based soup that features doogh in combination with meatballs, broth, rice, split peas or chickpeas, aromatic vegetables and a variety of herbs such as mint, basil and parsley. In the winter months, āsh-e doogh is sold in “steaming vats” as a “warming and comforting” street food.14 Other popular soups are āsh-e reshteh (noodle and bean soup), āsh-e anar (pomegranate soup) and āsh-e sak (spinach soup), which includes the juice of sour grapes.
Another winter favorite is the ab-goosht stew mentioned previously, which is also sometimes referred to as dizi because of its traditional slow-cooked preparation in stone crocks by that name. An interesting feature of ab-goosht is that after all the ingredients (lamb, chickpeas, white beans, onion, potatoes, tomatoes, turmeric and dried lime) are cooked, the broth is served first—and separately—followed by the strained and puréed solids, which are spread on flatbread. One Iranian-born food writer describes it as “a delicious meal even though it might not be too pleasing to the eye.”15
Iran’s varied soups and stews can be accompanied by rice, often in the form of chelo (rice with butter and saffron) or an enhanced style of rice preparation called polo, which refers to pilafs cooked with meats, vegetables, legumes, nuts, dried fruit or herbs. Sometimes raw egg yolk is mixed into the rice. A visitor to Iran in 2012 described the country’s varied rice preparation techniques as “an absolute art form” and noted that she had “never seen so many different ways of cooking rice as…in Iran.”16 The Iranians consume mostly white rice, but they also use simply prepared brown rice (kateh) or rice soups as a home remedy for diarrhea.17,18
If rice is an “art form,” wheat bread is Iran’s dietary staple. Iranian bread consumption is one of the highest per capita in the world—three times more than in European countries—translating to an estimated ten million tons of wheat flour consumed annually. Iranians rely heavily on four types of flatbread (sangak, barbari, taftoon and lavash). Sangak, which derives its name from the traditional cooking method over hot pebbles, is still one of the country’s most traditional breads, although it is now more likely to be leavened with store-bought yeast than to be fermented as it once was using a sourdough starter. Iranian food scientists have noted that because the whole grain wheat flours that form the basis of sangak are high in phytic acid, which impairs mineral absorption, nearly one-third of all Iranians suffer from iron and zinc deficiencies.19 Using sourdough to make sangak can substantially decrease phytic acid content and markedly improve the bread’s flavor and texture.19
Iranians are not shy about eating organ meats. Heart, liver and kidney kebabs (typically from lamb) are a common street food, and tripe dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) are a feature of central Iran. The famous kaleh pache dish, a soup intended for late-night or breakfast consumption, features a lamb’s head (kaleh)—including the brain, eyes and tongue—as well as its hooves (pache), seasoned with lemon and cinnamon. One observer describes the preparation of kaleh pache as follows: “The head is stewed…until the meat is tender and can be stripped from the skull. The brains (fluffy clouds), the eyes, the tongue (plus extra ones) and cheek meat float to the top of the pot ready for skimming off leaving the soupy juice to be sieved and served separately. Apparently if you are a VIP, you get an eye as the best part of the dish and if you are very VIP, you get both!”20
Fish roe (ashpal) is consumed in a variety of ways, either as a condiment (salted or cured), grilled, or mixed with eggs and fried in a frittata-like dish called kuku. The roe often comes from a fish species called Caspian kutum. Iran also has the distinction of having produced the most expensive caviar on record—approximately one thousand dollars an ounce.
RETURNING TO TRADITION
Over the past fifty years, many of Iran’s wise food traditions have fallen by the wayside, with industrial foods supplanting the local and artisanal production of cultured dairy, animal-fat-rich soups, sourdough breads and many other foods that kept people healthy for generations. Even for those who know better, it can take dedication and resources to obtain high quality ingredients in Iran and prepare dishes without nutrient-damaging shortcuts. As chronic disease trends move in the wrong direction in Iran and worldwide, both Iranians and non-Iranians can benefit from becoming (re)acquainted with some of Iran’s delicious and live-giving culinary traditions.
THE HEALING POWER OF HONEY
Iran is the world’s eighth largest producer of honey. Avicenna long ago called attention to honey’s many uses as a medicine and source of nourishment. In his Canon of Medicine, according to “The Art of Islamic Healing” website, Avicenna prescribed honey for wounds, caries, bacterial and fungal infections and tuberculosis, among numerous other conditions, as well as for detoxification and for prolonging life and preserving activity in old age.21
Honey also was a primary ingredient of oxymel, a honey, water and vinegar concoction boiled into a syrup and consumed as a beverage as well as for healing purposes. Medieval manuscripts describe over twelve hundred different formulations of oxymel that incorporate medicinal herbs, roots and spices.22
AB-GOOSHT (LAMB STEW)
2 lamb shanks and 4 lamb necks
2 medium onions
1/2 cup chickpeas and 1/2 cup white beans, soaked overnight
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 Persian limes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons cinnamon
salt and pepper
1. Wash and dry the meat. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Chop the onions and place in a heavy pot. Place meat on top of the onions.
3. Make a hole in the limes and add to the pot along with the drained beans.
4. Add turmeric, cinnamon and 9 cups water. Cover and cook on medium heat for 2 hours. During this time, make sure to check the pot and skim any foam that might come to the surface.
5. Add tomato paste and mix well. Add fresh tomatoes.
6. Add potatoes and adjust seasoning. You will need a good amount of salt due to the beans and potatoes. Cover and cook everything for another hour.
7. Once done, place a colander over a bowl. Remove meat bones and place in colander. Separate meat from the bones. Remove the marrow from the bones and add it to the soup or meat.
8. Return the broth to the pot and adjust seasoning as needed.
9. Mash or purée the meat with the beans, potatoes and tomatoes. Correct seasoning.
10. The mashed meat and soup are served separately. The soup is eaten first and can be sprinkled with cinnamon. You may put a few pieces of Persian bread in it. The mashed meat is eaten with Persian fresh herbs, fresh lime and bread, and can also be served with fried or grated onion, cinnamon and chopped vegetables.
1. Ghassemi H, Harrison G, Mohammad K. An accelerated nutrition transition in Iran. Public Health Nutr. 2002;5(1A):149-55.
2. Moradi H, Minaii B, Nikbakht Nasrabadi A, Siahpoosh M-B. Avicenna viewpoint about health preservation
through healthy nutrition principles. Iran J Public Health. 2013;42(2):220-1.
3. Azita. Ghoreh and AbGhoreh: Sour grapes and verjuice. Fig & Quince [blog], June 26, 2015.
4. Encyclopædia Iranica. Cheese. Updated October 14, 2011. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/cheese-pers.
5. Salamat F, Semnani S, Aboomardani M, Roshandel G. Temporal variations of dietary habits in a high-risk area for upper gastrointestinal cancers: a population-based study from northern Iran. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2015;16(6):2537-42.
6. Kafili T, Razavi SH, Djomeh ZE, Naghavi MR, Alvarez-Martin P, Mayo B. Microbial characterization of Iranian traditional Lighvan cheese over manufacturing and ripening via culturing and PCR-DGGE analysis: identification and typing of dominant lactobacilli. European Food Research and Technology. 2009;229(1):83-92.
7. Partovi R, Gandomi H, Basti AA, Noori N, Borujeni GN, Kargozari M. Microbiological and chemical properties of Siahmazgi cheese, an Iranian artisanal cheese: Isolation and identification of dominant lactic acid bacteria. Journal of Food Processing and Preservation 2015;39(6):871-80.
8. Euromonitor International. Cheese in Iran [executive summary]. August 2015. http://www.euromonitor.com/cheese-in-iran/report.
9. Azita. My cousin Val’s Abdoogh Khiyar: Chilled yogurt and cucumber soup, Persian style! Fig & Quince [blog], July 29, 2015.
10. Feifer O’Brien A. Doogh: Sparkling, refreshing drinking yogurt. Phickle [blog], July 27, 2015.
11. Benet T. Doogh—the yogurt refresher (aka the Persian Coke). The Tehran Times, May 28, 2015.
12. Deravian N. Homemade Kashk. Bottom of the Pot [blog], March 17, 2014.
13. Khan Y. Taste of Persia: 10 foodie ways to see Iran. The Telegraph, April 6, 2016.
14. Bita. Aashe Doogh—a delectable yogurt-based Persian soup. Honest & Tasty [blog], October 1, 2015.
15. Lamborn S. Ab-Goosht. My Persian Kitchen [blog], March 23, 2016.
16. Helou A. Iran: The land of bread and spice. Saveur, March 19, 2012.
17. Karizaki VM. Ethnic and traditional Iranian rice-based foods. Journal of Ethnic Foods. 2016;3(2):124-34.
18. Kianmehr M, Saber A, Moshari J, Ahmadi R, Basirimoghadam M. The effect of G-ORS along with rice soup in the treatment of acute diarrhea in children: a singleblind randomized controlled trial. Nurse Midwifery Stud. 2016;5(2):e25852.
19. Didar Z. Effect of sourdough on phytic acid content and quality of Iranian Sangak bread. J Nutr Food Sci. 2011;1:115.
20. Caroline. Kaleh Pache—Sheep’s head soup. Persian Posts: Iran through My Eyes [blog], May 2, 2012. 21. Azal R. Honey is a divine nourishment. The Art of Islamic Healing [blog], September 21, 2014. 22. Azal R. Oxymel, an ancient vinegar and honey therapy from Iran. The Art of Islamic Healing [blog], November 17, 2014.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2016.