Although this ultimate guide to Iranian food could also be entitled Persian Food, today’s Iran is ethnically broader than its Persian roots. So too is its cuisine. Influences on Iranian food draw from across Central Asia, Turkey, former Mesopotamia, and from Iran’s own Azerbaijani Turkish population. This yields a cuisine that is influenced by it all, yet is distinct. This Iranian food guide is drawn from our experiences traveling across Iran — including visits to local markets, meals in restaurants and family homes, and street food adventures. It offers an extensive list of traditional Persian food, modern day Iranian food specialties and tips on what to eat and drink when you visit.
Traditional Iranian food combines the savory of fresh herbs and spices like saffron, merges it with the sweet of pomegranate, barberry and cinnamon and tops it all off with a flourish of nuts, dried fruits and beans. The result: a taste profile which does not present one distinct flavor, but instead serves up layers that keep the taste buds guessing as to what is and what’s coming next.
The following is an extensive list of Iranian dishes, including notable and common traditional Iranian dishes that we found in our weeks traveling in Iran. To give a sense of the culinary mindset, here are words of wisdom from one of our guides on the subtle appreciation of eating one’s way through Iran: “Eat an onion from each new place you visit to adjust your body to the local cuisine.”
Let’s eat! Nusheh jân!
Traditional Iranian Food
Kebab (kebabs) is taken very seriously in Iran – so much so that a restaurant kebab menu alone may run a few pages and feature every style and cut of skewerable grill-worthy meat imaginable. The first few times someone invites you to dine with them in Iran, you'll be tempted to think that all of Iran and its restaurants are powered solely on kebab.
Lamb, minced or in chunks, is the most popular meat you'll find in Iranian kebab. Chicken and beef also make a frequent appearance. In Iran, kebab skewers are often served alongside grilled tomatoes, a healthy plate of rice and flat bread, and a pile of raw onions. (Yes, raw onions. One roadside kebab stand thought us crazy for suggesting our onions be grilled.) You'll also find that one kebab order is likely more than enough for two people to share.
Our favorite kebab: kebab koobideh, minced lamb meat blended with herbs and spices.
Khoresht (Iranian Stew)
After kebabs, stews are the most common dishes you’ll find on the menu at local restaurants in Iran. Most often, Iranian khoresht will feature some sort of vegetable blend (e.g., lentils, spinach, mixed vegetable sabzi, beans, tomato, or eggplant) with a bit of meat thrown in. Khoresht is often served with rice and serves as a comfort food (e.g., as in chelo khoresht, rice and stew).
Some khoresht favorites include: Khoresht-e-Ghorme-sabzi, a stew of meat, vegetables and beans that features a bit of a greenish appearance; and Khoresht-e-Ghymeh, a stew of meat, potato, tomato and split peas.
Though technically a khoresht, fesenjan (Khoresht-e-Fesenjan) stands alone. At turns tart, sweet and savory, fesenjan is a stew composed of ground walnut and pomegranate juice turned with your meat of choice (chicken is most common). Fesenjan knows some regional variation in Iran, with sour and savory fesenjan prevailing in Northern Iran, while slightly sweeter versions appear elsewhere.
Fesenjan takes some time to make, which is why in Iran it is typically only served during holidays and on special occasions. Because you won't find it on the daily menu in most restaurants in Iran, you may have to make arrangements to have it prepared specifically for you or your group. Ask around, since the flavor of a well-made fesenjan is worth the effort. Good news: because fesenjan is among the best-known and most popular Iranian dishes, it's a staple in Iranian restaurants around the world.
Literally, barberry rice. However, quite often served with grilled chicken or served alongside kebab.
Note: The red berries served atop this dish (you can see in the image below) are barberries (berberries), a berry from the barberry shrub that is quite often mistaken at quick glance for pomegranate.
Dizi / Abgoosht (Stone Pot Iranian Stew)
Dizi and abgoosht are competing names for the stone pot Persian stew that's consumed following an almost ritualized eating procedure.
Dizi, named for the stone pot in which it's prepared, is a hearty, heavy dish fit for the mountains. featuring mutton soup broth thickened with chickpeas, onion, potato, tomatoes, turmeric and various other white beans, all cooked in ceramic pot. The liquid is then strained away and served in a bowl on the side. As an interactive bonus, you’re given a pestle-type instrument with which you are expected to crush and mash to a pulp the solid bits (gusht-e kubideh) which happen to remain in your stone pot. Dizi (abghoost) is typically served with flat bread (piti) and the occasional side of pickled vegetables.
Tabriz Köfte / Koofteh Tabrizi (Tabriz-Style Persian Meatballs)
When offering Iranian food recommendations, a good Iranian friend said of Tabriz Köfte: “A huge meatball with surprises inside…very nice if you can find it.” Our experience: exactly.
We were fortunate to try it twice, once in a restaurant and once homemade served to us by our guide's wife at a makeshift picnic at St. Stephanos church. The latter was the clear winner for freshness and taste.
Tabriz Köfte can be found mainly in northwestern Iran, where the city of Tabriz is the provincial capital. Tabriz koofteh offer a variation on the traditional Turkish köfte (minced meatball). The Tabriz köfte is essentially an oversized meatball made from either minced meat and spices or barley and spices (for vegetarians), served with piles of fresh greens and herbs. After all the kebab you'll eat in Iran, Tabriz köfte strikes the body as refreshing, particularly when served on flatbread with all those greens.
Loobia Sabz (Iranian Green Bean Stew)
Vegetarians in Iran, look for loobia sabz. We list this dish not because we had the good fortune to eat it, but because in retrospect we should have made a greater effort to seek it out. We traveled with a vegetarian during a part of our trip, and she had a notably difficult time finding vegetable dishes untainted by meat. If you are vegetarian and traveling in Iran, ask for loobia (beans) and in particular, loobia sabz.
Mirza Ghasemi / Mirza Qasemi
Mirza ghasemi (or mirza qasemi) is a tasty vegetarian appetizer which hails from the Northern Iranian Caspian region. It's made with roasted skewered eggplant which is seasoned with garlic, tomato, turmeric, oil or butter, and salt. The seasoned eggplant is then turned with eggs. The whole thing is then mixed and served with bread or rice. Mirza ghasemi is another dish to watch our for, especially for vegetarians traveling in Iran.
Ash (Iranian Soup)
Ash is a thick, almost stew-like soup. However, you’ll find ash in all varieties of thin and thick depending on where you are in Iran and who happens to be stirring the pot. We enjoyed one of our favorite bowls of ash with a bunch of guys crammed into a soup cafeteria on their lunch break in the northwestern Iranian town of Tabriz.
Another tasty variety of ash is Ash-Reshteh, known as Persian noodle soup. Ash-reshteh typically features noodles, vegetables and herbs. We had the good fortune to enjoy this restorative meal-in-a-bowl in the mountain village of Masouleh.
Iranian Rice Dishes
To say that rice — a 4,000 year old staple of Persian food and Iranian eating — is hugely important to the Iranian food landscape is a culinary understatement. In our cursory examination, sampling and research of the subject of Iranian rice, it’s clear that a full-length dissertation could be written about the subject, after which arguments of clarification on the terms and names of Iranian rice dishes would ensue.
Note: For a delightful and detailed layman’s guide to properly preparing Iranian/Persian rice at home, check out this article and recipe.
Chelo (Iranian Steamed White Rice)
Trademark fluffy white Iranian rice, typically served with kebab, stews and other main dishes.
Note: Chelo Kebab is the traditional Iranian dish of kebab (above) served on a plate with chelo, white steamed rice.
Tah Dig / Tah Deeg (Scorched or Crunchy Rice)
Tah dig is Iran's somewhat famous scorched, crunchy rice specialty. It's made from the bottom of the pot rice crust and is served by itself or with the rice crust merged with slices of potato, flats of bread, meat, vegetable, fruit and nuts like pistachio.
Baghali Polo (Persian Dill and Fava Bean Rice)
Like its cousins pilaf and plov), polo is a generic term for rice mixed or blended with nuts, vegetables, beans and dried fruits.
Take polo up a notch and add dill, saffron and fava beans (broad beans) and you have the specialty known as Baghali Polo. Baghali is the Persian/Farsi word for fava beans. Baghali polo will often be referred to as Persian dill rice.
Abkesh (Baked, Layered Rice)
Abkesh consists of srained, sieved rice cooked until its moist, then layered with bread or potato and blended with oil in the bottom of pot. It's typically topped with a bit of saffron and small minced pistachios.
Kateh is soft, typically found in northern Iran, consists of clumped rice served with a slight crust. Kateh polo is softer than abkesh and is usually served in traditional restaurants in villages and rural areas.
Iranian Street Food Snacks
Baghali Pokhteh / Baghali Pokhte (Steamed, Spiced Fava Beans)
Baghali pokhteh (or, baghali pokhte) — steamed spiced fava beans — are a popular street snack, especially in the mountains of Iran. Baghali pokhteh are particularly delicious when served with vinegar, red pepper and marjoram. After all the meat we'd eaten in Iran, our group was thrilled to inject some legumes into the diet. We ate almost the entire stash of baghali pokhteh below. We're kidding…kind of.
Laboo (Red Beets, Roasted)
Laboo is the Persian word for red beets. We aren't certain if roasted red beets are typical to the Iranian street food scene, but this display of roasted beets on a stick in the Northern Iranian town of Ardabil was one of the more beautiful and unique street food presentations we’d seen in a while during our travels.
Street beets, who knew?
Interesting how the Farsi word for bread (nan) is similar to the Indian term. Linguistic history often gives a sense of how much we all have in common and how far back that shared history really goes. Especially when kebab, stews and soups are involved, Iranian breads are a staple of the Iranian table and culinary experience.
The thin, flaky, sometimes almost paper-y (wallpaper-y) bread found widely throughout the Middle East and neighboring regions.
Sangak is a stretchy elliptical bread usually baked on a bed of small stones or pebbles. Sangak is among the most common type of bread you’ll find served across Iran, and comes plain or in varieties topped with sesame or other seeds. If you’ve done everything right, you should have secured a few slabs of sangak as gifts (that is, for free from local bakers) along your travels across Iran.
Barberi is a thick oval-shaped bread. It's also the ubiquitous bread staple of the northwestern Iranian town of Tabriz. Barberi is perfect to bring along and share on train ride from Tabriz to Istanbul. Our guide, Ali, knew this and bought us a bagful to help us survive our 60-hour journey.
Iranian Desserts and Sweets
Faloodeh Shirazi / Falooda Shirazi (Persian Sorbet)
Faloodeh, one of Iran's most unique and most popular desserts features vermicelli noodles sloshed in a cold syrup of sugar and rose water. You can also ask for a sweet lemon juice variety of faloodeh. A specialty of the town of Shiraz. In the short time that we hung out in the old Shiraz bazaar we were offered so many bowls of faloodeh that we'd begun to turn them away. Locals are proud to share this with visitors.
Iranian Ice Cream
Iranian ice cream gets its own entry since rumor has it that Iran is the birthplace of the miracle we've come to know as ice cream. We’re not here to dispute or affirm that rumor. Instead, we'll share our experience with Iranian ice creams. Local varieties of Iranian ice cream we tasted were sweet, often fruity, not especially creamy, and somewhat strappy compared to the ice cream and gelato we’ve come to love. In any event, do as the locals do and take a dip of flavors, especially saffron and pistachio.
Aab Havij Bantani (Carrot Juice Ice Cream Float)
Carrot juice ice cream float, often garnished with cinnamon, nutmeg or other spices. In full disclosure, we thought the mixture was a bit sweet and preferred to drink the carrot juice plain, sans ice cream. But it's worth trying at least once.
Halva is a popular dessert across this part of the world, especially in neighboring Turkey and the Middle East. A sweet made from ground sesame paste (tahini), halva not only satisfies the sweet tooth but it's also packed with protein. One might call halva the original power bar.
Nokhodchi (Persian Chickpea Cookies)
Nakhodchi, Persian chickpea cookies, are amazing and fabulously unique to Iran. Four leaf clover-shaped cookies are made from finely sifted chickpea flour, rose water, powdered sugar and sweet spices like cardamom — and topped off with finely chopped pistachios. The result: melt in your mouth magic. Nokhodchi taste like nothing you've ever had.
When you visit Iran, be certain to buy kilos of nokhodchi, for as easy as they might be to make at home, to make them well is an art exquisitely executed by only the finest bakeries in Iran.
Gaz (Persian Nougat)
Gaz is a traditional Persian nougat confection based on the milky sap collected from Angebin, a plant of the Tamarisk family found only in the dry outskirts of the Iranian city of Esfahan. Gaz is spun with various ingredients including rose water, pistachio, almond kernels and saffron.
Gaz is a specialty in the tourist center of Esfahan where you'll find shops selling all variations and qualities. Hint: Look for and purchase the gaz varieties with the highest pistachio count.
Lavashak (Fruit Leather)
Iran is a dried fruit mecca, so fruit leather (or fruit roll-up) fits. The taste, consistency and value of Iranian lavashak is absolutely nothing like you’ll get from packaged fruit roll-ups in your local grocery store. The sweet-tart fruit flavor of genuine Iranian lavashak will make your mouth pucker like never before, after which you won't be able to stop tearing off strips and eating large chunks like an animal.
Some of our favorite lavashak flavors include pomegranate, apricot and sour plum. Beware of lavashak vendors, however. You may think you're buying only a small piece, but you'll end up with enough fruit leather to make an outfit.
Koloocheh are decorative yet tasty cookies known best by the designs stamped on top. Though you'll find koloocheh throughout Iran, the original — and in our opinion tastiest — version of this Persian cookie hails from the town of Fuman in northwestern Iran. Fuman is flush with bakeries selling only these cookies. Koloocheh are stuffed with a cinnamon, walnut and sugar filling. When they are fresh and warm just out of the oven, they are special packages of melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
Reshteh-Khoshkar / Reshte Khoskhar
If you come across a pastry-ish cookie-like confection resembling a gauze bandage, you’ve found reshte khoshkar, specialties of the Caspian area (and specifically the town of Rasht). The khoshkar bandages or leaves are stuffed with walnut, sugar and cinnamon, are typically fried and soaked in a sweet liquid. As we were told by friends in Rasht, reshteh are similar to khoshkar, but come without the filling.
Our good friend from Rasht highly recommends these delights be consumed with a good cup of black tea.
Doogh (Persian Yogurt Drink)
Doogh is a chilled thin plain yogurt drink, often served with mint and other dried herbs sprinkled on top. Doogh is surprisingly refreshing on a hot day. It also serves as a perfect complement to stomach-plunging, meat-heavy meals like a piled-high plate of kebabs.
Although Iran is a dry country — that is, consumption of alcohol in Iran is forbidden by law — every restaurant features a listing of something very generously referred to as “Iranian beer,” which is essentially a non-alcholoic fruit malt beverage, which under no circumstance ought to rightly be referred to as beer. Perhaps the only approximations outside of Iran would be drinks such as root “beer” and ginger “beer.”
Note that Iranian beer comes in all different flavors, with pomegranate being our fitting favorite. Once you come to terms with the fact that you aren't really drinking beer, you might actually find Iranian beer refreshing.
Fresh Fruit Juice
Fresh fruit juice abounds on city streets, especially in southern Iran. Our visit to Iran happened to coincide with pomegranate season and we drank generous glasses of it at every opportunity. Pomegranate consumption in volume feels both cleansing and invigorating. Our other juice favorites include carrot and melon. Usually very reasonably priced.
Chai (Persian Tea)
Iranian tea rooms are hubs of social gathering. In Iran, it’s not just about drinking tea, but about lounging back on pasha-worthy cushions on the ground and spending hours with friends and colleagues. Tea houses may also offer qalyan (large water pipes or hookah), in which you can smoke shisha, sweet-flavored tobacco in vanilla, apple, orange and mint flavors.
Typically, black tea is served with crystalized raw sugar on a stick. Stir your tea with your crystalline staff and watch the sugar crystals melt away. A magic wand, of sorts.
Alcohol in Iran
When it comes to alcohol, Iran is about as bone dry as it comes. You will likely find it difficult or impossible to find alcohol at all. Having said that, rumors have it that alcohol such as locally brewed wines can be had behind closed doors and in the back corners of private affairs such as weddings. We don't recommend you actively seek it out.
Vegetarian Food in Iran
Iran, unfortunately, is not an ideal destination for vegetarians as vegetarianism is primarily understood on the level of “a little less meat in the stew” or “we'll just pick the chunks of meat out.”
Can you find and eat vegetarian food in Iran? Certainly. Having said that, you might be limited to street snacks, breads, yogurt, salads and picking in and around main dishes. In addition, falafel is usually available in most towns and is inexpensive.
Vegetarians traveling to Iran should also consider learning the names of a few key vegetarian dishes. Know how to clearly say “I am a vegetarian” in Farsi so that you are able to request them and be understood. A quick list of other dishes (featured above) which might be vegetarian friendly as you travel in Iran: vegetarian khoresht (stew), the vegetarian version of Tabrizi koofteh, loobia sabz (green beans), mirza ghasemi (eggplant), baghali polo (dill rice with fava beans) and snacks like roasted red beets (laboo). this list) may also help. See also this article for additional strategies and advice on traveling as a vegetarian in Iran.
If you are traveling on a tour in Iran let your guide know in advance that you are vegetarian. He or she might be able to convince some of the restaurants you visit to cook a special vegetarian option for you.
Regardless of what you prefer to eat and when you prefer to eat it, allow your curiosity to guide the culinary dimension of your trip through Iran. You'll likely find yourself amidst conversations you'd never imagined having while traveling there.