A Short History of the Iranian Nān (Bread)

The article below by Hélène Desmet-Grégoire on Nān (Bread) was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1989. The article is available in print (Vol. IV, Fasc. 4, pp. 444-447).

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The Persian term for Bread is nān (for etymology, see Bailey, Dictionary, p. 179, s.v. nāṃji). In modern Iran bread is the dietary staple food for the population and accounts, on the average, for 70 percent of the daily caloric intake.

In the Iranian languages the words for “bread” inherited from old Iranian seem to reflect two different early methods of baking (Harmatta). Harmatta suggests that the practice of baking bread “covered,” that is, in ashes, is reflected in the word naγan, found especially in the eastern Iranian languages (Sogdian, Baluchi, Pashto, etc.) and Armenian nkan, a loanword from Iranian (Parthian), which must be derived from Old Iranian *nikana– (lit., that which is buried or covered), as well as in the form *bakand found in Choresmian, probably from Old Iranian *upakanta– “covered, buried” (for the Choresmian forms, see Benzing, pp. 170f. s.vv. bkn– “to fill,” bknd “bread,” p. 521 s.v. pknd). On the other hand, the practice of baking bread “uncovered,” in an oven, seems to be reflected in the common Persian word nān (Mid., NPers., and western Iranian dialects), probably derived from Old Iranian *naγna– “naked.” Modern Iranian languages and dialects possess a large variety of names for “bread,” both inherited from earlier Iranian languages and borrowed.

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Traditional Iranian baking oven in Dargaz, northeast Iran (Source: Dargaz.info).

Bread is mentioned in both the Sasanian inscriptions of the 3rd-4th centuries and in the 9th-century Pahlavi texts. Šāpūr I (a.d. 240-70) ordered that one lamb, one grīw and five hōfan of bread, and four pās of wine should be sacrificed daily at the fire temples for his own soul, the souls of the close family, and the members of his court (Back, pp. 337, 344, 367); bread was also given the souls of the righteous to eat in paradise (inscriptions of Kirdēr, ed. Back, p. 468). In the Draxt āsōrīg (The Babylonian tree), a poem about a contest between a date palm and a goat over precedence (see, e.g., Boyce, “Middle Persian Literature,” p. 55), the date palm maintains that those who do not have wine and bread can satiate themselves with dates instead (ed. Nawwābī, pp. 52-53). In the Bundahišn we are told that garden herbs such as rue, parsley, coriander, and leek are suitable for eating with bread (TD2, p. 117.14; tr. Anklesaria, 16.17, pp. 148-49). In the Ardā Wirāz-nāmag it is said that those who throw bread to dogs will themselves be torn by devils looking like dogs (Gi­gnoux, pp. 94, 188), and finally Ahriman himself taunts the evil that they accomplished his works though they ate the bread of Ohrmazd (Gignoux, pp. 136, 214).

In both Middle and New Persian the expression nān xwardan/ḵordan also signifies “to eat, have a meal” in general. In Middle Persian it is found in the inscription of Šāpūr Sakānšāh at Persepolis from the reign of Šāpūr II (Back, p. 493), in Manichean texts (see Boyce, Reader, p. 44 text n 1; Sundermann, p. 497), and in Pahlavi. For instance, in the Bundahišn it is said regarding the resurrection and the “final body” that just as Mašyē and Mašyānē, when they grew up from the earth, first drank water and then gradually added food, milk, and so on to their diet, men, when they die, will reverse the process, ceasing first to eat meat, then to drink milk, and then to eat at all (nān xwardan-iz) and will end by drinking only water.

In modern Iran bread is the dietary staple food for the population and accounts, on the average, for 70% of the daily caloric intake. Several studies conducted in rural and urban environments have shown variations in the proportion of proteins supplied by bread, from 60% among farmers to 34% among landowners (Bahadori and Klodian; Olszyna-Marzys; Hedayat and Sen Gupta).

In most of Iran bread consists of flat, thin cakes made from wheat flour. Only in the Caspian provinces is there a different tradition, baking bread from rice flour, nān-e berenjī, already mentioned by medieval writers (Ebn Ḥawqal, p. 381, tr. Kramers, p. 371; Moqaddasī, p. 354; Ebn Esfandīār, p. 76; see berenj); this type is, however, meeting increasing competition from com­mercially baked wheat bread (Bazin and Bromberger, p. 79). Rice bread is generally baked on a metal tray (sāj) or on the bottom of an inverted pottery bowl placed on a tripod. Among certain groups of pastoral nomads (e.g., Baḵtīārī and Boir-Aḥmad) varying pro­portions of acorn flour (balūṭ) are occasionally mixed with wheat flour, especially during periods of famine. The bread made this way is called kalg (Digard, pp. 191-92).

Selling bread Tehran qajar era

Shopkeepers at a bread outlet in a Tehran street in the early 20th century (Source: Poolnews.ir).

Several types of bread can be distinguished, depending on whether they are produced commercially or domestically and, particularly, on the baking method: oven or tray. In the towns the quality of the flour seems to be a determining element in distinguishing types of bread. Such distinctions are more vague in rural areas, where the flour is often ground without sifting and, thus, generally has a high percentage of extraction (90-95%).

Similar baking techniques are used throughout the country (Wulff, pp. 292-95), and utensils and ovens are perfectly adapted to the type of bread produced. The most common kind of oven (tanūr), used both in bakeries and village houses, where it constitutes one of the built-in features (Bromberger, 1974, p. 34; Martin, p. 28; Desmet-Grégoire; Bazin and Bromberger, p. 81), is a truncated cone made from dried or baked earth, with or without a flue, standing on the floor or sunk below it. The fire is in the bottom, so that bread may be pressed against the inner walls for baking. Among pastoral nomads, on the other hand, after the dough has been kneaded in a metal pan (mazama, majama), which is used because of its firmness, it is transferred to a tray or an iron baking sheet (sāj) placed over the fire, for baking. Many pastoral nomads, such as in the regions of Ṭāleš, Gāleš and Šāhsevan (Bazin and Bromberger, p. 80), also use a more rudimentary technique: the raw dough is baked on ashes (nān-e ātaš) or pressed against a hot stone.

In urban settings, where most of the bread is purchased from bakeries equipped with a tanūr, four main types of bread are found: tāftūn (taftān), lavāš (nān-e tīrī), nān-e sangak, and nān-e barbarī. The first two types are very similar, differentiated only by the types of flour used and the relative thickness of a slab. Tāftūn, probably the most popular bread in Iran, is made from a mixture of white and whole-wheat flours, lavāš (very similar to tāftūn) from white flour forming a more or less leavened dough. In the bakeries, after flour, water, and salt have been poured together in a trough (ṭaḡār, taštak) and leavening (ḵamīr-māya, āb-e torš, ājī ḵamīra) has been added (for lavāš), the dough is kneaded (varz dādan) by the dough maker (ḵamīrgīr, ḵalīfa) and an assistant (vardast), who usually does most of the work; it is then left to rise (var āmadan). A dough insufficiently kneaded or baked prematurely gives a kind of tough bread called nān-e čeḡer. When the dough is ready one person (čānagīr) rolls out pieces (čāna) with a rolling pin (vardana, čūba) on a board of wooden strips (ḵūna) or an inverted pottery basin, while another (šāṭer) places the rolled pieces on a cushion (nānband, nāvand, bāleštak, rafīda) stuffed with straw and covered with cotton, by means of which he can press them against the oven walls without burning his hands. After baking for a minute or so, the bread is picked off the oven wall by an assistant (nānvāssūn, i.e., nān-vā-estān) who uses a skewer or double-pronged fork (nāṇčīn, sīḵ, došāḵa) with a wooden handle. To make especially crisp bread (nān-e berešta, nān-e dandaʾī) bakers often make holes in the bread with a kind of comb (danda zadan) just before placing it in the oven. Lavāš, no more than 2 or 3 mm thick, is the thinnest bread found in Iran.

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Home made Nān-e tāftūn (taftān) (Source: Bartarinha).

Nān-e sangak is a flat, thin bread 3 to 5 mm thick and about 70 cm long; the leavened dough is made from especially milled flour. It is baked in an oven (tanūr-e sangakī, kūra) consisting of a sloping brick shelf covered with red-hot pebbles (sangak, hence the name), which leave their imprints on the bread, and traditionally heated by dry shrubs (ḵār) or firewood (hīzom). In recent years oil has become the major fuel used by urban bakers. At least two men, the ḵamīrgīr and šāṭer, are required to make sangak. The šāṭer stands in front of the oven and flattens the dough by hand on a slightly convex wooden slab (sarak) attached to a very long wooden handle (pārū); he then quickly thrusts the sarak into the oven, sliding the dough onto the pebbles. After a couple of minutes the šāṭer or the nūnvāssūn (also called ātašandāz) removes it with a skewer or double­-prong fork. The sarak rests in a cleft stick, which permits the šāṭer to slide it back and forth more easily; the broad end is set on a ledge next to the oven while the dough is being applied.

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The Nān-e Sangak (Source: Ensie & Matthias in Public Domain)

Nān-e sangak, often sprinkled with poppy seeds (ḵašḵāš) or black caraway seeds (sīāhdāna; Nigella sativa), is the bread commonly served with āb-gūšt: it is usually torn in pieces (tarīd, telīd), soaked in the āb-gūšt, and eaten with a spoon as an integral part of the dish. It is also the bread that usually accompanies gūšt-e kūbīda, the solid ingredients of āb-­gūšt mashed and eaten separately from the liquid.

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Servings of āb-gūšt (Iranian version of Bouillon) in Dizi containers (cruse or earthen pot) ready for patrons at a local eatery in Tehran’s Damavand district (Source: RezAzizi in Public Domain).

Nān-e barbarī (named after a “Barbar” community that settled south of Tehran during the Qajar period; see Dehḵodā s.v.) is a flat, oval bread 3 to 4 cm thick and about 70 cm long; it is made from pieces of leavened dough weighing about 900 grams each. The flour used has a rate of extraction of 70 to 75 %, and nān-e barbarī thus resembles European breads, though it is baked by the same method as nān-e sangak. It is more expensive than other breads but, where available, is commonly eaten for breakfast (often with cheese) by those who can afford it.

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The Nān-e Barbarī (Source:  Wayiran in Public Domain).

In rural areas, where bread is made at home, the making of bread is a strictly womanly task, and the frequency of baking (daily, weekly, etc.) varies according to the seasonal activities. Lavāš seems the most common. Since the primary ingredient (wheat) and the method of preparation are not standardized, the prod­uct can vary in thickness and in the amount of leavening added. It can be kept for several weeks wrapped in a napkin (sofra) and placed in a basket (sabad) or in a cupboard of dried earth (nāndān); for that reason it is very common in western Iran, especially in winter, when daily baking is difficult and the bread keeps longer because of the cold.

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The Nān-e Lavāš sold in a market in Yerevan, Armenia (Source: Wiquijote in Public Domain).

Another kind of bread, thicker than lavāš, is also made in the villages; the dough, made from a flour with high rates of extraction, salt, water, and leaven, is left to stand for a rather long time, or else it rises during baking. A single cook can flatten the pieces of dough by hand and press several at a time against the oven walls with a cushion; baking time is about 30 minutes. The name of this bread varies from region to region: It is called gerda around Hamadān, panjakeš around Ṭāleš, kūlas or kūlūs east of the Safīdrūd. It is a tasty bread made for special occasions, or when little time is available, for example when the women take part in the agricultural activities in summer (Desmet-Grégoire, pp. 271-73). Compared to the bread more common in villages or the bread specific to pastoral nomads, it seems to be an intermediate type of bread, which can be baked, for ten minutes, either on a tray (Digard, pp. 190-91) or in a tanūr. It keeps for no more than a day or two and thus is usually made every day.

Aside from breads baked for normal consumption, there are special kinds for the holidays; because the dough is enriched with milk, sugar, honey, eggs, shortening, or yogurt these breads (nān-e šīrī, faṭīr, nān-­e šīrīn, nān-e šīrmāl) are actually closer to pastry. Bread of European type (nān-e tōst, nān-e māšīnī) can also be found in Tehran and other large cities (Olszyna-Marzys: Tual, p. 10).

Bibliography

  1. Back, Die sassanidischen Staatsinschriften, Acta Iranica 18, Tehran and Liège, 1978.
  2. Bahadori and J. Klodian, “Enquêtes sur l’alimentation. Études des budgets familiaux de deux régions de l’Iran,” Bulletin de l’Institut National d’Hygiène, Paris, 1957, no. 3, pp. 593-631.
  3. W. Bailey, Dictionary of Khotanese Saka, Cambridge, 1979.
  4. Bazin, “Quelques données sur l’alimentation dans la région de Qôm,” Studia Iranica 2, 1973, pp. 248-50.
  5. Bazin and C. Bromberger, “Gilân et Azerbâyjân oriental, cartes et documents ethnographiques,” Institut Français d’Iranologie de Téhéran, Bibliothèque Iranienne 24, Paris, 1982, pp. 79-84.
  6. Benzing, Chwaresmischer Wortindex, ed. Z. Taraf, Wiesbaden, 1983.

Isabelle A. Bird Bishop, Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, London, 1891, I, pp. 59-60.

ʿA. Bolūkbāšī, “Važa-ye sangak o pīšīna-ye sangakpazī dar Īrān,” Honar o mardom, N.S., 1347 Š./1968, 74-75, pp. 31-42; 76, pp. 47-51.

Idem, “Taftūnpazī dar Tehrān,” ibid., 1348 Š./1969, 81, pp. 45-54.

  1. Bromberger, “Habitations du Gilân,” Objets et mondes 14, 1974, pp. 3-56.

Idem, “Identité alimentaire et altérité cul­turelle dans le Nord de l’Iran: le froid, le chaud, le sexe et le reste,” Recherches et travaux de l’Institut d’Ethnologie (Neuchâtel) 6, 1985, pp. 5-34.

  1. Canard, “Le riz dans le Proche-Orient aux premiers siècles de l’Islam,” Arabica 6, 1959, pp. 113-31.
  2. Desmet-Grégoire, “Le pain dans la région d’Hamadân,” Studia Iranica 9, 1980, pp. 251-76.
  3. P. Digard, Techniques des nomades Baxtyâri d’Iran, Paris, 1981, pp. 187-92.

Ph. Gignoux, Le livre d’Ardā Vīrāz. Translittération, transcription et traduction du texte pehlevi, Paris, 1984.

  1. Harmatta, “Three Iranian Words for Bread,” AOASH 3/3, 1953, pp. 245-83.
  2. Hedayat and P. N. Sen Gupta, Nu­trition Survey in Iran 1962-1967, unpublished.
  3. Kouhestani et al., “Composition and Preparation of Iranian Flat Breads,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 55/3, 1969, pp. 24-28.
  4. Martin, “Pastoral Production. Milk and Firewood in the Ecology of Turan,” Expedition 22/4, 1980, pp. 24-28.
  5. E. Olszyna-Marzys, Food in Iran, Tehran, 1962.
  6. Ramazani, Persian Cooking, Charlottesville, 1982, pp. 11-19.
  7. G. Reinhold and D. Kamal, “Phytate Concentration of Iranian Flat Breads. Relationship of Bread-Making Method,” in Proceedings of the 6th Symposium on Nutrition in the Near East, Beirut, 1971, pp. 324-40.
  8. Sundermann, “Ein weiteres Fragment aus Manis Gigantenbuch,” in Orientalia Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin Emerito Oblata, Acta Iranica 23, Leiden, 1984, pp. 491-505.
  9. Tual, “Les changements de l’alimentation traditionnelle dans la région de Téhéran,” communication at the International Seminary of the First Festival of Popular Traditions, Isfahan, 1977 (unpublished).
  10. E. Wulff, The Traditional Crafts of Persia, Cambridge, Mass., 1966, pp. 291-95.

Toyoko Morita: Iranian arrivals to ancient Japan

The article below is by Toyoko Morita and originally appeared in the Encyclopedia Iranica. Morita’s article was originally published in print on December 15, 2008 and last updated on April 10, 2012. This article is also accessible in print Vol. XIV, Fasc. 5, pp. 558-560 and Vol. XIV, Fasc. 6, p. 561). The version published below has embedded photographs, paintings and accompanying captions that did not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica publication/posting. these a combination of lecture slides from Kaveh Farrokh’s Fall 2014 course at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies course entitled: “The Silk Route: origins & History“, previous postings as well as a single image from the public domain.

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The first mention of Iranians (Persians) coming to Japan can be found in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan), one of the earliest Japanese historical sources, completed in 720 C.E. It records that in 654 C.E. several people arrived in Japan from Tokhārā (Aston, pp. 246, 251, 259). Though there is some controversy about the location of Tokhārā, some scholars have claimed the name to be a shortened version of Toḵārestān, which was part of the territory of Sasanian Persia (Itō, 1980, pp. 5-10).

Fresco along the Tarim Basin, China depicting an Iranian-speaking Buddhist monk (Kushan, Soghdian, Persian or Tocharian?) [at left] instructing a Chinese monk [at right] on philosophy (c. 9th-10th Century). Iranian peoples of Central Asia were the link between Asia as a whole and the civilizations of ancient Iran, notably Sassanian and post-Sassanian culture(s). Open and tolerant, the Soghdians, Kushans, Tocharians, etc. established a sophisticated literature and urban culture (Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Elsewhere in the Nihon Shoki, it is mentioned that in 660, when an Iranian (Persian), whose name was Dārā, returned to his country, he left his wife in Japan and promised the Emperor that he would come back and work for him again (Aston, p. 266; Imoto, 2002, pp. 58-60).

One of Kaveh Farrokh’s  lecture slides at UBC (University of British Columbia) outlining the influence of Sassanian arts on Japan (Source: Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

In the 7th to the 9th centuries, foreigners—then known in Japanese as toraijin—were coming to Japan mainly from Korea and China, bringing with them technology, culture, religion (Buddhism), and ideas. Eastern Asia, especially the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907), had socio-economic networks with many regions of the world, including southern and western Asia.

An enduring Sassanian legacy in Japan: the Biwa and its ancient Iranian ancestor, the Barbat (Source: Lecture slide from Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures from the course “The Silk Route: origins & History“).

Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), the capital of the Tang Dynasty, was an international city with people from various countries, including Iranians (Persians), some of whom traveled further to Japan. Iranian names are to be met with in historical documents, and one can find some influence of Persian culture in the architecture, sculptures, and also in the customs and old Japanese rituals at that time. For example, some scholars have claimed that there is some influence of Persian culture in the Omizutori ritual held every February at Tōdaiji temple in Nara (Itō, 1980, pp. 125-33).

A photo of the Omizutori ritual held on March 9, 2007 in Nara, Japan (Source: “ignis” in public domain). Note that these are monks carrying torches across the balcony of the structure. This may perhaps bear echoes of ancient Zoroastrian or related mythological influences bought over by Iranian-speaking arrivals to ancient Japan.

The oldest document in Persian, which is preserved in Japan, was procured by the Japanese priest named Kyōsei (1189-1268) from Iranians (Persians) during his trip to southern Asia in 1217. Thinking they were Indians, the priest asked them to write something for him as a keepsake. However, after his return to Japan he found out that they were not Indians, because no one could understand what the writing meant. This document—a single page—was discovered in the late 20th century, when it was established that it is written in Persian and contains a line from Abu’l-Qāsem Ferdowsi’s Šāh-nāma (qq.v.), a line from Faḵr-al-Din Gorgāni’s Vis o Rāmin (qq.v.), and a quatrain of unknown authorship (Okada, 1989).

Scientists have used infrared imaging technology to analyze carvings on a piece of wood from – century Japan. The writings on the wood appears to name a Persian mathematics lecturer who worked at a facility in a millennium ago Japan where government ministers were trained in the former Japanese capital of Nara for more on this click here

Notes on Iranian Cuisine

The article below by Maryam Ala Amjadi on Iranian Cuisine was originally printed in the Tehran Times on September 4, 2011. Kindly note that the pictures and captions posted below did not appear in the original Tehran Times publication.

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An incredibly wise man and a passionate food lover once opined that if the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is to prepare them well and serve them with ceremony. This axiom of festive spirit is perhaps the most evident feature that lies at the core of Iranian culinary.

Enriched with a colorful and yet a healthy diversity of dishes that are peculiar to various regions of this country, Iranian food is highly popular in the east and the west for its freshness and deliciousness. The Persian kitchen has the ability to retain its uniqueness by preparing meals within a range of subtle and yet contrasting flavors, such as a combination of sweet and sour or mild and rarely, spicy.

Ash-e-Anar[Click to Enlarge] A bowl of Ash-e Anar known for its unique taste made with pomegranates (Picture Source: Public Domain).

Generally, in Persian cooking food is not overpowered with spices. While herbs, spices and sometimes fruits are used for seasoning and garnishing, the flavors are quite subtle and delicate as in the design patterns of a Persian carpet.

Persian cooking largely relies on rice as one of the main ingredients, which is an affordable and readily available staple in everyday diet. A typical Iranian meal is often a full plate of chelo (plain cooked rice) topped with vegetables, meat or fish. The mild flavor of rice provides a delightful contrast to the seasoned meat and vegetable toppings.

 Dolmeh Kadoo[Click to Enlarge] A vegetarian delight: the Dolmeh Kadoo (stuffed squash in the Persian style) (Picture Source: My Persian Kitchen).

Another staple food of Iran is naan (bread), typically a round, flat bread that can either be baked or cooked over a bed of small stones. While in villages, locals make their own naan, several varieties of fresh-from-the -oven bread is easily purchasable at naan shops in the cities.

After lamb, which is Iran’s favorite meat, beef and chicken are commonly eaten in stews as well as in the form of the popular kabab (kebab) , which is actually meat grilled on a skewer. Fish is common as well, particularly in the North and the neighboring Caspian Sea towns where it is found fresh. In addition, there are a number of dishes prepared with a combination of herbs, grains, pulses, vegetables and even fruits.

 Persian CuisineThe diversity of Persian cuisine as displayed in the Ariana restaurant in London, England (Picture Source: Ariana Restaurant).

A bowl or platter of seasonal fresh fruits and dishes of herbs and vegetables which may be considered “exotic” (like dates and figs) in some other countries, are standard side dishes to most meals. They are also very creatively combined with meats in order to form flavored accessories to the main dishes. The dolma, for example, is one such dish. The term actually describes any vegetable or fruit stuffed with rice-meat mixture. The stuffed grape leaves are the most popular form of dolma.

Today, Persian cuisine is gaining popularity in multicultural cities and cosmopolitan arenas, particularly Los Angeles, Vancouver, Washington D.C., Toronto and London. These cities have significant Iranian population.

Some similar traits of Persian cookery can be found in the cuisines of a few other nations such as the Turks and the Greeks, mainly due to cultural and historical contacts among Iran and these nations. For instance, the kabab which is found worldwide today initially originated in Persia and was later on adopted by the Middle East and Turkey. There are of course many distinct features that set Iranian cuisine apart from other Middle Eastern food. First and foremost, Iran’s rich agriculture and diverse regional climates provide high quality food items and a natural wide diversity of herbs and vegetables. Iranian cookery, therefore, begins with high quality ingredients which preserve a strong natural taste, smell and texture. Secondly, most dishes are a work of art and delicacy and like other artistic works of this land, they are a little more time consuming in terms of preparation. Thirdly, the food is prepared fresh and served fresh. Fourth, less salt and oil are used in Iranian cooking as compared to other Middle Eastern cooking, a positive feature which makes Iranian cuisine, a healthy and hearty choice in one go. Moreover, side dishes shape a colorful panorama on the Iranian table. Spinach and yogurt, minced shallots in curd, lentil soup, a range of salads with olive oil and vinegar dressing, pickled fruits and vegetables peculiar to various regions of Iran are some of the side dishes that accompany the main edibles.

Sabzi-polo-Mahi[Click to Enlarge] Sabzi-polo Mahi (vegetable-seasoned rice and north-Iranian style fish filet) (Picture Source: Phancouver).

Rising above the ingredients of Iranian cooking, one can claim that food is undoubtedly a fundamental part of the Persian heritage. Each item is a tasty representation of geographical aestheticism in a range of colors and scents specific to those regions. Eating is associated with a great deal of social events, as in births, funerals, weddings and many other rituals that convince us of the fact that culinary traditions are intertwined with Iran’s history, religion, culture and even literature. Some ingredients are even used as metaphors in Iranian poetry and prose: Honey colored eyes, peach colored complexion, laughing mouth like pistachio, pomegranate colored lips, hazelnut-like noses, red apple cheeks, almond-shaped eyes and many others.

Deep dish delights at Persian Restaurants

Even through economic slumps, restaurants in Iran are an ever growing industry. After cafés, they are the most popular hangouts for the Iranian youth particularly in the capital. Moreover, with their tradition setting and unique ambiance, they are also a compelling tourist attraction both inside and outside the country as they generally observe the standards of cleanliness and hygiene.

Restaurants are majorly categorized by the type of dishes and services they provide. In a very typical and traditional restaurant, also known as sofreh khaaneh you can expect kabaabs done in a variety of styles: soft kababs, such as koobideh (minced meat kabab), pure meat kababs such as chenjeh (lamb chop kabab), bakhtiyari (a combination of roasted chicken and meat pieces on skewers) and a few others. These kababs as well as almost all stews are served with plain rice, side dishes and a popular yogurt based drink called doogh.

Kabab DishMixed Koobideh, Barg and Joojeh Kabab skewers served with rice (Picture Source: Reza Restaurant); for more on this culinary art, see “Iran’s favorite dish: the Chelo Kebab“…

Sofreh khaneh has flat wooden day beds with large cushions laid out for the diners to recline on as they eat. Sometimes the beds are laid out in a small garden. There are of course many restaurants that offer the same traditional food in the standard restaurant settings but for its relaxed and unique ambience, the sofreh khaneh continues to evolve into an even more popular place, where families and closed ones can bond over food.

Mastokhiar[Click to Enlarge] Persian appetizer (also a yoghurt-dip) called Maast-o Khiar which is a combination of cucumbers, raisins, walnuts, in a Persian-style yogurt (Picture Source: Debbie Ohi). 

Modern Pizzerias face the Kabab Tradition

The much younger generation, however, seems to have developed an increasing preference for fast food which has naturally resulted in the establishment of small and big fast food outlets, where one can usually find a variety of pizza, steak, hamburger, fried chicken etc.

Known humorously as ‘keshloghmeh’ (elastic loaves), a modified Persian word, pizza done in an assortment of styles and flavors, continues to remain a very popular fast food dish among young Iranians. Despite the allure, however, the youth still know where to turn if they are, in the long run, looking for wholesomeness and deliciousness in one plate: the gastronomic charms of the traditional Persian platter. Restaurants serving traditional Iranian dishes, like the cholo kabab are still the most crowded and favored places.

International cuisines are also currently in trend. Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Thai and Mexican food have become quite popular in recent years, primarily in Tehran.

Persian Pizza[Click to Enlarge] Persian-style “Pizza” from the eateries of Tehran (Picture Source: iFood.TV). There is fact a very large difference between the Persian Pizza and its classic Italian counterpart with respect to the base, toppings, etc. The “Persian Pizza” has become one of the most popular streets foods in Iran.

Facts about food and table manners in Iran

Fork and spoon are the main pieces of cutlery used at the Iranian table. A knife is rarely used at lunch or dinner.

When invited as a guest to lunch or dinner, expect to be offered second and even third helpings. Initial refusals will be assumed to be polite gestures (ta’arof, a sign of social decorum) and are taken mildly.

Iranians usually eat a handful of herbs and greens along with their meals. Known as sabzi khordan (edible greens) these herbs are typically a combination of chives, spring onions, mint leaves, basil, tarragon, radish, parsley and dill, often along with handful of walnuts, naan and a piece of feta cheese.

In most modern house settings food is eaten at the table but in a more traditional atmosphere, sofreh (table cloth like garment) available in a range of material and design pattern is spread on a Persian rug or table. Even in modern houses, some meals are still served on the floor and the sofreh is spread on the dining table.

There are four major types of flat breads (naan) and about ten types of unflat and sweet breads available in various shapes and sizes in the art of Iranian bakery.

Naan e Barbari[Click to Enlarge] Naan-e Barbari (Picture Source: Food and Wine).

Iranians revere bread to a great extent and do not discard or throw away stale bread along with other trash. Leftovers are usually disposed in separate containers. A practical way to refrain from unwanted disposal of bread was the formerly popular custom of trading dried bread for salt or fruit baskets with hawkers who roamed around for this purpose, a tradition that has been fading out, but still in practice in rural areas.

Black tea is an all time beverage in Iran. It would not be an exaggeration to call it the national drink of the country. It is mostly drunk along with sugar cubes and on occasion with sweets. The sugar cubes are taken between the teeth and then the tea is sipped.

 Chai Irani-TS[Click to Enlarge] Traditional Persian Tea (Picture Source: Tumeric Saffron).

Lunch and Dinner: Rice, white gold on the Iranian dining table

Grown mostly in Iran’s northern Caspian provinces and prized mainly for its aroma, rice is indeed the jewel of Persian cuisine. What distinguishes Iranian rice dishes is the range of methods in which this ingredient can come to life in a Persian kitchen. Iranians consume rice daily in ways that somehow elevate it; sometimes it is as simple as boiling it in salt and oil and at times, it can be a ritual of running it half cooked through a sieve, throwing it back into the pot to fully steam and develop , then enriching it with a dash of saffron on the top and creating a golden crust (tahdig) at the bottom of the pot which comes out in different shapes and flavors, after the top of the pot is emptied and served, usually with a combination of another ingredient.

 TahdigThe Tahdig delicacy crust shaped around the rice in the form of a cake (Picture Source: YumSugar). There are in fact a large varieties of the Tahdig.

The main typical Persian dishes are a blend of rice with meat, chicken or fish but rice can also be prepared as the main dish per se: On occasion, Persian rice dishes are richly studded with fruits, nuts, herbs and spices but more than often, rice is seen as an a companion to other dishes.

 Khoresht-e Karafs

The Khoresht-e Karafs (Picture Source: Mastering Persian Cooking).

Another distinct feature in the tradition of rice eating as compared to rice eaters in the west that, when served with stew (khoresht) of either meat or chicken; rice is used as an edible bed where both items are mixed in proportion by the consumer before they are eaten.

The two main national rice dishes are chelo and polo (white rice alone or with addition of meat and/or vegetables and herbs).

Chelo Kabab-Tabriz[Click to Enlarge] Serving of fresh skewers of Čelow-kabāb in the city of Tabriz, Iran’s Azarbaijan province (Picture Source: Payvand News). Tabriz is famous throughout Iran for its culinary style of the Čelow-kabāb dish and is also known for having popularized this throughout the country as well. There are still traditional restaurants in Tabriz that serve skewers almost a meter long! For more on the Čelow-kabāb culinary arts see “Iran’s favorite dish: the Chelo Kebab” …

 

Persian Omelette[Click to Enlarge] Traditional Persian Omelette (Picture Source: Herald Sun).

Brief Notes on Spoons and Forks in Greco-Roman and Ancient Iranian Civilizations

Cutlery is one of the most important aspects of food consumption, as this technology helps limit the intake of bacteria and germs in the preparation, serving and eating of food. The end result of the benefits of cutlery is the increase of health which in turn results in higher human life expectancy. Spoons for dining dated to the 500s BCE (at the time of the Achaemenid dynasty) or earlier have been discovered in ancient Pasargadae, southwest Iran (currently housed at the National Museum of Iran).

Pasargadae Spoon

Achaemenid silver spoon with a curved swan’s head handle discovered at Pasargadae (mid-500s century BCE) (Source: David Stronach & Hilary Gopnik, Encyclopedia Iranica).

The cutlery discovered in Pasargadae appear to pre-date Greco-Roman cutlery by almost 1000 years.

Roman_Museum_099-Spoons

Roman spoons with swan heads (Source: Public Domain, photographed by Linda Spashett): note the remarkable resemblance between the Roman spoon and its Achaemenid predecessor.

The site of Pasargadae has also yielded evidence of the Achaemenids having used dining knives.

Dining knife-Pasargadae

Achaemenid silver dining knife discovered at Pasargadae (mid-500s century BCE), housed at the Uşak Museum of Archaeology in Turkey (Source: Ecuador-Comeze). Note that this, like the Achaemenid spoon, also has a swan’s (or duck’s) head.

The fork however is absent from the ancient Persian archaeological finds and is apparently a Romano-Byzantine invention dated to at least the 4th century CE. The fork then spread from the Romano-Byzantine Empire into Sassanian Persia. This brief description of the history of cutlery demonstrates the long-standing cultural links between the Greco-Roman and ancient Iranian civilizations.

Forks_Susa_Louvre_MAO421-422-431

Iranian bronze forks dated from the 8th – 9th centuries CE (post-Sassanian era) housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris (inventory MAO 421-422-431) (Source: Public Domain, photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen).

Nidhi Subbaraman: Early humans in Iran were growing wheat 12,000 years ago

The article below by Nidhi Subbaraman first appeared in NBC News on July 4th 2013.

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Among stone grinding tools, clay figures shaped like humans and animals and carved bone artifacts, archaeologists have harvested ancient grains from an early human settlement that are preserved 12,000 years. The finds suggest that generations of communities were earnestly experimenting with plant cultivation since the last Ice Age, and that agriculture, which laid the foundations for later civilizations, emerged concurrently in a number of locations that archaeologists recognize as the “Fertile Crescent” of the near east.

Iran farming-nbcnews-2Wild barley was found in the sediments of Chogha Golan (Source: NBC News).

Since the early 1960s, when the first signs of farming were discovered in parts of Israel, archeologists have uncovered scores of ancient farming communities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq dating a few thousand years older than the first evidence of farming found in Mexico and China. Whether they shared their ideas about farming or came to them independently has remained an open question.

Now, a detailed history of plant cultivation gleaned from sediments at the Chogha Golan site in Iran suggest that the eastern section of the Fertile Crescent was as active as better known sites in the west. A group of scientists present their findings of ancient lentils, wheat, barley and pea grass in the Thursday issue of Science.

The samples themselves aren’t remarkable to look at. “It’s very dried and cracked and looks like something you want to brush off your table unless you know it’s priceless remains,” Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who studies ancient domestication practices, told NBC News. “To look at them they’re not much but the stories that they tell are remarkable.”

Iran farming-nbcnews-3Clay figurines shaped like people and animals were unearthed found at Chogha Golan (Source: NBC News).

Scientists have already found a rich collection of stone tools, clay figurines in the shapes of people and animals, and carved bone artifacts. But the researchers at this site were struck by the abundance of plant material that they found with it.

Usually, “If you get a seed or two you’d be happy,” Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany, and one member of the research team told NBC News. But at Chogha Golan, “With one bucket we’d get a handful of material,” he said. The researchers analyzed 21,500 plant samples collected from a small section of the site, which in some sections is 8 meters deep.

The new site also suggests why farming may have evolved. One line of reasoning suggests that it arose when early humans wanted to feed larger groups — when just hunting and gathering wouldn’t do.

Iran farming-nbcnews-4The site in the Zagros Mountains in Iran contained 8 meters worth of archaeological layers (Source: NBC News).

But Zeder believes the timing of the evidence from this site — in a warming phase after the Pleistocene ice age — shows “a whole other kind of image.” To her, it suggests that cultivation arose during a period of abundance and bounty, and early people took this opportunity to mess around with wild varieties of barley, wheat, lentils and pea grass.

At about the same time, in pockets of the populated world, human communities were beginning to perform burial rituals and start feasting, Zeder said. “All of this is directed at sustaining communities.”

Though earliest humans weren’t planning for it, agriculture set them on the path to a more settled, a more social life, and eventually more innovative life.

Iran farming-nbcnews-1Stone tools and clay artifacts were collected from a site in the Zagros Mountains in Iran, where humans were cultivating plants 12,000 years ago (Source: NBC News).

You do not get the cooperation and the time to make important new kinds of discoveries that require a more sedentary, more village kind of setting,” Hendrik Bruins, a researcher at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev told NBC News. “I think the article is an important new piece of information from the Eastern part of the near east.”

Plant samples were collected by floating small amounts of soil and burnt residue from the dig sites in water. The wheatey remnants of grains and cereals rise to the surface from which they can be scooped up.

Whether it’s a single person who had one “Aha moment,” or whether it evolved “democratically across the entire region,” Zeder said, “Being able to parse that out gives us a better idea of human history, of how people have faced challenges in the past, and how we as a species have got where we got today.”