A standard Iranian meal starts with a basic, prefabricated green salad, radioactive-pink dressing and ash-e jo (soup of pearl barley). Some places include these in a total set-meal price but usually they are charged separately.
Even in a restaurant with a long menu, 90% of the main-dish options are likely to be kababs. These are served either on bread (preferably hot from the tandir clay oven) or as chelo kabab (on a mound of rice) with a pair of grilled tomatoes. Contrasting with the greasy doner kebabs inhaled after rough nights in the West, Iranian kababs are tasty, healthy and cooked shish-style over hot charcoals. The cheapest, standard version is kubide (literally, ‘ground’) kabab, made out of pressed, minced meat mixed with a variable proportion of breadcrumbs. Kabab-e barg (literally, ‘leaf kabab’) is thinner and more variable in quality, and fille kabab uses lamb fillet, while juje kabab are chunks of marinated chicken. Kababs are usually sprinkled with spicy somaq (sumac; dried extract from fruits of the rhus genus) and accompanied by raw onion and, for small extra fees, a bowl of mast (yogurt) and grilled tomato.
it’s worth asking for the common stand-by zereshk polo ba morgh (chicken on rice made tangy with barberries), ghorme sabzi (a green mix of diced meat, beans and vegetables, served with rice) or various mouthwatering dishes made from bademjan.
it doesn’t end there. Certain (usually down-market) eateries and many chaykhanehs (teahouses) specialise in underrated dizi. Most restaurants will also serve one or another variety of khoresht (thick, usually meaty stew made with vegetables and chopped nuts, then served with rice and/or French fries). However, in some less popular restaurants khoresht has been known to live in big pots for days before reaching the plate, so if you have a suspect stomach think twice.
Dolme (vegetables, fruit or vine leaves stuffed with a meat-and-rice mixture) makes a tasty change. Dolme bademjan (stuffed eggplant) is especially delectable. The Persian classic fesenjun (sauce of grated pomegranate, walnuts, eggplant and cardamom served over roast chicken and rice) is rarely found in restaurants, but you might get lucky and be served fesenjun in an Iranian home, which is quite an honour.
Dessert & Sweets
After-meal dessert is usually a bowl of delicious fruit. However, Iran produces a head-spinning array of freshly made shirini (sweets) with many places famous for a particular sweet: Esfahan is famed for its nougat-like gaz; Qom for sohan (a brittle concoction of pistachio and ginger); Orumiyeh for noghl (sugar-coated nuts); and Kerman for (our favourite) colompe (a soft, date-filled biscuit). Other sweets worth trying include refreshing palude or falude (a sorbet made of rice flour, grated fresh fruit and rose water) and bastani, Iranian ice cream.
Socialising in Iran almost inevitably involves chay (tea). Whether you’re in a chaykhaneh, carpet shop, someone’s home, an office, a tent – actually, almost anywhere – chances are there will be a boiling kettle nearby. According to the rules of Iranian hospitality, a host is honour-bound to offer a guest at least one cup of tea before considering any sort of business, and the guest is expected to drink it.
Tea is always drunk black and the tea tray is usually set with a bowl of ghand (chunks of sugar), often crudely hacked from huge rocks of sugar. It is customary to dip the sugar into the glass of tea, then place it between the front teeth (or on the tongue) before sucking the brew through it.
Traditional Iranian Ghahve (coffee) is like Turkish coffee, served strong, sweet, black and booby-trapped with a sediment of grounds. However, there’s a new urban fashion for coffee-houses that usually double as trendy ice-cream parlours. These places serve a variety of brews made on espresso style machines. While this sounds hopeful for caffeine addicts, the coffee blends used are often lack-lustre, and the beans pre-ground and somewhat bitter. Usually in rural areas the only option will be instant coffee.
JUICES & SOFT DRINKS
You’ll never be too far away from a delicious fresh fruit ab (juice) and fruit shir (milkshake). you’ll find pomegranate (the dark-red ab anar), honeydew melon (ab talebi), watermelon (ab hendune), orange (ab porteghal), apple (ab sib) and carrot (ab havij). Popular shakes include banana (shir moz), pistachio (shir peste) and strawberry (shir tut farangi). Shakes are often loaded with sugar.
Also widely available, dugh (churned sour milk or yogurt mixed with water) is a sour but highly refreshing drink. The best dugh is usually found in restaurants, comes with chopped herbs and is uncarbonated, unlike most prepacked bottles found in stores.