Although home cooked meals are arguably tastier and tend to give a better insight into the local food culture than restaurant food, I cannot deny that I was almost equally sold on the food in Iranian restaurants. And while I enjoyed a mixture of Afghan and Iranian foods in the homes, the restaurants allowed me to experience some contemporary Iranian dishes (and yes, I would include pizza in that category) that I was not able to try in the households where I stayed. For example, dishes like kebab or grilled fish, which require a coal grill, are much easier and better to experience in restaurants! Plus, there is just such a great variety of dishes waiting to be experienced. Here are some highlights from my restaurant visits!
I was told that most tourists who come to Iran only order kebab when they visit Iranian restaurants, and I can’t blame them! I had this particular kebab in Imamzadeh Davood, a mountain village north west of Tehran, after a hike along the stream that flows down the cloud-covered mountain. We ate our charcoal grilled lamb and chicken kebab with buttered rice, bread, lime juice, raw onions, grilled tomatoes and with the traditional Persian yogurt drink doogh (comes with or without gas, and sometimes with mint or cucumbers), which accompanied most of my meals in Iran.
Although I had quite a few kebabs during my weeks in Iran, this was by far the best one – perhaps because of the challenging hike and cold, snowy weather that preceded it.
When I traveled north to Bandar-e Anzali, a city famous for its fishing industry, caviar, and port and beaches on the Caspian Sea, my restaurant diet switched from kebabs to fish. My favorite was the grilled whole fish, which was served with pickles, pickled onions, fries, slices of tangerine, raw onion and tahdig. Not going to lie – this way by far the best (and most buttery) grilled fish that I have ever tasted. My Afghan-Iranian host was so excited by my delight that he ordered me a second one!
Many dishes that I had in restaurants were served with tahdig, a traditional Iranian rice dish. The rice is served straight out of the pot (hence its perfect round shape), and has been allowed to become crispy, close to the point of burning, at the bottom of the pot. The outside of this rice dish is yellow and crunchy, but the inside is soft and white. And it is naturally served with a side of butter!
Tahdig is delicious, buttery and adds a nice crunch to any dish that it is served with.
I had this egg korma, basically scrambled eggs cooked in a flavorful tomato sauce, outside of Rasht (Gilan province). Although it might seem like a very simple dish, as it is served and eaten with just bread and salt, it was one of my absolute favorite dishes – and definitely my favorite breakfast. So flavorful, and such a perfect start to an active day! I could have had at least two more servings (but one quickly learns that it is dangerous to ask for more food in Iran – you risk getting more than you could ever finish!).
I had pizza twice in Tehran: once at home as take-out, and once in a restaurant. This picture is from a restaurant in Tehran. Although pizza is not a traditional Iranian dish, I would argue that it now deserves a part in the list of contemporary Iranian fast foods. Not only is it incredibly popular and widely eaten among middle-class Iranians, but it is also different from the traditional “western” pizza.
How is it different? Well, it comes without sauce. Or rather, you add on the sauce yourself, on top of the cheese and toppings. Sauces vary, but normally include a spicy tomato sauce, a dressing similar to Thousand Island, and a white garlic-y sauce. I personally liked the spicy tomato sauce the most! The pizza in the picture is an “everything pizza,” meaning that it has pretty much every imaginable topping. Chicken sausage, peppers, corn, mushrooms, carrots, olives etc, served with a generous layer of black pepper and an even thicker layer of cheese. Yum!
Tip: In homes, most meals are served on a table-cloth, put directly on the Persian rug that covers the living-room floor. While restaurants in large cities have chairs and tables, most small city restaurants do not! Instead, they use built-up areas, covered in rugs. Wear comfortable pants that allow you to sit cross-legged on the floor and enjoy the beautiful environment. Your legs will thank you!
All photos taken by me on an iPhone.
Next in the Food in Iran series: Sweets!