My Top 10 Food Surprises in Iran

blankThe more I have tasted the melting meats, fragrant pilafs, slow-simmered stews and sweet-savoury expanse of flavours expertly navigated by authentic Iranian restaurants in Dubai, the more I have longed to visit. I finally embarked on my first small journey to Iran last week (thanks to Jason Rezaian, Tehran correspondent for the US-based Washington Post). One would hope that this 8-day trip would have quenched my burning thirst to learn more about the cuisine – but far from it. My visit has only fired up new questions, new desires and an even greater hunger to learn, one that will take many more trips to sate.

It must be known that a cuisine as ancient, rich and nuanced as Iranian food is one that varies as profoundly as the climate and terrain of the country – you can wrap up warmly near the Alborz mountains, wipe your sweaty forehead near arid desert ground and have an Arabian Nights moment in shaded lush gardens, all in one week. And I did. The best way to eat through the intricacies borne of such diversity is not in restaurants, but in the homes.

Parking yourself in someone’s home is not as easy of an endeavour unless you peel yourself away from the inspiring and maddening array of monuments, pitch yourself in a city for a decent enough amount of time and interact with the unbelievably hospitable people. When we finally slowed down to connect with a couple who was just gushing to take us home in Shiraz, it was time to fly back to Dubai. This is one of the many reasons why I must return to Iran.

Nagshe-Jahan, Isfahan

Looking out of the bazaar at Nagshe Jahan square, Isfahan. One of the architectural highlights of my trip.

Nevertheless, despite being limited to the restaurants in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz and not covering even 1% of the flavours to be experienced, I am grateful for the mouth-watering food insights that came my way. And even though I have tasted and researched a fair amount about Iranian cuisine in the past, there were still surprises to be had. Here are the top ten food surprises – a disorderly mix of foods, observations, reflections – that I digested across three of the most well-known cities of Iran:

Sheep's Milk Doogh - Maha - Grand Bazaar Tehran

1. Dried mint + drinking yogurt made out of sheep’s milk = Magic (aka Doogh)

It took one sip of the Doogh at our first restaurant stop in Tehran to leave us completely addicted to this milky concoction swirled with dried mint leaves. Served either homemade or from store-bought bottles, the drink leaves a cool minty breeze in the lower reaches of your chest and is the perfect balance to a kabab orgy that most restaurant runs in Iran tends to become. But the big revelation was that doogh made out of goat/sheep’s milk yoghurt is infinitely more appealing than cow’s milk, making your mouth pucker up at the edges with the sour, sharp tang of the drink before you reach out for your next juicy slab of kabab. It is less common through, the only place we swished down homemade goat’s milk doogh (pictured above) was in the Tehran bazaar, at an impossible-to-find restaurant called Maha. Even if you don’t find a homemade goat’s milk version, I’ll be honest – the store-bought cow’s milk doogh with imposter mint essence was pretty darn good too.

Baghali Polo with Maahicheh

2. Sheep fat.

Since we’re on the goat and sheep theme, the use of sheep fat was one of the surprises that wafted up out of a plate of one of my favourite Iranian pilafs, baghali polo ba maahicheh (pictured above). The strong smell instantly hit me as I brought a spoonful of the rice with dill and broad beans closer to my face. It wasn’t the massive lamb shank on the plate that was gamey in the least – in fact, none of the meats we had in Iran had any strong aftertastes. The nose-curling smell was entirely in the fat used to cook the rice, and many spoonfuls later, it might grow on you as it did for me. While not for everyone, rice cooked in sheep fat is worth a try at least once.

The same restaurant in Tehran called Arvand Kenar served us the most plump and explosively juicy lamb chops (shishlik) I have ever had the privilege of chewing off the bone. No surprises there, given how adept Iranians are with grilling their meats.

Lamb chops sheeshleek -  Arvand Kenar Restaurant - Tehran Iran

[Arvand Kenar Restaurant location: Valiasr Street, below Park Sayee across from the Hotel Simorgh]

3. Missing cyber food talk.

At first, this might come as a surprise to those who know how seriously Iranians take their food. Even our in-flight meal was shockingly good – I polished off the tub of fluffy rice and chicken eggplant stew within minutes. But when you go online, other than one restaurant guide and blogs written by Iranians abroad, there is a big gaping hole for insider restaurant guidance or local food blogs up on the web – or at least those written in English. If you want to find the best zerehk polo ba murg (rice with barberries and chicken, pictured below), no one would have psychoanalyzed the subject in the way that croissants have been hunted down in France or shawarmas and Friday brunches have been pinned to online slide shows in Dubai.

Zereshk Polo ba Murg - Khan Gostar - Jolfa Hotel - Isfahan Iran

I doubt that the cyber restrictions in the country have anything to do with it – everyone has VPN and bypasses the firewalls. Jason suggested that it might be because people in the country are so accustomed to a high standard of flavours that it’s just not something people tend to feel the need to write about. It’s a given, like bathing everyday – except the flavours of an authentic Iranian meal is akin to bathing in a gold and azure-tiled hammam with milk, honey and copious amounts of saffron.

The Lonely Planet, often an excellent referral source of hidden food gems, also fell short in Iran. Other than one decent restaurant recommendation, the edition felt outdated or incomplete in parts, and two of the places we visited were overrun with tourists like ourselves clutching on to their Lonely Planet guidebooks. You’re better off just wandering out on your own.

Hidden Restaurants in Iran

4. Eerie staircases leading to hidden restaurants. The norm. 

If it wasn’t hard enough to find restaurant recommendations, the fact that many restaurants are tucked away underground or in some non-descript part of a building takes the challenge of finding them to a whole other level. It’s almost as if the restaurant doesn’t want you to discover it. One of the best places we visited with a carpet seller (thank you Hossein!) in Tehran had the following signboard:

Maha Restaurant - Grand Bazaar - Tehran IranYou get my point. Other than a simple Persian lettering on the glass door that we found after our meal, there was nothing to help us ever find Maha again.

Barberi Bread - Tehran Iran

5. Fresh-baked bread snug under elbows, on outstretched arms, on anywhere but in a plastic baggie.

This might be typical in other countries of the Middle East, but it just doesn’t happen in Dubai. You never see someone step out on the streets here with an exposed disc of bread clasped between their elbow and their side, or like a serving tray on their palms with a tub of butter/cheese poised on top. If only I had been quick enough to snap a photo of someone doing this! But this was typical in Tehran, especially in the morning when people seem to have a simple breakfast of bread, preserves (quince, carrot, sour cherry, we even saw aloe vera), cream, salty feta cheese and/or walnuts. The variety of breads was incredible, though not surprising at all and I’m glad to say I have enough bread tastings in me to warrant a separate post. But before I move to the next point…

Sheermal bread - Tehran - Iran…another hearty memory of a bread that kept me going on our road trip from Tehran to Isfahan.

Tahdeeg - Iran - Gilaneh

6. The glorious Iranian rice crown. Worlds apart from the burnt blackish crust you find at the base of a rice pot forgotten on your stovetop.

While some Iranian restaurants in Dubai serve food that is actually quite comparable to the above-average joints in Iran – I have yet to eat a tahdeeg here that rocks my world. After my first tasting of the rice crust (poorly pictured above, but don’t be fooled by my rubbish photography), I was hooked and made it a point to order it again at every restaurant. Tahdeeg is intentionally formed on the bottom (taht) of the pot (deeg) after the rice has been steamed. This is the last step in a complex series of washing, soaking, parboiling and steaming the grains in the chelow rice technique. The best tahdeeg were those with a crisp, buttery, golden brown or deep caramel brown crust on the top, soft squishy grains fused together at the base, and heady with the aroma of saffron. In some cases, the restaurants would add yoghurt to the rice and saffron mixture at the base of the pot, making the ‘rice crown’ experience even more tender and sublime.

Koresht Mast - Khan Gostar Restaurant - Jolfa Hotel - Isfahan Iran

7. Koresht Mast in Isfahan.

This dish deserves to be singled out on its own pedestal – you’d have to be if you were made out of sugar, saffron, yoghurt, eggs, heaps more sugar and saffron, and…shredded cow or sheep neck.

The collagen from the neck meat makes this eccentric local stew one that is strikingly similar to a rich gelatinous porridge (a comparison I must draw because of course, we all eat gelatinous porridges every day). Our local friends in Tehran didn’t vouch for this Isfahani speciality, but against all odds, mum and I actually enjoyed the Koresht Mast at Khan Gostar. At some points, it resembled a Gujarati hung yoghurt dessert called shrikhand that we love scooping up with deep fried bread at home. And at other points, it brought on memories of a savoury meat and wheat Indian porridge called Haleem that we also love.

Love + Love = More Love.

[Khan Gostar Restaurant Location: Jolfa Hotel, Hakim Nezami Street, opposite Vank Church on the Armenian-Christian side of Isfahan.]

Pickles - Torshi in Iran

8. Staggering variety of pickles.

And being an Indian, I thought I knew my pickles. Shops in the Tajrish market as well as across other bazaars we visited in Iran were piled high with a dizzying range of torshi, pickled vegetables and fruits. I was aware that Iranians have an affiliation to sour tastes, but I could never have imagined the variety of pickles on offer – some of which didn’t even resemble ingredients we have seen before. Pickled beans, pickled carrots, pickled corn on the cob, pickled bananas…and naturally, pickled kiwis.

Pickled kiwis - Shiraz Iran

9. Food self-sufficiency.

As it should be, given the global sanctions. But I still didn’t think of Iran as a rich agricultural community and was surprised to learn from Jason – who is particularly passionate about starting a new trend of growing avocadoes locally (“less than 1% of Iran’s population has ever tasted an avocado.”) – that “Iran is one of the most fertile countries on earth, and its land produces great bounty.”

Tajrish Bazaar, Tehran Iran

His words rang true as we sauntered through the Tajrish market, bagging up burstingly ripe strawberries for our ride home, watching ladies having their stewing herbs chopped up in bulk, and puzzling over ingredients that stumped even my very own ingredient-savvy Wikipedia – mum. After a dedicated Facebook inquiry, two Iranians confirmed that this plant is called…

Valak - Tajrish Bazaar - Tehran Iran

…Valak. What?!

10. White liver. Chopped and fried.

I’ve spoken about the riceless Isfahani biryani in Dubai before, but now I could finally taste it in its birthplace. We passed by two biryani shops on our walk through the Nasghe-Jahan bazaar in Isfahan, and thankfully both were conspicuously signposted and were advertising their one and only dish, biryani (but you still have to walk to an underground dining room to eat it.)

Biryani Isfahani - Naghshe Jahan Bazaar - Isfahan Iran

A soft pasty patty of fatty lamb mince arrived on a stone-baked sangak bread that had been splashed with a slow-simmered oily broth of bones. Unlike my experience in Dubai, there was no lamby aftertaste despite the concerningly strong smell in the air. The portion seems deceptively small, but I’d recommend splitting one order of biryani between two people. If you alternate the tender mince swaddled in bread with swigs of bottled doogh, the meal won’t be as rib-stickingly heavy as claimed by the popular warnings about this dish.

Biryani Isfahani - Naghshe Jahan Bazaar - Isfahan Iran

But the surprise lay not in the patty, but rather in the powdery crumble on the side. It bore the telling brown shade of caramelization, with a taste that felt different from the patty in a way we couldn’t quite describe. At the time, it seemed as if the same meat had just been flash-fried on high heat rather than being cooked as a patty.

It was only after returning to Dubai that my Iranian spice shop mentor, Mr. Reza, pointed to his chest and described the crumble as ‘white liver’ (‘black liver’ being the digestive organ as we know it in the rest of the world.) In Persian speak, white liver is lungs. Now that that puzzle is solved, I can finally breathe better.

But the biggest shock was a personal one.

Halfway through a weeklong trip with multiple flawlessly-grilled kabab and koresht (stew) meals to our credit, we simply could not eat meat anymore. It was too much even for me, the girl who blended kababs into a puree when her wisdom teeth were yanked out and she was forced on to a liquid diet. I simply could not consume another kabab. You will be disappointed to hear that there were a few instances when we cowardly took meatless refuge in:

…styrofoam cups of corn mixed with processed cheese, butter and mushrooms (to make things only marginally more respectable, let me assure you that we didn’t let the street stall add mayo to the mix.)

Corn on the streets of Tehran Iran

…chewy bastani, or ice cream, slapped between two wafers. A must-do.

Bastani in wafers - Shiraz in Iran

…and for our last meal, we did the unthinkable and caved into pizza, no chano (beef) please. Our super hospitable guide seemed offended that we’d ordered the lesser of the pizza mortals and offered us a slice of his minced beef pizza. This was not the first time that someone had literally put their food into our plate before eating it first themselves. But no surprises there, Iranian hospitality is a well-known fact.

Hats off to a culture that not only nurtures brilliantly rich and complex flavours, but also encourages the warmth and generosity to share them around.

Tajrish Bazaar - Tehran Iran

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

22 thoughts on “My Top 10 Food Surprises in Iran

  1. GA says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading that Arva, I have been waiting all week for you to publish it. Before I leave the Middle East I will be paying a visit to Iran.

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      Thanks Debbie, glad you enjoyed reading it! I know how much you love Iranian food (had read a post on an Iranian restaurant in the past…maybe it was in JLT?) It’s super that you have a plan to go to Iran at some point!

  2. Jill Khanzadeh-Amiri says:

    Married to an Iranian for over 20 years, and having visited Iran many many times, I am so pleased you enjoyed the country, the food, and most of all it’s wonderful people.
    I have travelled far and wide in Iran and have always found the food fabulous, but none can compare to my mother-in-laws wonderful way with any ingredient. Rice, lamb, chicken, vegetables, fish all fall under her spell.
    I just wish she had passed her culinary expertise onto this very poor excuse for a cook. But then again I am certain I would be 2 stone heavier.
    Once again I am glad you experienced it, enjoyed it., and I hope for your speedy return.

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      Jill, it makes me really, really happy to hear from someone who is a veteran of Iranian culture and cuisine. Nothing will ever compare to home cooked food, such is the way of the world. I wish there were homestays in Iran where people could experience this firsthand.

      Thanks again for the wishes, I do hope to return soon – as we say at home, may there be butter and sugar (i.e. truth!) in your words!

      (and I’m definitely 2 stone heavier after my trip!!)

  3. Leyla Moavenian says:

    Actually there a few sites that you can find restaurant reviews in Iran. or

    But as an insider, let me give my recommendations:
    Divan ( Modern Persian )
    S.P.U ( Best outdoor dining and Persian food)
    Dizi Sara ( Fun Traditional meal experience)

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      Hi Leyla, thanks for the information, I wish I had the names of these 3 restaurants before I left – but will save them for next time! I was aware of Gumboo Guide (this is what I linked to in the above article) though I tend to stay away from Trip Advisor for restaurant reviews – but I love personal recommendations from passionate food lovers and bloggers :) S.P.U. and Dizi Sara sound like my kind of spots, so will definitely try visiting when I’m there next! Thanks again!

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      Oh Francine, but you must be happy that you found an Iranian restaurant in your part of the world. I hope they offer more than kababs – fesenjoon, baghali polo and gheimeh are some of my non-kabab favs :)
      And thanks for the kind words darling, so glad you savoured the post!

    2. InaFryingPan says:

      Oh Francine, but you must be happy that you found an Iranian restaurant in your part of the world. I hope they offer more than kababs – fesenjoon, baghali polo and gheimeh are some of my non-kabab favs :)
      And thanks for the kind words, so glad you savoured the post!

  4. Didi says:

    You are absolutely so blessed to have been able to take this trip! The food and the country sounds sooooo mouthwateringly complex. I may not have the chance to visit Iran, so I lived vicariously through your post :)

    I have eaten Persian food here in a small strip mall….in Las Vegas! Hahaha! It was sure damn good chelo kebab plate.

  5. Sally - My Custard Pie says:

    You have to win the Saveur food blog travel writing award next year or it’ll be a travesty. Learn so much from you especially this post. Even feel like tasting the really horrid sounding things because YOU SAY SO! Street food queen – lead me there now.

  6. Tasneen says:

    This is such a wonderful post, Arva. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it from start to the end. I feel so ashamed and embarrassed right now that I still haven’t tasted Iranian food inspite of having so many of the restaurants that serve Iranian cuisine here in Dubai. I will be surely dping that this weekend! My hubby has always vouched for Iranian hospitality whenever he had a chance to visit Iran for official work. He always had stories to share when he came back home and I loved listening to that. At this moment, I loved reading your post on the flavorful tour you had!

  7. Sara says:

    OMG I can’t believe you came to Iran and I missed it!!! I am an Iranian/ American currently living in Iran. I have 2 of your books and I check your websites once in a while for some new recipes. Hope you enjoyed your stay.

  8. Sara says:

    I never seen anyone else like Dough :-) My American friends say it tastes wired

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      Can’t speak for your American friends Sara, but I love doogh. We’ve grown up drinking similar buttermilk drinks in Dubai so it’s not really new for us at all. WAY better than a side of diet coke in my humble opinion ;)

  9. Rubi says:

    As an Iranian living abroad I enjoyed your blog tremendously and took me home, thanks. Regarding Valak, I discovered it few years ago and it is called Ramp which has a garlicky taste with a lot of health benefit. Iranians add chopped Ramp to rice and I like to serve fish with it.

    1. InaFryingPan says:

      Rubi, thanks for the comment and for clarifying the english translation of Valak – didn’t realize it was ramps! Wish there was a recipe out there somewhere that I could follow for valak and rice, any thoughts?

    2. Rubi says:

      This is how I prepare, 1 cup Basmati rice (washed and drained well), 2 cups water, 2 TS salt, 2 TB oil of choice ( I use olive but butter is best), 1 cup Ramps chopped finely. Put everything in small pan, boil on medium half covered when water is evaporated put lid on and let it steam on low for 20 minutes. Some people use dried when Ramps is not in season. Bon Appetit!

    3. InaFryingPan says:

      You are a star Rubi, thank you for taking the time to write the recipe! Now off to find ramps…! :)

  10. Paul says:

    Great article. Looks like you really got a chance to get into what Iran has to offer. Once you’ve been the only problem is that you can’t wait to go back again!


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