Iran is definitely a country of culinary delights. Even the harshest critic would find it difficult to fault the amazing cuisine that even the humblest of roadside eateries manages to produce. Although quite meat heavy, like much of the Middle East, the use of vegetables, herbs, spices and legumes takes the flavours to whole other levels. Be careful not to put on too much weight while you’re here!
Breakfast in Iran involves a lot of individual dishes. A combination of bread (various types of flat bread depending on which part of Iran you’re in), cheese, jams, honey, butter, eggs, cucumber, tomato, fruits, and always washed down with tea. Iranian breakfasts are relatively healthy and nutritious.
Jams are particularly popular at breakfast and are always homemade and full of real chunks of fruit. The most common varieties are carrot, sour cherry, quince, strawberry, rose petal, orange and barberry.
Other traditional but less common breakfast foods include:
Very similar to what we would call porridge but made from wheat and includes small pieces of shredded meat.
It takes a brave person to eat this in the morning. Kaleh pache is a soup that is eaten for breakfast. It’s made from a sheep’s head (all parts of the head – eyeballs, brain, tongue and all) and its hooves. It’s a very heavy start to the day, but yummy if you can bring yourself to do it!
Lunch and Dinner
The number of Iranian dishes is endless. I don’t think it’s possible to list every Iranian dish in one place, and even the average Persian can surely only know a few hundred of their classic dishes. Not only are their national favourites, but also regional varieties and specialties. Here is a short list of some of the dishes you’ll encounter and should try for either lunch or dinner.
I think most people in the world will have heard of kebabs, however Iranians take them very seriously. There are various styles and types, but they are universally cooked over hot coals, served with bread, rice and some salad. Iranians will do things like drop extra fat onto the kebabs while they’re cooking to make them extra succulent and also cook them slowly to ensure they’re amazingly tender.
Possibly the most popular dish in Iran after Kebab (although I don’t want to start an argument), this is made with lamb and red kidney beans. The key ingredient is the Sabzi which is a huge selection of different types of green herbs which are ground down into a sauce. Ghormeh Sabzi is always served with rice.
This is a lamb, bean, chickpea and tomato stew served in a small stone bowl similar to a mortar and pestle. They even give you a pestle to mix the stew up. Hearty, and great in winter especially.
Almost like a soup, this green mixture of chickpea, beans and noodles gets its colour from all the green herbs that are used to flavour it. It’s almost a soup, but a very very thick soup.
This is a classic. Beef meatballs served in a tomato sauce and served with chips (french fries) or potatoes on top. Flavoured with dried limes, it has that perfect mixture of sweet and sour.
Zereshk Polo Morgh
Possibly the best looking Iranian dish, the layers and colours make you not want to disturb it. Essentially it’s roasted chicken on rice. However the rice is coloured with saffron and has red barberries on top, providing a sour finish to the sweetness of the chicken and rice.
Made from walnuts, pomegranate and chicken, this is another classic dish you need to try. Despite being very saucy, it has quite a dry texture and somewhat of a tart taste. It has a very dark colour making it look less appealing, but believe me, it tastes great.
Another rice dish, but green in colour owing to its liberal use of dill. It also includes saffron and fava beans and is topped with a large tender lamb shank.
Not a dish in itself, but the result of how rice is cooked. Rice is left cooking in the pot even after all the water has been absorbed, creating a crispy layer around the outside that is known as Tahdig. It’s similar to the effect you’ll often find with a Korean bibimbap.
Iranians love their sweet food and as such have a huge variety of unique desserts.
A must try when you’re in Iran, unless you’re a vegetarian, not that you would have realised. Khoresh means stew in Persian and that’s sort of what this is, a yoghurt stew. Made with eggs, sugar, yoghurt, saffron, rosewater, onion, decorated with pistachios and barberries, the special ingredient in Khorest Mast is beef, specifically neck meat. If you’re not a vegetarian this is probably the dessert you most need to try in Iran.
One of the most popular Iranian desserts. Made from corn starch, yoghurt, and flour, Zoolbia could be called an Iranian donut, as it’s fried and is essentially a very sweet crispy fritter.
Popular especially in the south of the country. This dessert is made primarily from dates combined with walnuts, pistachios, cardamom, and cinnamon. Ranginak is served chilled and usually in small bite sized pieces.
Frozen noodles flavoured with rosewater syrup and lemon juice. It’s crunchy, sweet and sour all mixed into one. It’s often is served with ice-cream, especially saffron ice-cream. The noodles are very thin and provide an amazing texture.
Locally known as bastani sonnati or bastani sonnati zaferani, this is an Iranian ice-cream made from milk, eggs, sugar, rose water, saffron, vanilla, and pistachios. It is known widely as Persian ice-cream. Bastani often contains flakes of frozen clotted cream, and has a chewier texture than regular ice-cream.
A type of rice pudding flavoured with, you guessed it, saffron. The saffron gives it a distinctive bright yellow colour making it very appealing. It is also flavoured with sugar, rosewater, cinnamon and cardamom.
At first it looks a bit like baklava, but much drier. Sohan is a traditional Persian saffron brittle toffee made in Iran. Its ingredients consist of wheat sprout, flour, egg yolks, rose water, sugar, butter or vegetable oil, saffron, cardamom, and slivers of almond and pistachio. This dessert originated from the city of Qom and is often eaten with tea.
A simple but delicious dish, gaz is essentially nougat. Isfahan is known as the place to get this dessert and you’ll see shops all over the city selling it.
Tea is the national drink of Iran and is offered at almost all occasions. Iranian tea, known locally as chai, is served without milk but with lots of sugar. Iranians love things sweet.
A yoghurt drink similar to Ayran in Turkey, it’s slightly salty and often served with mint, basil or cucumber – extremely refreshing!
Coffee is hugely popular in Iran and is available everywhere. Espresso coffee is extremely common and cheap and even small corner stores or roadside stops will offer it. Becoming increasingly popular are hip western or even Melbourne style cafes selling flat whites, lattes and everything in between.
As Iran is officially a dry country, normal beer is not readily available. However non-alcoholic beers, also known as malt beverages, are hugely popular in Iran and rival traditional soft drinks. They’re not a beer replacement but simply a type of soft drink that is enjoyed at any time of day. Non-alcoholic beers come in regular varieties but also a magnitude of different flavours. If you're interested to know more about these wonderful drinks, have a read of our Non-Alcoholic Beer in Iran blog .