Friday, April 30, 2010

What to order in an Iranian restaurant

(As usual, I spell things in heterogenous ways--as we do not have standards for phonetic transcription of our language)
A few weeks ago; starving to faint; my drunken colleagues and I passed by an Iranian restaurant where my previous group of drunken friends had ordered some food that turned out to be too dry and unsavory. I suggested to my friends to give the restaurant a try. I asked them let me order the food for them.

I ordered (All came to about 80 dollars--tax and tip ncluded, feeding and beering three hungry chaps):

The restaurant also served three different kinds of rice:

They loved it! One of them was sorry that he never knew about that restaurant; and that they didn't know about Iranian food. They had imagined it should be somethings spicy like Indian or sweet and greasy like chinese food. They were surprised that the food had NO spices; that it was refreshingly lemony; that it tasted fresh and healthy because of the herbs and legumes ...

They could not stop admiring the food--although I knew that it was not the best quality they could have gotten. They were under shock influence. I promissed to cook for them at some point, properly.

Iranian food is not a multi-coursed one. Usually, the food is served all at once. You choose what to eat when. The starter is often a few items like Maast (yoghourt), Sabzi (Green herbs like mint, Basil, green onions and parsley), Torshi (mixed pickles, or garlic pickles), and Zeytoon (Olives) all put in the middle of the table--of course you will have to pay for them. If you don't want it, ask them to not put it on the table. These come with flat bread. In house parties in Iran, they are not served separately. But in restaurants (abroad or western-acting ones in Iran) they are. Of course you can ask for soup. My favorite is "soup-e Jo" (Barley soup).

When you go to an Iranian restaurant, you are often presented with a list of 5-6 types of Kebaabs (Brochets). The cheapest on the menu: Koubideh (minced meat, picture) is the most delicious of them all. I go to Iranian restaurant to eat Koobideh. Barg is the best of them IFFF it is prepared well; and you have the option of Soltani, that gives you one Barg and one Koubideh on a mountain of saffron rice!

You will not have seen rice like Iranian rice elsewhere. Rice preparation in Iran is an art and what distinguishes a real Lady of the House from a hack like me :) (In fact, I have friends who lose sleep if their rice goes wrong; or in anticipation of it going wrong.) You will find the rice fluffy and light, very long grained, and smelling saffron (if you have Iranian hosts, you will find them apologizing about the rice, although you will never know what is wrong with it. They apologize even if it is PERFECT!). You may add a bit of butter to it. Actually, if you order Kabab's, do add a bit of butter; and maybe some sumac--the red spice in the salt shaker on your table. It is sour. Butter will melt and get the sumac absorbed into the rice grains. Iranian rice portions look large, but the process that makes it fluffy, actually makes it light. Because you are not rice-loving, Iranian restaurants usually give less rice than they would/should in Iran. Bummer!

One advice: do not ask for half rice; half salad. That is sacrilege. If you want salad, order it separately. The best is "Salad Shirazi".

Fish in Iranian restaurant is not their forte; UNLESS the restaurant has a chef from the north or even better, from the south of Iran. If you find such restaurant, please let me know.

Poultry, if from the Kabab menu is either chicken breast marinated in saffron and onion and lime, or little chicken drums in the same marinate. It is called "joojeh Kabab". I recommend the second one: "joojeh kakab ba ostokhan". You should eat it with hand. Joojeh Kabab is not supposed ot be eaten with rice. Ask them to give you Salad instead.

The poultry that IS supposed to be served with rice often comes in the second/third pages of the Iranian menues. It is considered "inferior" to Kabaab, but it is better, FAR better!

The absolute must have is "Zereshk-polo ba morgh" (picture). I do not know a human on this earth who dislikes Zereshk polo; it is the one item with a very HIGH awe factor. My non-Iranian friends love it so much that they ask for extra zereshk (barberries, little red mountain berries, half the size of red currants, but grow on tall bushes in the cool and mountainy regions of Iran). Zereshk-polo should be only served with Chicken, but people may serve it with lamb shank too. I highly recommend this. The chicken (or shank) is usually slow cooked in a tomato sauce, with no spice added but salt and a dash of pepper and turmeric.

The other MUST have is Khoreshte Fesenjan (or fesenjoon; picture). This is chicken slow-cooked in a walnut and pomegranate sauce. No spices. People in the North of Iran serve it sour and watery; people in the South sweet and thick. A good chef should generate a balance between sweet and sour. The dark colour results from long slow cooking; the merging of walnut and pomegranate essences. If you order this, you will not have gone wrong.

The quintessential of Iranian stews is "ghormeh Sabzi". This stew is hard to prepare well because it is made of several fresh herbs that are very thinly chopped; fried, and slow cooked with lamb (oor beef), red (or black eye) beans and dried lemon. Not everyone makes it well, so I cannot guarantee you will like it, but it is worth a try.

If you are vegetarian, order from the starter's menu:
Kashk O bademjan is a very delicious meal on its own. It is made of roasted, and then fried eggplants, a condensed yoghourt sauce, garlic and in some placed wallnuts. Ask for two portions of it with bread.
Mirza Ghasemi is also a great choice. It is from fire-roasted eggplants, tomatoes, garlic and eggs. I love it.

So, how to find an Iranian restaurant?
Go to It is smart and from your IP address, knows what to recommend. You can of course search it yourself.


nunya said...

This is my favorite:

Dill Lima Beans Rice with Chicken (Shevid Baghali Polow with Morgh)

Naj said...

Nunya; that is my favorite too. Actually, my friend was very surprised how nice dill and rice and lima beans go together.

Pedestrian said...

aaaaaaaaaah Naj, you made me miss my mom's cooking even more :(

We Khuzestanis definitely love our fesenjan very thick ... but at least in northern Khuzestan (masjed soleiman, Susangerd, Dezful, Shushtar, etc) it has to be sweet and sour - we HATE sweet fesenjan. The sweet and sour taste comes from the rob-e naranj we use a lot in our foods ... which is just divine (at least we think so ;) b/c of the sweet and sour naranj grown in the region. We're REALLY picky (aka snobby) about the taste of fesenjan ;) :D

Naj said...


wait wait wait ... so you dont pt any rob-e anaar??

that would be belasphemy :)

choclosteve said...

Loved this post- you made my mouth water, but sad when I found that the nearest Iranian restaurant to my southern Oregon home is 130 miles away in Portland Oregon. About a year ago I read about how healthy pomegranates are along with a recipe for ash-e-panar soup which I cooked up using Lebanon pomogranate molasses (pomogranates are not often available in stores here and I had to have my daughter in San Francisco send me the molasses)- yumm. After my most likely poor cooking of the soup, but tasty to my uneducated pallet, I got to an Iranian restaurant during a visit to my daughter in San Francisco, and although I did not find ash-e-anar on the menu, I ordered the chicken in pomagranate marinade you described. Yummy in my tummy. So sad there are few Iranians living nearby

Pedestrian said...

or treason ;)

ummmm, I know we use rob-e anar, rob-e naranj and rob-e nardoon but there are strict rules about which to use in which foods. I'm not really even a half decent cook so I don't know how they use them :-P

choclosteve, my grandmother makes ash-e anar like you've NEVER had! the reason being that she makes the rob-e nardoon herself. Rob-e nardoon is a pomegranate seed molasses, and she starts by drying the seeds, etc, etc ... I don't know what they serve up in heaven, but if ash-e anar isn't part of the menu I want no part of it :)

Naj said...

I never had that soup; but in general I don't like fruity Aashes!

Nonono Fesenjoon without robbe anaar is not fesenjoon; give it a new name :)

Actually, I know nothing of Khuzestan; can you please share a fish recipe?

Pedestrian said...

Naj, she makes a southern fish stuffing here (yek kam loos tashrif daran, IMHO, but it's the closest recipe I've found to my grandma's which is just too hard to make). We don't use Salmon, and she uses only cilantro, where we use a number of herbs, we also use robeh anar and robeh nardoon. But I tried this one out too and it's deeeeeeelicious. ;)

Beach Bum said...

Not fair! I'm seriously hungry already and the cafeteria does not open for two more hours. The pictures and the words made my mouth water, everything looked and sounded great.

Anonymous said...

by "starving to faint; my drunken colleagues"

Iranian figures worth thousands of dollars have mysteriously vanished from their pedestals in central Tehran one by one.

First, a statue of the renowned Iranian poet Shahriar disappeared. Then the busts of two prominent figures in Iran's 1906 constitutional revolution as well as a Persian lexicographer went missing.