4.11.2021 Dinner in Gilan Province
This olive, pomegranate and walnut dip originated in Gilan Province, and shows off the typical Gilaki use of fresh herbs, preserved fruits, and nuts. The combination of walnuts and pomegranate originated in Gilan - both ingredients are actually indigenous to Persia. Nuts remain among Iran’s leading exports and pomegranates spread quickly via the Silk Routes across the Mediterranean and into China. While olives did not originate in Iran, there is mention of olive trees in ancient poetry and hymns dating back 2000 years. Most olive cultivation in Iran is in the Gilan province, thus olives feature heavily in Gilaki cuisine. This starter can be eaten with bread or on its own as an appetizer (keeping in mind that there aren’t traditionally “courses” in an Iranian meal). Iranian food often integrates a balance - of sweet and salty, hot and cold - and this is a perfect salty dish to complement the sweetness of beets in the dish to follow! This dish (along with the fesenjoon) contains golpar - a spice unique to Persian cuisine; see if you can taste the slightly sharp citrusy flavor it adds! (Contains walnuts; vegan, no gluten).
Borani-ye Laboo is a fresh and vibrant dip composed of yogurt with beets and mint and can be eaten with bread or rice. Dairy makes an appearance at the table for most Iranian meals - often in doogh (yogurt drink), and in dips such as this one. While beets originated in the Mediterranean, where they were popular for their leaves, they slowly made their way into diets around the world. Cultivated beet varieties likely made their way into the Persian empire via the Silk Road, with references to beets in Persian cuisine in the 14th century. Today, roasted beets are a beloved Iranian street food to be found on every corner in the colder months. The sour bite of yogurt cuts the sweetness of the beets, and contributes perfectly to the complexity of the flavors in this meal! (Contains dairy, walnuts; vegetarian, no gluten).
Shiraz, located in the southwestern province of Fars, is one of Iran’s most famous cities - known for its history of wine, flowers and poetry. It is the birthplace of Hafez, one of Iran’s most beloved and influential poets. His mausoleum (the Hafezieh) is located in the Musalla Gardens in Shiraz, and is one of the most visited sites in the country. The poetry of Hafez is often read or recited aloud on holidays, so feel free to elevate your meal with his poetry! Though it originated in Shiraz, this cucumber and tomato salad is a fairly common presence on the Persian table across the entire country. (Vegan, no gluten).
Havij va Pesteh Salad
Fresh carrots and mint define this bright salad, and while this isn’t a traditional Persian salad, it does demonstrate the many ways that fresh, crisp vegetables and nuts are incorporated into every Gilaki meal. Gilan Province is climatically suited for diverse agricultural production, and so its cuisine is characterized by fresh fruit, nuts, vegetables and herbs; indeed Iran is the number one producer of pistachios in the world. This salad is punctuated with the sour-sweet flavor of pomegranate molasses and toasted pistachios. (Contains pistachios; vegan, no gluten).
This dish - garlicky beans braised with turmeric, dill, and poached eggs - is also particularly representative of Gilaki cuisine. The sweet pickled garlic (seer torshi) that garnishes the dish is especially unique to northern Iran and Gilan Province. The eggs are also characteristic of Gilaki cuisine, where many families raise their own flock of hens, ducks, geese and turkeys - there is a saying “A broad bean stew without eggs, seven donkeys must be your guests!” It is traditionally served atop rice, though it can certainly be enjoyed on its own, or on a plate with many other dishes. (Contains egg; vegetarian, no gluten, no dairy).
Fesenjoon is a stew (khoresht) that beautifully melds the sweet-tart flavor of pomegranate molasses with the deep nuttiness of toasted walnuts and braised chicken to create a dish that has a depth of flavor far beyond the sum of its parts. As previously mentioned, this walnut-pomegranate pairing pervades Persian cuisine, but originated in Gilan Province; Gilaki fesenjoon is more sour than in other regions of Iran - Gilaki cooks never add sugar to this dish. Though pomegranates are cultivated throughout the country, walnuts are cultivated mainly in the mountainous regions, including Hamadan and East Azerbaijan provinces - both close to Gilan province. Fesenjoon is typical at weddings, festivities and celebrations, including Nowruz (the vernal equinox), and Yalda (the winter solstice). There is no shortage of mythology and symbolism surrounding the pomegranate. In Zoroastrian mythology, it represents the perfection of nature and the immortality of the soul. Iranian mythology tells of the hero Isfandiar, who became invincible after consuming the seeds of a pomegranate. The many seeds are often a symbol for prosperity and fertility. It is often served with rice and a pile of fresh herbs. You might taste golpar in this dish as well! (Contains walnuts; no gluten, no dairy).
A traditional Iranian meal does not have courses - the main dishes are set in the center of the sofreh (the tablecloth - spread either on a table or on the ground), and many smaller dishes of salads, herbs, dips and vegetables are arranged around the center. Regardless of what’s on the menu, rice is always at the center - especially in Gilan. The importance of rice (polo) in Persian cooking cannot be overstated - it is generally part of every meal in Iran, though in some regions outside of Gilan it has been replaced with bread. There are countless varieties and preparations of rice, though most preparations involve parboiling the rice, and then cooking it with very little liquid on the stovetop to create a golden crust (tahdig) at the bottom of the pan. The tahdig can be simply rice, or lavash bread, or - as in this preparation - thinly sliced potatoes. The tahdig is often the most celebrated component of the dish, eliciting “ooh”s and “ahh”s when the anxious cook flips a rice dish with an intact tahdig onto a serving platter. The “jewels” in this rice are barberries - a tart, tiny berry that turns a juicy red color in this dish, and is common to Persian cuisine. Also noteworthy in this dish is the aroma, flavor and vibrant yellow color of saffron. Iran is by far the world’s leading producer of saffron, and it is almost always an ingredient in rice dishes. (Contains dairy, almonds, pistachios; vegetarian, no gluten).
Iranian culture doesn’t actually include sweets after a meal; rather, a meal finishes with fresh fruit and tea. However, Iranians do consume sweets throughout the day with their tea, so feel free to eat this any time! This rice-based orange blossom pudding is drizzled with a syrup of dates, honey, and cinnamon, and topped with pistachios just before eating. While orange blossom water was prized in imperial courts as a perfume, it is now used in many Persian sweets and pastries, and lends a floral note to beverages as well. Dates have been important to Middle Eastern cuisine for thousands of years, and the date palm is revered in Iran, where people will talk to their date palms, and even hold funerals for them. Date palm cultivation is thought to date back to 5000 BCE in Mesopotamia, though it became more widespread around 3000 BCE in Iran. Just fifteen dates per day provide enough calories and nutrients for human survival! (Contains dairy, pistachios; vegetarian, no gluten).
Gilan Province, Iran
Iran was known until fairly recently as “Persia” in the western world. While not all people of Persian ethnicity are from Iran, and not all Iranians are ethnically Persian, “Iranian” and “Persian” are often used interchangeably when it comes to cuisine. While this can be confusing at times, we are talking about the cuisine and culture of one of the world’s oldest continuous major civilizations; Iran is home to historical settlements dating back to 7000 BCE. The Persian Empire historically encompassed a geographic area much greater than modern-day Iran, and thus Persian food has influences far beyond Iran’s current borders; there are influences from many nearby regions including Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Russia. The ancient Persian Empire encompassed a sweeping area of land extending from Asia Minor to India, and includes modern-day Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Persian Royal Road - traversing from what is now northern Iran to modern-day Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea - was first established as a courier route in the 5th century BCE, and eventually expanded into the vast trade network that became known as the Silk Routes. Several routes of the Silk Road passed directly through the heart of the Persian Empire, and centuries of trade along those routes had a deep influence in Iranian history, culture, and cuisine. Spices, nuts and fruits were among the highly trafficked commodities on the Silk Routes, and Persia was a great source of all of these - notably walnuts, pomegranates, and saffron.
Iran has several geographically diverse regions - defined by mountain ranges and intervening plateaus, and by proximity to the sea - and these regions have distinct culinary traditions. This menu mainly features the food of the Gilan Province, in the northwest of Iran on the Caspian Sea. Food from the Caspian region of Iran typically includes lots of garlic, fresh herbs, and what Yasmin Kahn calls “...one of the country’s most majestic food pairings - ground walnuts and pomegranate.” The Gilan Province is one of mountains and forests and streams, and a subtropical climate. Regional dishes often include olives, fresh herbs and fruit, eggplant, beans, fish, and - as mentioned previously - lots of garlic! There are, however, many common ingredients and flavors across Iran, with rice topping the list. Some of the other ingredients you’ll find in Gilaki cuisine include saffron, turmeric, rosewater, citrus, nuts, and pomegranate. Gilaki cuisine is often characterized as “green” - a reference to the quantities of herbs and vegetables that go into every meal. Another common descriptor of Gilaki food is “sour” - sugar is not added to most dishes, and many dishes include very sour components such as pomegranate, sour yogurt, vinegar, barberry, citrus, or sour cherry. A typical meal includes rice or bread, lots of fresh herbs and salads, yogurt or cheese, and a meat or fish dish.
There is no simple way to summarize Iranian history and politics - in part because the history is so very lengthy, but largely because there is so much ebb and flow in the powers and influences that have shaped Iranian culture over time. To say that its historic and current political situation is fraught would be a vast understatement. Given that, it would be a disservice to try to summarize it here - we are including some excellent links in the resources section if you would like to delve into this topic; we highly recommend it, as it is a fascinating case study on colonial greed, corporate manipulation, and dangerous rhetoric. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (when Iran became an Islamic Republic and the Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the country), Iran has been locked in a difficult and tense political relationship with the United States. The political narrative that we often get in our newsfeed obscures the rich culture of Iran, and the reality of its people. Iranian hospitality knows no bounds. Ta’arof is the Iranian practice of overwhelming hospitality and generosity - no kindness is spared for visitors and guests.
Nowruz (the holiday marking the beginning of the Persian new year) is a time for such hospitality to emerge in full force. The first day of Nowruz would almost certainly be the occasion for a great mehmooni - a party with many guests - in any Iranian household. This menu approximates one that would be served on that first day of Nowruz, though it's a bit belated, as this year Nowruz began on March 20, and continued for the following thirteen days (this Nowruz Google doodle was published to mark the date!). “Nowruz” literally translates to “new day”, and it marks the vernal equinox. It’s not a religious holiday - it is a celebration of spring and new beginnings, and the Nowruz meal has many elements that symbolize freshness and regeneration. Nowruz is a time of reconciliation and rejuvenation - celebrating, feasting and family. It is often a good time to scrub the house from top to bottom, though you needn't go that far to enjoy this dinner! Millions of people around the world celebrate this holiday, and it far predates the arrival of Islam in Iran. It is, in fact, an ancient Zoroastrian holiday - celebrated for over 2500 years - and is celebrated by Muslims, Jews, Christians and others to celebrate the arrival of spring.
Since Iran is a Muslim country, we will not make an alcoholic beverage pairing suggestion for this menu, but most meals are enjoyed with doogh (a cool, salty, and sour yogurt drink) or weak tea. A readily available beverage to enjoy with this meal would be pomegranate juice!
Noosh-e jan! (May it be sweet for your soul!)
Featured Recipe: Havij va Pesteh Salad
Makes 4 servings
¾ lbs carrots, peeled and grated
17g mint leaves, finely chopped (roughly a handful of mint)
17g parsley leaves and tender stems, finely chopped (roughly a handful of parsley)
2 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp pomegranate molasses (available at most grocery stores like Sparrow’s, Whole Foods, etc.)
½ tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
2.5 tbsp pistachio, roughly chopped
Combine the carrots, mint and parsley in a large bowl
Make the dressing in a small bowl by whisking the lemon juice, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, salt, and pepper together. Pour the dressing over the carrots and stir well. Taste and adjust.
Toast the pistachios in a small pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Sprinkle into the salad
Recipes Inspired By:
Yasmin Khan’s brilliant cookbook The Saffron Tales is one of my personal all-time favorite cookbooks!
I was lucky enough to see Anissa Helou debut her cookbook Feast: Food of the Islamic World at the 2019 Islamabad Literary Festival. She’s a culinary powerhouse and this book is a spectacular resource for anyone cooking food from the Islamic diaspora, from Morocco to Indonesia!
Check out Homa’s amazing Persian Mama blog!
As always, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown
More on Nowruz.
More on Zoroastrianism here
A deep dive into ancient Persian history, in podcast form.
A sampling of the poetry of Hafez; you can read it yourself, or listen to it in English or Farsi.
Aladdin’s Market is a fantastic store here in Ann Arbor to source ingredients from all over the Middle East
Four Days in August, an overview of the 1953 CIA backed coup in Iran, from NPR’s Throughline