Many say it was the Persians who turned the cooking of rice into an art form.
The most prized layer of their national dish is the tahdeeg, or buttery crust, which is made by allowing a layer of parboiled basmati rice to mix with a thick chunk of melted clarified butter before layering up rice with jewelled shards of pistachio, orange zest and barberries and placing a tea towel under the lid as the rice gently steams. The resulting dish is special enough to eat on its own, but it is even more spectacular when it is served with a traditional khoresh or stew. It could be lamb and aubergine (known as the potato of Iran) or chicken and apricot, but it will always have a background flavour of dried lime powder. Dried mint is also widely used.
Iran is a vast country with plenty of regional specialities, but people from Bam to Tehran will whet their appetite with sabzi khordan. This is a combination of abundant chopped fresh herbs, chunks of feta-style cheese and radishes. They will also serve a flatbread called lavash, which tends be more popular than rice in the south of the country.
Saffron and cinnamon are widely-used to balance flavours in the many rice and meat dishes. Like other countries in the Middle East, the kebab is a central part of the national cuisine. In Iran’s case, the kebab consisted of roasted meat served with white rice and is called chelow kabob.
Kaleh pacheh, which is a dish of sheep’s brains and hooves, may be something of an acquired taste, but everyone loves pomegranate soup – known as ash-e anar. Dolmas, or stuffed vine, leaves are popular too.
The country is rich in fruit and vegetables and every table will have a bowl of fruit for mealtimes. Verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes) and pomegranate molasses are two staple ingredients in many courses. Their sweet tooth is satisfied with superb dates, various pastries doused with sugar syrup and filled with nuts, cookies and rosewater and cardamom-scented ice cream. Rice flour is preferred to wheat.
Iran is a predominantly Shia Muslim country, which means drinks tend to be non-alcoholic sherbets, fruit and vegetable juices and salted yoghurts.
It is tea and not coffee which is the preferred hot drink. It is called chai. Preparations vary but it is always served before and after lunch and dinner. Hospitality is incredibly important in Iran, and any visitor will always be fed with the best of what is available.