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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Iran

WARNING: International disputes with Iran are ongoing, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Iranian Food - Saffron rice
Saffron rice

The land that Iran today occupies is quite fertile and a large number of fruits and vegetables are readily available to the people today and in the past. In addition to these foods, animals were also present so the historic diet of the Persians was substantially varied.

Among the many fruits and vegetables grown in Iran are dates, onions, garlic, pomegranate, figs, eggplant, spinach, beans, and more. There are also numerous grains like wheat and rice and animals including sheep, chicken, and sea life in both the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Among others, sturgeon and caviar are present in the Caspian, while the Persian Gulf is home to grouper, mackerel, nagroor, shrimp, crab, and lobster and more.

Culinary Influences

There were few true culinary influences in Iran for much of the region's history as the numbers of foods and animals present were incredibly large. Additionally, most of the region's historic diet and local foods still form the base of the local diet and over time the greatest changes have been in the introduction of new spices, vegetables, and in some cases the introduction of entirely new dishes.

Through early history the greatest influences came with traders who brought new spices and foods. These foods came from all directions, but primarily from India, the Mediterranean, and to a lesser degree China. These traders arrived to both modern day Iran as well as to the region just north of there, along the historic Silk Road. The Silk Road had power centers in the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand (both in modern day Uzbekistan), but these cities were ruled by the Tajiks (who are ethnic Persians) at the time. The influence from this trade changed the cuisine of Iran, but not in the way many would expect. The base diet remained quite firm as few major or noticeable alterations were made to the diet; in fact the Persian base of bread, meat, and rice didn't change at all. However the addition of new spices forever altered the Persian diet in a very subtle way. The traders on the Silk Road and in modern day Iran left behind spices and foods that were mixed and integrated into the local cuisine giving it a unique flavor that survives to this day.

Although India and Iran share a number of spices, the people to the west had greater success in introducing whole dishes to Persian cuisine. For example, the Greeks and Turks brought yogurt, stuffed grape leaves (dolma), kebabs, and coffee while the Arabs brought a greater prevalence of figs and dates, around which new dishes were centered. Today the greatest outside influences that can be tasted are the spices from India and some dishes from Turkey.

In the past century the foods have changed slightly in Iran as politics has dictated what can and cannot be imported. In 1979 some foods from Europe and North America were imported in smaller numbers, but today there are no true embargoes on Iran and western-influenced foods are making a return. American fast food is growing in popularity as are American dishes like pizza, hamburgers, and fried chicken. Chinese and other Far Eastern foods as well as some European ethnic foods, like Italian are also growing in popularity. The one constant in all of these influences though is that they aren't really altering local foods, but are only adding new dishes as the traditional foods remain fairly unchanged.

Staple Foods

Bread: bread is fairly common, but it is a flat bread called nan
Rice: numerous styles exist, including basmati rice; often the rice are flavored with a spice like saffron and are served with most meals

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Dolma: fruits, meats, and/or vegetables with rice stuffed in grape leaves, but sometimes also served in peppers or tomatoes
Kebab: roasted lamb or chicken served with rice and vegetables in pita bread
Kofta: meatballs using Indian and Persian spices often served with rice and grilled vegetables
Rice Tah-chin: saffron rice topped with chicken

Dining Etiquette

When eating in the Muslim country of Iran there are a few etiquette rules you must know and follow (although some, like not eating pork or drinking alcohol won't be an issue as they are not available in Iran). If you get invited to dine with the local people in Iran the first thing you must know is to dress conservatively. As Muslims, it is considered rude and offensive to show too much skin; this includes any part of the legs and the arms from the elbows, or better yet the wrists, up. For women, their hair should also be covered, which brings us to rule number two.

Often times men dine only with men and women only with women so don't bring a guest of the opposite sex to any meal unless you are specifically invited to do so. In many restaurants there is a "Men Only" section and a "Family Section," in which women and men can dine together (there is no "Women's Only" section). In the home many people disregard this rule and will allow people of the opposite sex to dine together with little issue; just follow your host's lead.

If you dress appropriately and bring, or don't bring, the right guests you've already cleared two of the largest obstacles. Try to arrive on time for a meal and if eating in a local's home remove your shoes at the door if others have done so. Greet the elders first, but be sure to greet every person individually and shake their hands (although some conservative Muslims don't believe men and women should touch so wait for locals to extend their hand first if they are of the opposite sex). Let your host seat you and when sitting be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor or pointed behind you as pointing the soles of your feet at another can be offensive.

Once the food is served follow your host's lead he or she may invite everyone to begin eating at the same time or may request that either you or the elders be served first. Try a bit of everything offered as turning down food is rude.

Eat as the locals eat; in most settings this means eating in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left), although sometimes a knife is not present, in which case most locals will hold the spoon in their right hand and eat primarily from the spoon. No matter which utensil you hold in which hand, be sure to only bring food to your mouth with the utensil in your right hand. On some occasions and with some foods you may eat with your hand, but only touch your food with your right hand. Be sure to only take a small amount of food at first if served family style as you will certainly be offered a second and third helping. Turn down the first offer of a second helping, but on their insistence accept the offer. As you finish your food, leave a bit on your plate to show there was more than enough and place your fork and knife together in the 5:00 position.

If dining in a nice restaurant be sure to check the bill for a service charge. Most restaurants catered to tourists include a service charge that will replace the tip, but if no service charge is included and you're in a restaurant catered to tourists, leave a tip of about 10%. In other restaurants no tip is expected.

Celebrations & Events

The Persians love their food and after you taste it you most likely will as well. For nearly every festival or event in Iran, it is accompanied by a celebration of food; this includes birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, guests, and anything else one can think of. At any of these festivals you will be sure to have plenty of food offered and most meals finish with dessert as well.

The Iranian New Year takes place during the Spring Equinox and during this time foods are plentiful. Although there are no particular dishes that are universal served on this occasion, the event is sure to guarantee plenty of traditional Persian foods, including meats, rice, and desserts.

There are two major Muslim holidays in Iran associated with food, including Eid al Fitr, an event that takes place after Ramadan, a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. To celebrate the end of this fast, Eid al Fitr offers numerous foods, which differ from family to family and region to region, but generally consist of various meats as a base with multiple grains and vegetables.

The second major religious celebration associated with food is Eid al Adha, an event only celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. Again, this festival contains a large number of rice and meat dishes, including many of those served during Eid al Fitr.

Drinks

For some people Iran may seem isolated, but in reality the country is very in touch with the rest of the world and the availability of international drinks is easily accessible. In Iran you can find coffee, tea, milk, juices, and soft drinks, including many well-known international brands. Tea is one of the more popular drinks and if you want something more unique and local, Iran has options: doogh is a yogurt-based drink with mint and various flavors of sherbets are also common.

As a primarily Muslim country, Iran has no alcohol available and it should not be consumed or transported to the country. Drinking alcohol comes with a punishment of whipping.

The tap water is generally not safe to drink in Iran, but in most large cities it is considered safe to drink. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water, first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013