Iran is home to one of the world’s earliest cuisines, with a rich history of beautiful dishes that have remained popular and vital for generations. You may have seen glimpses of the classics via family and friend gatherings on Shahs of Sunset, and spotted crispy tahdig rice or sexy fesenjan chicken or the ghormeh sabzi stew that cast member Asa Soltan Rahmati lovingly makes for her partner Jermaine Jackson Jr. And you might have wondered what all this scrumptiousness might be called, and what it's all about.
We tapped chef Hoss Zaré, who melds traditional Iranian flavors with ideas from the Mediterranean at his San Francisco restaurant The Fly Trap, to guide us to the best dishes from his Iranian homeland. Look for them on a menu or a family dinner table near you.
Fesenjan is an exceptionally flavorful chicken stew cooked in a sauce made with walnuts and pomegranates (it's also sometimes seen on menus spelled as fesenjoon). “This is the dish you make if you want to win a girl,” says Zaré. “Even the name fesenjan sounds sexy when you say it.”
The golden crispy layer that forms at the bottom of an expertly cooked pot of rice in Iran is the “jewel of the ring,” says Zaré. That layer is so prized, it’s been known to never make it out of certain kitchens because it always gets gobbled up too fast. Tahdig can be made with the rice itself, or with bread, potatoes or even pasta—or a combination of these carby staples. Zaré recently wowed his family back home with plates of Instagram-worthy tahdig with whole salmon embedded inside for his first Persian New Year (Norooz) home in 30 years:
Zaré says that stews like abgoosht—a version that typically contains lamb, chickpeas and vegetables and is served with pickled vegetables (torshi), lavash bread and herbs—have always been very popular in Iran because they can feed large families for not a lot of money. They also help to fuel hospitality among friends and neighbors, who might invite each other over for dinner at the last minute. “There’s a saying that basically translates to ‘I’ll add more water,’ which means that they will add water to expand the dish so there’s enough for everyone,” he says. “And I just love that!”
Iranian cuisine balances a lot of cold and hot foods, with chilled yogurt soups being a popular choice as a counterpoint to heat. This is an easy, simple dish, but Zaré loves to offer it as a refined special at The Fly Trap.
Zaré is from Tabriz, where kufteh is a proud specialty: "These are our meatballs." They often contain herbs, rice, barberries and a blend of meats, but he has been known to stuff them with luxe inclusions like duck and foie gras at The Fly Trap. His sister just cooked him the beautiful example pictured above.
Romaine lettuce is just about the only type of salad green that most Iranians have access to, so the most popular salad is just a simple base of cucumber, tomato, onion and lemon juice; people might add their own signature flourishes at home. "It's on every Persian table," explains Zaré.
Breads like lavash, sangak and barbari are a big part of the Iranian diet. Lavash is great for dipping, and sangak is the best bread for rolling up makeshift burritos, but the bubbly barbari bread is the most substantial. Zaré has started using it as a clever base to make Iranian pizzas, which has been blowing people's minds back home, especially when he posts pictures of like the one above on social media.
Ghormeh Sabzi"It's the most popular stew," he says of ghormeh sabzi, a green stew of herbs and lamb that is an everyday fixture in Iran. The most popular version, from Tehran, usually includes kidney beans, while a Turkish variation tends to include fewer herbs and adds black eyed peas.
Kebabs have been a staple of Iranian cooking ever since they were basically invented by soldiers who used their swords to cook pieces of their hunted meat. Zaré suggests this more modern Azerbaijani version, which is often a lamb kebab fried in a pan and then baked instead of cooked on skewers; it's a delicious alternative that he calls an excellent "quickfire dish." Here's a recipe so you can try one at home.
Zaré calls faloodeh “the oldest frozen dessert known to man,” a sweet treat that has been said to pre-date Jesus by some 400 years. Today, there are endless variations on the refreshing dish, which often includes frozen vermicelli noodles, corn starch, and sorbet or shaved ice. Zaré loves adding sour cherry or other preserves, pistachios, and one ingredient that’s unique to his preparation at The Fly Trap: “I like to add a shot of tequila to mine,” he says, smiling.
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