Food is part of each nation’s life and culture. You will find a variety of different local dishes in Iran when you travel across the country. As the climate is different in humid areas of the Caspian Sea, as it’s hot and arid in central deserts, as cold winter time up in the Zagros mountains creates extremely cold days and as hot summer days at Persian Gulf makes you feel over-heated, Iranian cuisine isn’t a simple one to define and present.
Western style restaurants in big cities like Tehran may offer a wider variety of food whereas you will discover there’s not the same diversity in the type of dishes at other restaurants while traveling in Iran. Of course, what I’m going to explain here is an overview of what you generally find in Iranian restaurants inside the country.
What’s out There in the Restaurants?
Typically, most of the restaurants present a menu including starters, main courses, deserts and drinks. The items in each one could be as below:
1) Starter in Iranian Restaurants’ Menus:
Written or not, Barley Soup is almost always there, but they cook it in different ways. Sometimes, they add tomatoes to it and sometimes they add milk. Tastes are also different depending on various spices they add to it. You would love to start your meal with one such dish specially if it’s a bit cold out there. Tomato soup, vermicelli-like soup, etc are also available in some places.
Season Salad or Cabbage Salad is another item in starter section of your Iranian food menus. It’s something they serve with some chef-made dressing, mostly rich in mayonnaise. Factory-made lime juice (tastes like everything but lime juice!) and sometimes olive oil are there with it as well. IF olive oil is available, you won’t expect a very nice-quality one.
Yogurt (with or without shallot) is another item at Iranian restaurants’ menus as starter. If they serve some dripped yogurt, I would recommend you not to miss it. As you know yogurt is a very helpful foodstuff to have in a foreign country as it prevent diarrhea. At the first days, as your intestines’ bacteria are different from the local people’s, you would want to order some yogurt rather than salad.
2) Main Course in Iranian Restaurants’ Menus:
Kebab is the BIG thing in Iran, not because I love it (I’m a vegetarian!), but as it is the first word you hear from any restaurant waiters. “What have you got?”, you ask him. The answer is,”lamb kebab, chiken kebab, beef kebab, shish kebab, mixed kebab, etc”. Sometimes, they go further and offer dishes like Caucasian kebab, Greek kebab, etc. Don’t expect non-Halal types of meat like pork that Islam forbids for Muslims. They’re not available in Iranian restaurants.
Stew, if available, will be something you must have as they are less often serveed in Iranian restaurants. People usually make them and eat them at home. Instead, when they eat out, they’d rather some grilled food that’s not easy to make at apartments!
Rice is a main thing in Iranian cuisine. The cooked rice is called polo, which has got nothing to do with playing Polo! There are different combinations of rice with other ingredients that make Iranian dishes like:
- Zereshk Polo: rice with saffron, barberries, and chicken.
- Baqali Polo: rice with herbs, broad beans and lamb shank or chicken.
- Sabzi Polo: rice with herbs and fish
- Albaloo Polo: rice with sour cherries and chicken
- Shirain Polo: rice with saffron, orange skin and chicken
- Lubia Polo: rice with green beans and lamb pieces
- Adas Polo: rice with lentils and lamb pieces
- and some other ones.
Fish is another food served with or without rice. The types of fish available in Iranian restaurants in Iran are either from farms like trout fish (found in most of the restaurants) or from the bodies of water at the North (Caspian Sea) or South (Persian Gulf). The sturgeon isn’t something you could find everywhere, but if you happen to see it on the menu of a nice restaurants, go for it! The large fish from the Persian gulf (fried or grilled) has got only a backbone and is delicious if cooked well.
3) Desert in Iranian Restaurants’ Menus
Having a large variety of deserts cannot be seen at Iranian restaurants’ menus. People tend to have a cup of tea at home in Iran. When they eat out, they have deserts like:
- Traditional Ice Cream
- Instant Coffee
Let’s not forget that many of Iranian restaurants don’t even have the first two items, but some other ones (particularly in the hotels) have them. Now, go to some trendy restaurants and find a whole series of different desert dishes. What I’m trying to introduce here is just the general items on the restaurants when you’re traveling in Iran.
4) Drinks in Iranian Restaurants:
Local cola drink factories started to produce Iranian drinks in Iran after 1979 revolution. Today Zam Zam is exported to tens of countries. However, they are not the only soft drinks you may try.
Soda drinks like Coke, Pepsi, Sprite, etc can be found at the menus if you go to the restaurants a level higher. This could be a surprise as you may ask yourself, “what are they doing here?”
Yogurt drink, Dough, is a combination of yogurt, water, salt and sometimes some herbs. Some of them are fizzy too. It’s refreshing and something new to some people. You want to try it.
Bottled water is another drink, that you may want to carry with you almost everywhere you go specially during your trip in relatively hot weather. The carbonated version is rarely found in Iran. This is THE drink that I recommend you to have instead of the tap water during your visit to Iran. It’s becoming popular in Iran these days as well. 10 years ago, this was not the case.
Fast Food Restaurants in Iran
As this is some international concept that you could find almost everywhere in the world, I found nothing special about them to introduce here at this post. However, one point may be interesting to you: the international chains like King Burger, McDonald, etc are not found in Iran. Yet, you may find the same style in Iranian names. The items at menus of such restaurants are similar to those of the famous brands.
Places to Have Hot Drinks
Regarding the drinks, I should add that, likewise, Coffee Bean, Starbucks, etc are not present in Iran. The reason isn’t the non-popularity of coffee in Iran as recently young people have started going more and more to coffee shops asking for good coffee – real ones made with machines, not instant ones!
Tea Houses are the traditional shops where only black tea is served. Some people go to these places inside bazaars to smoke some water pipe afterward too.
Note: one traditional dish is also served in tea houses called “Dizi” or “Abgusht”. It’s a mixture of lamb, potatoes, beans, peas, spices, etc. To eat this dish, you cannot simply take fork and knife and begin. it requires a whole new post to explain. I may do that some day.