The most important tip I can give you on Iran  local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Iran, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.

What to Eat in Iran

Meal times in Iran vary considerably from those in Europe and the US. Lunch can be served from 12PM-3PM. and dinner is often eaten after 8PM. These and other social occasions in Iran are often long, drawn-out affairs conducted in a relatively relaxed tempo, often involving pastries, fruit and possibly nuts. As it is considered rude to refuse what is served, visitors should accept the items offered, even if they do not intend to consume them. The importation and consumption of alcohol is strictly banned. Penalties are severe. Religious minorities, however, are allowed to manufacture and consume alcohol, but not to sell or import it. Pork and pork products are forbidden and, like alcohol, their import is illegal. The good news for travellers is that Iranian cuisine is superb. A wide range of influences from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia, Europe and the Middle East have created a diverse, relatively healthy range of dishes that focus on fresh produce and aromatic herbs.

The bad news, however, is that Iranians prefer to eat at home, rather than in restaurants, so decent eateries are scarce and stick to a repetitive selection of dishes (mainly kebabs). An invitation to an Iranian home for dinner will be a definite highlight of your stay. When visiting an Iranian household for the first time or on a special occasion it is customary for Iranians to bring a small gift. Flowers, sweets or pastries are popular gift choices. Traditional cuisine Fragrant rice (????, berenj) is the staple of Iranian food. Boiled and then steamed, it is often coloured with saffron or flavoured with a variety of spices. When served plain as an accompaniment it is known as chelo (???). The two most common meat / chelo combinations are kebab variations (chelo kab?b, ??? ????) or rotisserie chicken (chelo morgh, ??? ???).

Flavoured rice, known as polo, is often served as a main course or as an accompaniment to a meat dish. Examples include shirin polo flavoured with orange zest, young cherries and honey glazed carrots, the broad-bean and herb heavy b?ghli polo and sabzi polo laced with parsley, dill and mint. The ubiquitous Persian Kabab is often served with both plain rice and a special (yellow cake) rice called tah-chin. The rice and kebab dish chelo kab?b (??? ????) and its half-dozen variations are the most common (and often the only) items on Iranian restaurant menus. A grilled skewer of meat is served on a bed of fluffy rice, and accompanied by an array of condiments. You can add butter, grilled tomatoes and a sour spice known as som?gh to your rice, while some restaurants also provide a raw egg yolk.

Raw onion and fresh basil are used to clear your palate between mouthfuls. Variations in kab?b dishes come from the meats they are served with. You will commonly see: Kab?b koobideh (???? ??????) – a kebab of minced beef, shredded onion and spices. Kab?b barg (???? ???) – pieces of lamb marinated in lemon juice and shredded onion. Kab?b makhsoos (???? ?????) – usually the most expensive option, this big kebab uses the highest quality meat. Joojeh kab?b (???? ????) – a skewer of chicken pieces marinated in lemon juice and saffron. Kab?b bakhti?ri (???? ?????????) – great for the indecisive eater, this is a skewer of alternating chicken and lamb pieces. At home people most often eat rice with a thick stew (khoresht, ?????) containing a modest amount of meat.

There are dozens of khoresht variations such as the sweet and sour fessenj?n made from ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup, ghormeh-sabzi based on fresh herbs, dried limes and kidney beans, gheimeh flavoured with split-peas and often garnished with French fries, and the sweet sib-?loo which uses apples and plums. Hearty Iranian soups (?sh, ??) are meals in themselves. The most popular is the vegetarian ?sh reshteh (?? ????) made from herbs, chickpeas and thick noodles, and garnished with yoghurt and fried onions. Flat bread (n?n, ???) is another pillar of Iranian food. It is served at breakfast with herbs, feta cheese and a variety of jams, or as an accompaniment to meals. Sangak (????) is a dimpled variety cooked on a pebbled oven while lav?sh (????) is a thin and bland staple.

Iran Foods photo

Photo by blondinrikard

International cuisine There are several good international restaurants which offer Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French food as well as vegetarian menus in Tehran and other major cities. Fast food and snacks A common fast food venue in Iran Most food outlets in Iran are either kab?bis or fast food outlets serving a standard fare of burgers, sandwiches, felafels or pizza (?????). A burger and a soft drink at a snack shop will fill you up at lunchtime for around IR 60,000, while pizzas start at IR 70,000. Many teahouses (see Drink below) also serve traditional snacks and light meals. The most common of these is ?bgusht (??????) a hot pot made from lamb, chickpeas and dried limes that is also known as dizi, also the name of the dish in which its served. You will be given a bowl (the dizi) containing the ?bgusht and another, smaller one. Drain the broth into the smaller bowl and eat it like a soup with the bread provided. Then pound the remaining meat and vegetables into a paste with the pestle provided and eat with even more bread, pieces raw onion and wads of fresh herbs.

KFC is also available in Iran, known as BFC or SFC. Sweets and desserts The never ending demand for dentists in Iran lies testament to the country’s obsession with sweets and pastries, known collectively as shirini (??????). Iranian baghlava tends to be harder and more crystalline than its Turkish equivalent while the pistachio noughat called gaz (??) is an Isfahan speciality. Sohan is a rich pistachio brittle popular in Qom, and freshly-baked pastries are often taken as gifts to people’s houses. Lav?shak fruit leathers are delicious fruit leathers made from dried plums. Honey-saffron and pistachio are just two local flavours of ice cream, while f?loodeh (??????) is a deliciously refreshing sorbet made from rosewater and vermicelli noodles made from starch, served with lashings of lemon juice.

Special needs Given that most travellers are stuck eating kebabs for much of their trip, vegetarians will have a particularly difficult time in Iran. Most snack shops sell felafels (?????) and garden salads (s?l?d-e-fassl, ????? ???) and greengrocers are common. Most ash varieties are meat-free and filling, as are most variations of kookoo (????), the Iranian take on the frittata. The phrases man giaa-khaar hastam (I am vegetarian) and bedoon-e goosht (without meat) will come in handy. It’s a safe bet that all food in Iran is halal (????, ?al?l, halaal) and will conform with Islamic dietary laws as specified in the Qur’an, however those seeking a strict kosher diet may have to concentrate their efforts in the districts with higher numbers of Jewish inhabitants. If in Tehran look in areas such as older parts in the south of the city, like Udlajan or the Yusef Abad neighbourhood.

What to Drink in Iran

Black Tea (ch?i, ???) is the national drink of Iran. It is served strong and with crystallised or cubed sugar (ghand, ???) which is held artfully between the teeth while tea is sipped through. You can try asking for milk in your tea, but expect nothing but strange looks or a big delay in return. Tea houses (ch?i kh?neh, ??? ????) are a favourite local haunt for men (and less commonly families) to drink tea and puff away on a water pipe. Coffee (ghahveh, ????) is not as popular as tea. Where available, it is served Turkish style, French coffee or espresso. Imported instant coffee (nesc?ffe, ??????) and instant Cappuccino are available also. Coffee shops (called “coffeeshop” in Persian, versus “ghaveh-khane” (literally, coffee house) which instead means a tea house) are more popular in affluent and young areas.

Fruit juices (?b miveh, ?? ????) are available from shops and street vendors. Also available are cherry cordial (sharbat ?lb?loo, ???? ??????) and banana milkshakes (shir moz, ??? ???). Soft drinks are widely available. International products such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and their brand names including 7up, Sprite and Fanta have sold alongside local brands such as Zam Zam Cola ( ?? ?? ???? , Zam Zam Kola). The local cola has a taste not unlike “Coca-Cola Original” or “Pepsi Original”. Both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo’s concentrates entered Iran via Irish subsidiaries and circumvented the US trade embargoes. Ironically ZamZam was originally launched in 1954 as a subsidiary of the Pepsi Cola company.

As an intriguing outcome of the Iranian cola wars the real coke was generally sold in plastic bottles and the non-genuine coke, using a substitute syrup devised to overcome earlier Clinton era US imposed embargoes, was distributed in the real thing bottles that the then syrup-less bottler was left stuck with at the time. Doogh11222.jpg Doogh (???) is a sour drink made from yoghurt, salt, and water (sometimes gaseous) and sometimes flavoured with mint or other plants. It takes some getting used to, but will rehydrate you quickly in the heat of Iran’s summer. It is the same as Turkish Ayran. It can be purchased at almost any establishment and is often consumed in the afternoon while eating kababs. It comes in two main varieties fizzy (gaz-daar) and non-fizzy (bigaz).

Alcohol is illegal to drink for Muslims only, and if seen by police may be met with punishment. Therefore, you will rarely find places in Iran that openly sells alcohol. However it is legal for Non-Muslims to produce alcohol for their consumption. Drinking is, however, common among some people, especially during parties and weddings, and is officially tolerated for use among the small Christian and Jewish communities but only for religious purposes (e.g., wine for holy communion). There is no set legal drinking/purchasing age for Non-Muslims. The Iranian Government allows Non-Muslims to bring alcoholic beverages into the country.

Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.