The Persian Pantry
A well-stocked and well-organized pantry is the heart of the kitchen in many if not all cuisines. It is also the gateway to exploring and experimenting with new flavors, ingredients, and dishes. Cooking is simply more efficient and more enjoyable when the necessary ingredients are readily accessible.
Persian cuisine is no exception to this global rule. Persian cooking is sometimes compared to weaving a Persian rug: they both have richness and complexity of color, texture, balance, design, patience, and most of all love! Full of flavor and aroma but rarely spicy, Persian food is a delicate blending of fresh and dried ingredients to create rich and subtle flavors. Dishes often showcase a playful yet well-balanced dance of sweet and sour elements. Sour often takes center stage, with bitter, sweet, and salt as supporting elements.
Food is a significant component of Persian culture, and meals are served family-style. You can anticipate large quantities of exceptionally light and fluffy basmati rice with much-coveted crispy bits on the bottom, called Tahdig. This is layered with vegetables or herbs, or paired with meticulously prepared and patiently simmered stews. Saffron, tomatoes, or large quantities of herbs are the foundation of Persian stews and offer a platform to showcase various vegetables and meats.
Also, kebabs of beef, lamb or chicken are true Iranian favorites, and bundles of fresh herbs, yogurts, salads, pickled vegetables, and bread are present at every meal.
With all of these components, setting up a Persian pantry might seem a little intimidating at first. However, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn that you already have some of these ingredients. Most of them are readily available in your local supermarket’s “international” or “ethnic” section. Some of the lesser-known items can be found at your local Persian or Middle Eastern market or ordered online.
Oils and Fats
Vegetable oil (Roghan): Neutrally-flavored vegetable oils such as safflower or sunflower are frequently used for routine sauteeing and frying of meat and vegetables.
Olive oil (Roghan Zeitoon): A preferred choice for dressings or to impart additional flavor over spreads or cooked beans as appetizers.
Ghee (Roghan Heyvani): A highly prized saturated fat with a distinctive nutty flavor and aroma. This has historically been an essential part of Persian cuisine, both in savory and sweet applications. The most well-known Roghan Heyvani is from the city of Kermanshah in the west of Iran, and is commonly referred to as Roghan Kermanshahi.
This section gets particular attention in the Persian pantry, given the significant role that sour elements play in the cuisine.
Vinegar (Serkeh): A range of vinegars including distilled, red and white wine, and apple cider varieties.
Fruit Acids: While they are not pantry items and will need to be stored in the refrigerator, these are the other heavy lifters that are always on hand to give complex Persian stews a special punch of flavor. Seville oranges (Ab Narenji), limes (Limu Torsh), or lemons (Ab Limu) can be freshly-squeezed or purchased as bottled juice. Verjuice or verjus (Ab Ghooreh), unripe sour grape juice, is available bottled in many Middle Eastern markets.
Spices and Herbs
It will perhaps be no surprise to find that a Persian pantry is well-equipped with a carnival of spices! They range from sweet and aromatic to earthy and deep, in colors from dark to bright, reminiscent of the colors of the sun and sunrise. Frequently, sweetly-scented spices are layered into savory dishes.
Advieh: A spice mix that is traditionally highly specific to regions and even to individual families, based on the availability of local and regional spices. Advieh can be purchased pre-mixed, or made to your own taste from any combination of cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger, allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, rose petals, and chili pepper flakes.
Saffron: The crown prince of all spices in Persian cuisine is the deep red stigmas of the crocus flower. It imparts a uniquely bright golden yellow color and offers an unmistakable sweet and floral scent. Saffron is always ground into a fine powder and bloomed with a small amount of water, and is typically added towards the end of the cooking process in order to maintain its aromatic and visual qualities.
Rose petals: Highly aromatic, and in shades of bright pink to deep crimson, these are used as an aromatic or a garnish in baked goods. They are also ground up into a fine powder and used in conjunction with other spices in savory dishes to develop a signature playful flavor profile.
Sumac: These are the ground-up dried berries from the sumac bush. Deep burgundy in color, sumac has a tart, lemony taste and scent, and is traditionally sprinkled over grilled kebabs or as an ingredient in soups and dressings. Sumac’s unique flavor brightens and adds a depth of flavor to any dish.
Persian hogweed (Golpar): Small pods that are intensely aromatic with a slightly bitter taste that are ground up to a fine powder and used as a topping for stews, spreads, and cooked beans. Sprinkling a small amount on fresh fruit evokes an enticingly amusing flavor mash-up.
Dried herbs (Sabzi): Unlike their counterparts in western cuisines, dried herbs are used in vast quantities as a main ingredient, and without any assumptions of inferiority. Different combinations and ratios of dried herbs are combined to prepare various rice and egg dishes, soups, and stews to establish a depth of flavors that is unmatched by fresh herbs. Mint and dill are the powerhouse herbs, while parsley, cilantro, basil, fenugreek leaves, chives, tarragon, and savory each lend their own unique flavors to the herb mixtures.
Rosewater and orange blossom water: These distilled floral liquids can be quite strong, and are used much like vanilla and other extracts in western cultures. They are primarily used in baking, but sometimes in small quantities in savory dishes to bring a playful floral aroma to the stews.
Pickled vegetables (Torshi): An essential condiment that accompanies many stews and rice dishes. While there is a long list of pickled vegetables, fire-roasted eggplant with herbs and spices is the most popular of the bunch.
Persian dried limes (Limu Omani): A small variety of limes that are simmered in brine before being left out to dry in the sun. The lengthy drying process develops an unmatched flavor that is deeply citrusy and tart, yet musky and earthy. While their dark brown to black pebbly skin can be intimidating, they offer a flavor that is truly unique and different from fresh limes. They can be purchased whole or ground into a fine powder.
Fermented whey sauce (Kashk): The product of yogurt that is gently cooked down with salt to form a thick paste, sold either as a sauce in sealed jars or dried as a fine powder. Kashk offers an umami-packed creamy touch that is significantly more intense and saltier than sour cream.
Pomegranate paste/molasses (Robe Anar): A highly concentrated form of fresh pomegranate juice that is simmered down to form a paste. When added to soups, stews, and spreads, it imparts a deep shade of maroon and exceptionally tart and sweet flavors.
Tamarind paste (Tambr Hendi): An intensely tart flavored product of cooked tamarind pods that are used in rice, stews, and soups for its uniquely powerful sour flavor.
Jams (Morabah): An essential accompaniment to the Persian breakfast table, while also sometimes layered into complex rice dishes to impart a lightly sweetened and fruity flavor. Sour cherry, orange peel, quince, carrot, and orange blossom jams are amongst the favorites.
Rice (Berenj): With dozens of varieties of rice grown in northern Iran, white basmati rice tends to be a favorite for its light texture and nutty flavor. Rice is commonly served for lunch and dinner, with cooking techniques that can be anything from simple to highly complex.
Grains: Barley, kamut, and wheat, utilized as whole grains or flour, are readily available for baked flatbreads or breakfast porridges.
Legumes (Hububat): Lentils, yellow split peas, and mung, fava, pinto, kidney, or garbanzo beans are typically layered into rice dishes or cooked in stews and soups.
Noodles (Reshteh): Made of wheat flour, and resembling linguine, they are sometimes toasted and integrated into rice or hearty stews.
Barberries (Zereshk): Exceptionally tart, bright red berries from the barberry bush offer a uniquely sharp flavor to rice, stews, or Iranian-style frittata (Kuku) dishes. Infused with saffron, lightly sweetened with sugar, and matched with emerald green slivered pistachios, barberries bejewel rice dishes.
Dried fruits: Persian golden plums (Aloo Bokhara), prunes, dates, raisins, apricots, and figs bring playful sweet and tart flavors to meat stews.
Nuts: Pistachios, almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts, whole or ground, are a mainstay in baked goods and meat patties, and as toppings for rice and stews.
Tomatoes: Whole, diced, in sauce, or as paste, tomatoes take pride of place in a significant number of Persian stews and rice dishes to enhance the color and bring a depth of flavor.
Canned beans: Canned garbanzo, kidney, pinto, and white navy beans expedite the otherwise time-consuming cooking process for stews, soups, and rice dishes.
Small mortar and pestle: Primarily used to grind the saffron threads into a fine powder or to grind whole spices to create the Persian spice mixture known as Advieh.
Food processor: Expedites the processing of the vast amounts of herbs used in Persian cuisine.
Meat grinder: While not a necessity, most Persian homes are equipped with a meat grinder to develop the delicate blend of herbs, nuts, and meat to form meat patties.
Persian rice cookers: Uniquely designed rice cookers that are geared to create light and fluffy rice pilaf with the crispy bottom called Tahdig. Persian rice cookers are different from other types.
Metal skewers: Typically about 2 feet long, flat, and up to 1 inch wide, specifically designed for grilling kebabs over charcoal grills.