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Speak / Lesson 59

Persian Food

In this lesson, we learn the language associated with one of the most important parts of Persian culture - food. We learn vocabulary for different Persian dishes, how to consume Persian food, and how to talk about it afterwards. This lesson might make you hungry, so make sure to have at least a little something to eat before listening to it!

Also, here are some links to some of our favorite Persian recipes and food blogs:

Najmieh Batmanglij's recipes are amazing.

Turmeric and Saffron is one of the best Persian food recipe blogs, with recipes for some of the foods we mentioned in the podcast.

Ariana Bundy has amazing videos with lots of delicious Persian recipes.


how are you?

Note: In Persian, as in many other languages, there is a formal and an informal way of speaking. We will be covering this in more detail in later lessons. For now, however, chetor-ee is the informal way of asking someone how they are, so it should only be used with people that you are familiar with. hālé shomā chetor-é is the formal expression for ‘how are you.’

Spelling note: In written Persian, words are not capitalized. For this reason, we do not capitalize Persian words written in phonetic English in the guides.


I’m well

Pronunciation tip: kh is one of two unique sounds in the Persian language that is not used in the English language. It should be repeated daily until mastered, as it is essential to successfully speak Persian. Listen to the podcast for more information on how to make the sound.

Persian English
salām hello
chetor-ee how are you?
khoobam I’m well
merci thank you
khayli very
khayli khoobam I’m very well
khoob neestam I’m not well
man me/I
bad neestam I’m not bad
ālee great
chetor-een? how are you? (formal)
hālé shomā chetor-é? how are you? (formal)
hālet chetor-é? how are you? (informal)
khoob-ee? are you well? (informal)
mamnoonam thank you
chetor peesh meeré? how’s it going?
ché khabar? what’s the news? (what’s up?)

Leyla: I can’t believe we’ve made it this far in the series without having an entire lesson devoted to one of my favorite parts of Persian culture - and that is the food. Now Matt, I know you know at this point how important food is in the Persian culture.

Matt: I’ve definitely gotten a good taste of Persian cuisine, both through Ladan’s cooking, and her mom's. Now that we live in Dallas, we’re invited over all the time for lunch or dinner with the family, which is always so amazing.

Leyla: Yes, a lot of social interactions in Persian culture revolve around an elaborate meal. What is your favorite?

Matt: Hm, it’s hard to choose, but I’d probably have to be a bit cliché and go with ghormeh sabzi.

Leyla: You’re right that is definitely cliché, but I might have to agree with you on that one. We’ve covered ghormeh sabzi in a previous lesson, but after kabobs, it’s one of the most iconic Persian meals. It literally means gourmet greens, and consists of amazing green herbs mixed with a little bit of stewing meat and kidney beans, and served on basmati rice.

So anyway, we’ve talked about it at length in context of being hosted, and the concept of ta’ārof, but not really about the food itself. So, we’re devoting this entire lesson to that one topic- food, or, in Persian, ghazā.

Matt: ghazā.

Leyla: The timing of this lesson is pretty good actually because I just completed two weeks of a complete education in Persian cooking with my ammé Mojdeh. She flew down from Canada so that we could work on a series of videos together showing the art of Persian cuisine. In this lesson, I’m going to share a bit of the knowledge I gained in those two weeks. Sorry if you haven’t had food yet - this lesson might make you hungry.

So to begin with - Persian cuisine is a bit different than some other traditional cuisines in that it’s not very heavy on spices. Think, for instance, about Indian food or Thai food or Mexican food - you can identify a lot of their dishes based on the spices that have been used. Iranian food is a lot more subtle than that, and relies more on the ingredients than on spices necessarily. That being said, there are two very important spices used in Persian cuisine that I’d like to point out. The first is saffron, or as we call it, zafaroon.

Matt: zafaroon.

Leyla: Now, if you’re not familiar with Persian cuisine, you still may have heard of this spice, because it’s the most expensive spice in the world. It’s incredibly labor intensive to gather, because it can only be done by hand by picking the zafaroon stem of the flower. Although saffron is used in other cuisines, such as in Spanish food, it comes from Iran, and the best saffron is grown in a specific region in Iran. In addition to having a really wonderful fragrance, zafaroon also has a beautiful reddish color. It’s used in many dishes, but most often it’s used on Persian rice. So when you see Persian rice with that rich yellow/orange color, that’s because it’s been mixed with zafaroon. So again, zafaroon.

Matt: zafaroon.

Leyla: It can also, of course, be pronounced zafarān.

Matt: zafarān.

Leyla: Great! So the second spice often used in Persian cuisine that’s becoming more common in the west is turmeric, or what we call zarchoobé.

Matt: zarchoobé.

Leyla: So zarchoobé also has a brilliant yellow color, and you have to be careful when you’re using it because it strongly colors anything it touches. So again, zarchoobé.

Matt: zarchoobé.

Leyla: zarchoobé is also used in basically every Persian dish, and it’s often introduced early in the cooking process when browning onions and introducing meat to the dish. It helps to take away the smell of meat from a dish, and also has so many health benefits, most notably its anti-inflammatory properties. So zarchoobé.

Matt: zarchoobé.

Leyla: So again we have zafaroon

Matt: zafaroon.

Leyla: …and zarchoobé.

Matt: zarchoobé.

Leyla: So what specific dishes do we have in Persian culture? I’d say the most common type of dish we have is polo va khoresh.

Matt: polo va khoresh.

Leyla: So polo, you should probably know, is the word for ‘rice’. polo.

Matt: polo.

Leyla: Great. And what is khoresh, Matt?

Matt: It’s the stew that goes on top of the polo.

Leyla: Exactly. So, you mentioned before that ghormeh sabzi is your favorite Iranian dish. So ghormeh sabzi is a type of khoresh. So the complete name for it is khoreshé ghormé sabzi.

Matt: khoreshé ghormé sabzi.

Leyla: So when you’re having khoreshé ghormé sabzi, it’s taken for granted that you will have it with rice, or polo.

Matt: polo.

Leyla: In Persian cuisine, polo usually refers to long grain white basmati rice, made beautifully fluffy, with a number of flakes colored by zafaroon. However, Matt, what’s the most important part of Perisan polo?

Matt: tahdeeg, of course!

Leyla: You got it, tahdeeg. If you’ve ever had Persian food, you know about tahdeeg. tahdeeg is definitely one of the highest forms of Persian art, and takes quite a bit of practice to truly master. But basically, it literally translates to ‘bottom of the pot’, and is the golden, crispy portion when making a pot of rice. Iranians purposely allow the bottom of the rice to burn slightly, creating this golden crust. I don’t know how to explain it better than that, but it’s basically everyone’s favorite part of Persian food, tahdeeg.

Matt: tahdeeg.

Leyla: There’s generally a fight for the tahdeeg, because there’s only a set amount of it. Usually, you pour some khoresh on top of the tahdeeg to get it a bit softer. tahdeeg doesn’t have to necessarily be crispy rice, however. You can also make it with a layer of potatoes at the bottom of the pot, or a layer of bread, or even greens like collard - although doing that requires a bit of advanced technique. In general, tahdeeg requires a little bit of effort, but it’s completely worth it, of course.

So again, so far, we’ve covered polo, khoresh and tahdeeg, three essential components of Persian cuisine. Let’s talk a little bit more about khoresh, and different types of khoresh. We already know khoreshé ghormé sabzi.

Matt: khoreshé ghormé sabzi.

Leyla: And that’s one of the most well known khoreshes. But there are many, many different types of khoresh. khoresh has a stewy kind of consistency, so it’s usually served in a bowl, and you pour it on top of rice. One thing to note here, and I didn’t know this was a thing until I was probably in my twenties, actually - Iranians use spoons at every meal, and that's their most common eating utensil. It wasn’t until my twenties that I realized that in the United States, people don’t really use spoons unless they’re eating a spoon-specific meal like soup. But not for us. We use a fork to scoop food into a spoon, and that how we eat it. So, the word for ‘spoon’ is ghāshogh.

Matt: ghāshogh.

Leyla: ‘Fork’ is changāl.

Matt: changāl.

Leyla: And ‘knife’ is kārd.

Matt: kārd.

Leyla: So again, the most common eating utensil is ghāshogh.

Matt: ghāshogh.

Leyla: Great!

So khoreshes have a stewy consistency, and they almost always consist of a lot of vegetables and a very small portion of meat. So you can see this in khoreshé ghormé sabzi - most of is it sabzi, or greens. There’s a very small portion of meat in there, but the meat is not the main ingredient. It’s just there to provide a little flavor and a little texture to the dish. Let’s talk about a couple other common khoreshes. There’s khoreshé fesenjoon.

Matt: khoreshé fesenjoon.

Leyla: And this is also a very flavorful and common Persian dish. fesenjoon consists of a bit of chicken in a very rich and thick sauce made of pomegranates and walnuts. It’s commonly eaten in the fall, when pomegranates, or anār, are in season. So again, that’s fesenjoon.

Matt: fesenjoon.

Leyla: There’s so many other khoreshes, but those are two of my favorites. Any others you think we have to add in there Matt?

Matt: Well, those are two of my favorites also, but I’d also add khoreshé bādemjoon.

Leyla: Oooh, of course, khoreshé bādemjoon, or eggplant stew. This one consists of, you guessed it, eggplant, tomato, and a little bit of stewing meat. So, khoreshé bādemjoon.

Matt: khoreshé bādemjoon.

Leyla: And now moving on to another really important food group, and that is of Persian kabobs. So we all know what a kabob is - grilled meat. This is another extremely common food in Persian culture. Kabob literally means ‘grilling’. You can have meat kabob or chicken kabob or fish kabob - really anything you can grill. The most common kabob is chelō kabob, which means rice with ground beef kabob. chelō kabob.

Matt: chelō kabob.

Leyla: And another favorite of mine is joojé kabob. joojé means bird, and this is just grilled chicken kabob. joojé kabob.

Matt: joojé kabob.

Leyla: I always recommend getting it bā ostokhoon, which means ‘with bone’. It’s much more delicious and juicy that way. joojé kabob bā ostokhoon.

Matt: joojé kabob bā ostokhoon.

Leyla: Again, there are plenty of other types of kabob you can get, but these are the two most common. 

Now, to go back to the concept of Persian cuisine in general - I do think it’s a shame that Persian food is not more widely known, because it’s very much in line with our current movement towards seasonal, plant heavy foods. Michael Pollan, a modern food writer, says that in order to eat well, you should just follow the tenets of eating food, not too much, mostly plants, and I believe Persian food perfectly embodies this. It consists of only whole foods - it doesn’t rely on any processed foods. And although most Iranians aren’t vegetarians, the amount of meat in the food (with the exception of kabobs) is always very little in proportion to the whole meal. And an emphasis is placed on seasonal fruits and vegetables for the meals. One interesting thing I’ve learned is that because Iran has been isolated for so long from the rest of the world due to sanctions and politics, Monsanto hasn’t developed a foothold in Iran yet, so the fruits and vegetables you get in Iran are very unique. Each region is known for growing its own unique fruits and vegetables, and I’ve been to Iran - I can attest to the fact that the rich flavors you get from things grown there are hard to come by anywhere else!

One other thing I want to mention in this lesson. Because of the rich soil in Iran, and the variety of climates, it was always a hub for planting, all the way back to the time of the Silk Road. So a lot of foods we are familiar with now are specifically from Iran. I’m not sure if you know this or not, but many foods that we have in Western culture that start with the letter ‘p’ are from Iran. So think pomegranates, pistachios, persimmons, parsley - you’ll be surprised how many there are. Next time you come across a food that starts with a p, look it up - chances are that maybe it comes from Iran!

One last concept in Persian cooking that I find very interesting and would love to cover, is the concept of sardee and garmee. You might remember from previous lessons that sard means ‘cold’ and garm means ‘warm’. When it comes to cooking, Iranians believe that every food has a warming or cooling effect on the gut, and that warm foods must be eaten with cold foods to balance them out. It doesn’t have anything to do with the actual temperature of the food, so it might be a little confusing. But every meal has to have a balance of sardee and garmee. For example, fish is a sard food, as is yogurt. So eating the two together would supposedly lead to a stomachache or other undesirable results. However, chocolate is a garm food. So eating some chocolate after a cold food like fish would have a nice balancing effect. So again, that’s sardee va garmee.

Matt: sardee va garmee.

Leyla: To end with, I want to cover a phrase that comes with Persian cooking that I find absolutely beautiful and poetic, and that is the phrase ‘nooshé jān’.

Matt: nooshé jān.

Leyla: So jān we’ve covered extensively before. If used with a name, like Matt jān, it means ‘dear’. Literally, however, it means ‘life’ or ‘soul’. noosh is the word for ‘nourishment’. So literally nooshé jān means ‘food of the soul’. It’s the Persian answer to a phrase like “bon appétit.” After presenting a cooked meal, the chef will say nooshé jān, meaning ‘may it feed your soul’. nooshé jān.

Matt: nooshé jān.

Leyla: And that, to me, in a nutshell, is what Persian cuisine is - it’s food for the soul. It allows friends and families to come together in conversation and togetherness, and is the ultimate expression of love, or nourishment of the soul. So, again, nooshé jān.

Matt: nooshé jān.

Leyla: So nooshé jān. Hope this lesson was nourishing to you in a way and didn’t make you too hungry! On the lesson page for this lesson, we’ll link to a few of our favorite recipes, and hopefully, the video series with my aunt will be out before too long so you can watch and learn to make a few dishes!

Matt: Thanks so much for listening to this lesson - only one lesson left in this series!

Leyla: That's right. With lesson 60, we are wrapping up this portion of Chai and Conversation. Of course, there’s a lot more coming in the future, so watch out for that. But for now, bé omeedé deedār from Leyla.

Matt: And khodāhāfez from Matt!