Haleem (Savory Persian Meat and Wheat Porridge)

An ancient Persian porridge in which well mashed wheat and shredded meat form a thick, filling, and energizing meal. This version features wheat berries and shredded lamb that’s ideal for a filling sahari or eftār or meal for anytime.

haleem hero
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Haleems have long played an important role in Persia’s cooking culture. They are generally composed of a cereal—although some varieties contain legumes such as lentils—that is well mashed along with shredded meat that makes for a filling, well-rounded, and energizing meal. For these reasons it has long been popular as a pre-dawn and post-sundown meal during Ramadan, but it is also enjoyed year round throughout the Persian diaspora. 

In western terms, Haleems are best described as a thick porridge. There are different types of haleems whose names most often cite the key identifying ingredient. The most historically important and famous version, made with wheat berries and lamb, simply referred to as haleem, is the one I present here. 

Since the tenth century CE, the dish was purchased from specialized haleem cookery shops and consumed as a hearty breakfast in the winter, garnished with sugar and powdered cinnamon–making it both a savory and a sweet dish. In past centuries, haleem required days of preparation and specialty equipment to achieve its signature smooth and elastic consistency. Today haleem is still prominent in Iran and its surrounding regions, and is often served not just for breakfast but also for lunch and dinner. Here is a look at the origins and key ingredients of this Persian wheat dish and how to make it at home.

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Origins of Haleem

Although there are slightly different narratives about the origin of haleem, all point to it originating in the geographical region of today’s Iran and Afghanistan and then moving to other parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, Caucasus, and India. In one narrative, Haleem goes back to the legendary mythical Kiyāniān dynasty of Persian folklore; haleem is described in Shāhnāmeh, Iran’s national epic, and in Avestā, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. In another narrative, Haleem’s origin is credited to the sixth century King Khosrow I of the Persian Sassanian dynasty.

After Muslims conquered Persia in the 7th century haleem remained an important dish in the area. In fact, The Legendary Cuisine of Persia by Margaret Shaida references haleem as a favorite dish of the Prophet Mohammad. The oldest known documented recipe for haleem is from the oldest surviving medieval Arabic language cookbook from the 10th century. In this medieval cookbook the author recites a poem crediting the Persian Sassanid empire with creating haleem. This surviving 10th century recipe is remarkably like the contemporary preparation method. By the 13th century, haleem had become popular enough in the region that different versions were being cooked—including rice haleem and pistachio haleem—and versions of the dish were included in at least two 13th century medieval Arabic language cookbooks, where many Persian origin dishes with Arabic names were described.

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A Dish with Many Names

In the contemporary Persian language, there are two different spellings of haleem. They are هلیم and حلیم. They both are pronounced the same: haleem. Most historical cookbooks use the حلیم spelling and most of the contemporary cookbooks use the هلیم spelling. Prior to the 20th century, haleem was also commonly referred to by another name–harriseh. In some of the southern provinces of Iran on the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, it is still called harriseh, and is indeed called that in many of the region’s Arabic speaking countries where similar dishes with different names have had a long history. In some other countries, for example in Armenia, similar dishes are referred to as harissa–not to be confused with the North African spicy sauce with the same name. In addition to Iran and Arabic speaking countries, haleems are also well known and popular in contemporary Afghanistan and in certain regions of India. Some Muslims in India prefer to call the dish daleem because Haleem is another name for God.

Haleem in Religious and Cultural Settings

In many countries throughout the world, from Iran to India to Afghanistan and throughout the Arab world, haleem is more popular and more available during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It is the perfect high energy and filling dish for the pre-dawn meal–sahari–before one’s daily fast and to break one’s fast during the post-sundown meal,eftār. On Āshurā, the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, Shi'ite Muslims make haleem in large quantities to commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, to be shared as alms.

In addition to its importance for Muslims during Ramadan, haleem is also a special Shabbat food for some Persianate Jewish families. Some Christians in Iran and the surrounding regions, particularly in Lebanon and Syria, serve haleem on the Assumption Day (aka the Feast of the Assumption). Zoroastrians consider haleem a dish for special rituals such as on the anniversary of passing of family members.

Haleem’s Historical Preparation

As noted above, preparation of haleem was historically very time-consuming and physically demanding. The involved cooking process, along with high demand for haleem, resulted in the establishment of commercial specialty shops with professionals dedicated to a large haleem cooking production. Professional haleem shops started in Iran and still exist to this day. These shopshe practice proliferated in other countries as well—in particular in India and Afghanistan. Haleem shops in the Indian city of Hyderabad are world famous. 

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To be served as a breakfast dish, the traditional preparation started the prior evening. The two main ingredients, wheat berries and lamb, were cooked separately. Wheat berries that had been soaking in water for 24 hours prior to the start of cooking would be cooked for several hours until plump and soft, pounded, and then strained to separate any tough parts, resulting in a very thick–but still pourable–substance called “sheereh-e-gandom,” whose literal translation is “syrup of wheat.” 

In parallel, the large pieces of bone-in lamb were cooked to the point at which the meat would fall off the bone. The meat was then deboned, shredded by hand, and added to the large caldron of the syrup of wheat where it was all pounded together with large wooden hammerhead paddles–one meter long–continually for the rest of the night. The extended stirring and pounding would result in a thick elastic mixture in which, long shreds of meat would be present but hardly distinguishable from the surrounding sea of creamy wheat. The degree of elasticity of the haleem was a measure of the cook’s mastery of the process. Pre-dawn customers would line up at these specialty shops to purchase the freshly prepared haleem to take home, along with freshly baked famous Persian Barbari flatbread, for the household’s breakfast.

When haleem was being prepared at home back in the 18th and 19th centuries, family members would take turns stirring the pot throughout the night in order for it to be ready for the family’s breakfast. Not to worry, this recipe doesn’t require your entire family to stay up all night stirring the pot to get savory and hearty final porridge the next morning. In my recipe there are three main stages to cooking haleem: Cooking and processing of the wheat, cooking and shredding the meat, and the final cooking and stirring of the wheat and the meat together. Here’s how to get hearty haleem at home with the help of a few basic kitchen appliances and in under three hours.

Why This Recipe Calls for Cracked Wheat

Haleem is only as good as its foundation—the wheat—so for truly delicious haleem, selecting the right kind of wheat is key. Enter a well-stocked supermarket or a Middle Eastern market and you will be faced with half a dozen or more varieties of wheat products in grain form that differ in cut, size, and how much they’ve been processed. To make the picture more complicated, the same variety might be labeled differently from supplier to supplier and from wheat genus to genus. Here is a quick rundown of what you might find:

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  • Wheat Berries [a.k.a. Unpelted Wheat]: This is the whole kernel of common wheat (Triticum aestivum) with only the husk removed. It is the least processed version of wheat that you may find and takes a long time to cook. It is also used to grow wheat sprouts.
  • Pelted Wheat [a.k.a. Dzedzadz; Jareesh, Jerrish, Gerish, Gerrish, Ceris, Hulled Wheat]: The outer layer of the grain is removed by abrasion (i.e., it has been pearled) and polished to make pelted wheat. The germ is still present but has been damaged to the point where it cannot be used to grow sprouts. Pelted wheat cooks a bit faster than whole grains of wheat berries. (You may also come across pearled versions of other genuses of wheat, other than the common genus, such as Farro and Spelt.)
  • Cracked Wheat [a.k.a. Gorgot, Korkot, Gorgod, Yarma, Daliya]: These are pelted wheat kernels that have been crushed. The key advantage of cracked wheat is that it cooks faster than pelted or whole grain wheat. However, it goes rancid faster than other types. Cracked wheat is often confused with bulgur.
  • Bulgur [a.k.a. Bulghur, Burghul, Arisah]: Bulgur is manufactured by soaking whole wheat kernels, par cooking them (by boiling or steaming), and then drying them. After drying, the hull and some of the bran is removed, after which they are crushed and sorted by size. You may find up to four different sizes of bulgur in some stores. Bulgur cooks very quickly. Finer bulgur can soaked in hot water then eaten without further cooking, while larger grades require further cooking to soften the grain before eating. Bulgur is often confused with cracked wheat.
  • Wheat Flakes: This is wheat that has been soaked, steamed, and flattened between rollers to make flakes. Wheat flakes look just like rolled oats. They typically are not used for preparing dishes; instead they are usually used as breakfast cereal just like rolled oats.

Selecting the correct type of wheat grain is important to successfully making this dish at home in a timely manner. The most traditional flavor and texture results from using wheat berries, pelted wheat, or cracked wheat. I’ve tasted and tested all three side by side and found it is practically impossible to tell the difference between haleem made from whole grains such as wheat berries or pelted wheat or haleem made from cracked wheat. One major difference and advantage to cooking with cracked wheat over the other two varieties is that it takes considerably less time to cook—about a full hour less than cooking the other whole grains such as wheat berries or pelted wheat. Cracked wheat is the best option for home cooking since it achieves the ideal porridge texture and flavor in much less time than the other grain options.It has been my go-to variety for making the traditional Persian haleem—therefore, it’s what I call for in this recipe. Cooking haleem with cracked wheat results in a final porridge with the desired full bodied elastic texture and nutty flavor, and in less time than with other forms of wheat.

 Another advantage to using cracked wheat is that it is cheap and available in some well-stocked supermarkets, grocery cooperative markets, as well as in Persian, Afghani, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean brick-and-mortar shops. It is also readily available on Persian online grocery sources such as Kalamala Persian Grocery, Sadaf, Persian Basket, and Tavazo—and of course you will find it on Amazon.com. My preferred brand of cracked wheat is Sadaf which is also the most frequently available brand in brick-and-mortar markets. In my experience over the years, it is the brand with the most uniformly sized crushed pieces.

Select the Right Cut of Lamb and Shred It into Long Strands

While haleem can be made with a variety of meats, lamb is used in this recipe. It’s the most common cut of meat used in haleem. Its assertively gamey and rich flavor enhances the otherwise neutral and bland flavor of the wheat porridge. The best cuts of lamb for haleem are the neck, shank, and leg—preferably all with bone. Choose just one cut for this recipe. 

 It's important to cook large pieces of meat rather than small chunks. We want larger pieces of meat whose muscle fibers have not been severed so that once the meat is cooked until tender, deboned, and pulled apart the result is long shreds, which is a key characteristic of haleem’s traditional preparation. No need to trim the fat or sinew (fibrous connective tissue attaching muscle to bone) from the lamb as they contribute richness and flavor to haleem–ultimately, most of it will melt away into the stock during the cooking.

haleem lamb shank
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Tips for Cooking Haleem at Home

Cook the Wheat Twice

Similar to the industrial preparation of haleem described above, the cracked wheat in this home version is still cooked in two stages, but on a smaller scale and in a shorter time frame. When first cooking the wheat, initially there will be lots of bubbles and foam with a high risk of boilovers (This is normal as the starches in the wheat swell, forming viscous gel, making it difficult for the air bubbles to escape easily so they foam and bubble and can go over the edge of the pot).. To avoid boil overs, keep the heat low, stir frequently, and leave the lid a bit open.

Save Time with a Food Processor

A food processor is the best tool to quickly break down the cooked wheat into a puree. Where a century ago this process would have relied on industrial equipment in a professional setting or hours of manual labor, the grain can now be pulverized within minutes.

Finish with a Hand Mixer

Instead of relying on family members to stir a pot all night, or on industrial sized wooden tools to beat the mixture, a hand held mixer works great for home consumption. After 10 to 15 minutes of beating, the mixture should be transformed into a supple, elastic porridge. It should be silky and perfectly smooth, with the faintest bit of texture from the lamb that’s now broken down into barely visible specks. 

Getting this ideal porridge still takes effort and time, but the meat and stock can be made and stored up to four days in advance and the wheat can be par-cooked, pulsed, and strained before storing for up to two days. Better yet, make the porridge whenever is convenient for you, then cool it down and freeze in individual portions. You can then enjoy it whenever you want.

Serve with an Assortment of Garnishes

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Persian haleems are generally cooked with very little seasoning, allowing the eater to season it according to personal and regional preferences with one or more combinations of sugar, ground cinnamon, sesame seeds, melted butter, crispy fried onions, coconut flakes, honey, salt, or pepper. If you know the taste preferences of your guests or family members, take the opportunity to either garnish the top of a large bowl of haleem for family-style serving or garnish each individual haleem bowl with the preferred spices and flavorings of their diners.

Sprinkle lamb all over with 1/2 teaspoon salt. In a large pot, combine lamb, onion, bay leaf, 6 cups of water (1.4 liters), and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Cover and cook, reducing heat as needed to maintain a gentle simmer, until the meat is fully tender and falls off the bone easily, 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a cutting board and let cool slightly, about 15 minutes. Strain the meat stock through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl; Set aside.

haleem step 1
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Once meat is cool enough to handle, use 2 forks or your hands to debone and shred the meat into thin long strands; set aside.

haleem step 2
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While the lamb cooks, in a large Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed stockpot, combine the cracked wheat, 8 cups of water (1.9 liters), and remaining 1 teaspoon salt and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer, partially cover the pot, and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and scorching on the bottom of the pot. Cook until the wheat is softened and mixture is very thick and creamy, about 1 1/2 hours, adjusting with additional lamb stock or water as needed to keep grains fully submerged to reach proper consistency.

haleem step 3
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Ladle half of the cooked wheat into a food processor and process until smooth, about 1 minute. 

haleem step 4
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Pour the processed wheat mixture into a large fine-mesh strainer set over a large mixing bowl. Using a silicone spatula or a flexible dough scraper, push the mixture through the strainer until only the tough pieces of cooked cracked wheat remain. Scrape and clear the underside of the strainer as needed. This process may take up to 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can use a food mill set with a fine disc to process and strain the mixture. Discard the unpassable tough wheat. Repeat processing and straining the remaining cooked wheat (depending on the size of your fine-mesh strainer, you may need to process and strain in more than 2 batches). When done, you should have between 1.5 to 2 quarts (1.4 to 1.9 liters) of a velvety, light cream color, soft paste that has the consistency of mayonnaise. This is referred to as the “syrup of wheat.”

haleem
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Rinse and dry the now-empty heavy-bottomed stock pot that you had cooked the wheat in and transfer the “syrup of wheat” back into the clean pot. 

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Set 1/4 cup of the shredded lamb aside, then stir the remaining shredded lamb into the cooked wheat in stockpot. Add a 1/2 cup of the reserved meat stock into the mixture. With a wooden spoon or a large silicone spatula, stir to combine. Cook over medium-low heat and while continually stirring, slowly pour in additional meat stock, 1/2 cup at time, until the mixture is a thick creamy consistency, about 15 minutes. Lower the heat as needed so the mixture is steaming hot but not boiling. Add butter and stir until butter is fully melted, about 2 minutes. 

haleem step 7
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While continuing to cook the porridge over low heat, use a handheld mixer on its lowest speed to whip the porridge until the haleem is velvety, stretchy, and elastic with the strands of meat broken down into fine pieces, 10 to 15 minutes.

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Transfer the cooked haleem to a large serving bowl or individual bowls and garnish with the reserved shredded meat. Serve with your preferred optional garnishes.

haleem step 9
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Special Equipment

Large stockpot, large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, large fine-mesh strainer, food processor, hand-held mixer

Notes

If you can’t find cracked wheat, substitute equal amounts, by weight, of whole wheat berries, pearled wheat, farro, spelt, or pearled barley and increase the cooking time in step 2 by 1 hour.

Variations of Haleem

Other Options for Lamb in Haleem

The original Persian haleem was made with wheat and lamb. Over the centuries, professional and home cooks have created a wide range of haleems, which are given names that identify the key ingredients. In addition to lamb, haleems are made with beef, turkey, chicken, duck, and goose meat. The best cuts of beef for haleem are chuck, bone-in short rib, shanks, and oxtail. The best cuts of chicken or turkey for haleem is the breast with bone and with skin.

Preparation of the beef version is practically identical to the lamb version. While obviously not an option for practicing Muslims, versions of haleem are also made with whole pork tenderloin (as it has long muscle fibers) or a large chunk of pork shoulder (the same cut as used for pulled pork dishes). 

 It is believed that introduction of poultry variations was an attempt by home cooks to shorten the cooking process, as typical poultry meat reaches falling-of-the-bone stage sooner than other meat. In fact, turkey haleem is now one of the most frequently seen varieties. The chicken and turkey versions are prepared similar to the lamb version but with a reduced cooking time.

Other Options for Wheat in Haleem

In addition to wheat berries, haleems are made with other types of cereal, legume, or nuts including barley, rice, and lentils. There is an important and popular sub-class of haleems where eggplant is the key ingredient. Some regional varieties may feature pistachios, milk, or fermented dried grains.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The wheat can be cooked, processed, and strained through step TK, and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Once refrigerated it will become a thick gelatinized block. When ready to make the haleem, reheat it gently over medium-low heat in the saucepan that you are going to use to make the haleem while adding water, or extra meat stock from cooking the meat, 1/4 cup of a cup at a time.

The lamb can be cooked, debones, and shredded and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Refrigerate the strained broth in a separate airtight container for up to 4 days as well.

The final haleem can be cooled and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. Reheat it gently over medium-low heat in a saucepan, adding any leftover meat broth or water 1/4 cup at a time to restore it to its original creamy and elastic consistency.

 Haleem can also be frozen for up to 2 months. When I have lots of leftovers, I store them in the freezer in individual 1 cup freezer-and-microwave-safe containers. When I want to have a super hearty breakfast, I transfer one of the containers to the refrigerator the day before to defrost and zap it the next morning in the microwave oven while adding a couple of tablespoons of water.

Persian Food 101: Recipes to Get You Started at Home

This introduction to Persia’s extensive culinary history includes recipes for every occasion, along with serving suggestions for memorable meals at home.

Persian Cuisine Guide
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

I spent my childhood and teenage years living in Tehran, surrounded by a set of strong female home cooks that included my mother, grandmother, aunt, and several older cousins. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, they trained my taste buds, schooled my sense of smell, and ingrained in my memory the fundamental nature of Persian cookery and the food of the country that today we know as Iran. After I migrated to America in 1974, this initial informal culinary education guided my attempts to recreate those Persian dishes in a small Western apartment kitchen. Soon, these undertakings turned into a serious life purpose: For the past 40 or so years, I have systematically explored the history, principles, and practices of Persian cookery and Iranian food—initially as a serious side quest and in more recent years as a full-time mission. This article is my attempt to introduce you to Persian cooking—the food of Iran—and give you a set of recipes to get you started cooking traditional Persian dishes at home.

An Ancient Cooking Culture

Contemporary Persian cuisine is rooted in an ancient civilization. There are documented historical references to Persian cuisine, in the form of cuneiform clay tablets, dating back more than three thousand years. In 550 BCE, when Cyrus the Great defeated the Greeks and Egyptians, the borders of the Persian empire expanded and Persian food culture was carried into conquered lands. Centuries later, the Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great, the Arabs, and the Mongols, all of whom also carried Persian cuisine to other lands, including to the rest of the Middle East and India. However, while Persian cuisine has impacted the food cultures of many other lands, I still don't think this ancient cooking culture is well enough known in the West.

Persian Food Graphic
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I often use the labels “Iran/Iranian” and “Persia/Persian” interchangeably. The word Persia was, for much of recorded history, the one that Westerners used to refer to Iran. In 1935, the Iranian government formally asked the rest of the world that Persia be called Iran, the name used by those who lived there. Today, “Persian” is more of a cultural identity and historical heritage designation whereas “Iranian” primarily refers to the nationality of people who live or were born in the country that today is known as Iran.

When it comes to nationality of people, I generally use the term “Iranian people.” When it comes to culture, language, cuisine, art, and folklore, I typically use the term “Persian.” The important thing to remember, however, is that the discussion of Persian food includes culinary principles and practices of not only communities who live in Iran (including Kurds, Arabs, Azaris, Turks, and many others) but also Persianate societies in surrounding countries such as Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia and in Central Asia (for example, the Parsi communities in India), as well as the growing Iranian diaspora communities around the world.

Preparing to Cook Persian Food

In my article on how to stock a Persian pantry, I describe the essential ingredients for cooking Persian recipes. The majority of the ingredients used by Iranian home cooks are well known to Westerners because of the unrecognized influence of Persian cuisine on other food cultures of the world. This will become clear as we explore the recipes for some of the more popular Persian dishes.

Essential ingredients of a Persian Pantry
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There are some important ingredients, however, that might not be in your local grocery store. In metropolitan areas of the United States and Canada, where there are significant Iranian communities, you will find dedicated Persian markets. In areas where there are no Persian markets, the next best brick-and-mortar sources are Middle Eastern, Afghani, Mediterranean, Indian, or Turkish markets. There are also several trusted mail-order and online merchants that specialize in Persian ingredients, including Kalamala Persian Grocery, Sadaf, Persian Basket, and Tavazo. Many spices can also be ordered from spice houses such as Penzeys, Kalustyan’s, and The Spice House.

The Essential Flavors of Persian Cuisine

Persian cuisine is diverse, flavorful, and aromatic, but above all else, it balances contrasting qualities—hot and cold, crunchy and soft, sweet and tangy, raw and cooked, heavy and light, thick and thin—all across the same meal. Persian cuisine is well seasoned, but not “spicy hot.” It is relatively simple to make but at times requires a bit of patience. It also can be visually captivating, with presentations that thrill the eyes before the first bite is taken.

 Some of the fundamental elements of Persian cookery are largely unknown to the Western world. These include the blending of fresh and dried nuts and fruit into meat braises and rice dishes; the significant role that a wide range of fresh herbs play in a large number of dishes; the unique method of rice cooking where the rice is cooked twice (parboiled first, drained, and then steamed); the use of unripe fruit and unripe nuts; and the use of a wide range of delicate souring agents, such as lime and lemon juice, yogurt, pomegranate molasses, verjuice, sumac, and dried lime.

How Persian Meals are Served

“Sofreh” is a critical concept associated with any Persian home meal. In the past, most Iranians ate sitting on the floor. A square or rectangular cloth called a sofreh—equivalent to a tablecloth—would be spread on the floor on top of a carpet where everyone would sit to eat. Today, although many Iranians now sit around a dining table, a sofreh (often made of plastic, these days) is still spread on top of the table. The word “sofreh” is also used as a verb to describe the act of setting the table. 

Overhead view of Shirazi salad with bread
Overhead view of Shirazi salad with bread on a sofrehSerious Eats / Nader Mehravari

In Iran, where family members, guests, and strangers alike gather around the sofreh, practically all meals are served family-style. This important characteristic of Persian home meals means that everything—bread, yogurt, sides, soups, rice dishes, stews and braises, beverages, pickles, etc.—is put out at once rather than served in separate courses. In some Persian restaurants in North America and Europe, however, you may find food brought out in courses, for the ease of the kitchen staff or to meet the expectations of non-Iranian diners.

First Things First: Bread

Looking at the menu of a typical Persian restaurant in the Western world, you may get the idea that rice is the staple food of Iranian people. Although rice is a very important element of Persian cookery, in most regions of Iran, bread is the staple food. In Persian culture, bread is considered God’s blessing to his people; therefore, children are taught from an early age that bread is not to touch the ground or be thrown away. Practically all Persian meals, street foods, and snacks involve some sort of flatbread.

Overhead view of Lavash Tahdig
Overhead view of Lavash TahdigSerious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Although there are hundreds of regional flatbreads baked by home cooks and neighborhood bakeries across Iran, the four that you’ll find in most regions of Iran are lavash, taftoon, sangak, and barbari. Many Iranian and Middle Eastern brick-and-mortar and online markets carry one or more of these breads. Lavash, however, has become quite popular in North America and many grocery stores now carry it in their bread section. Readily available pita bread is an acceptable substitute for Persian flatbreads.

Salads, Accompaniments, Side Dishes, Starters

kashk-o-bademjan-NaderMehravari-hero
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

As I mentioned above, in a typical Iranian home, every part of a meal is served together. Among the components is a wide range of dishes that can be classified as salads, accompaniments, side dishes, and starters. They include both hot and cold items and the majority are vegetarian. The following are among the most popular:

  • Sālad-é-Shirāzi (Shirāzi Salad): The main ingredients of this refreshing salad are cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions, which are flavored with salt, black pepper, olive oil, and some sort of acid (such as vinegar, lime or lemon juice, or verjuice). Sālād-é-shirāzi has a pleasant salty-sour flavor and is crisp and juicy at the same time. Along with sālād-é-olevieh (which has Russian origins and is a blend of contemporary chicken, potato, and egg salads), and sālād-é-fassl (a seasonal fresh green salad often augmented with some cooked ingredient such as pinto beans or beets), sālād-é-shirāzi is one of the three most popular Persian salads.

    This salad can accompany practically any main dish, except maybe soups. If the main dish involves some sort of rice dish, many Persians serve several spoonsful of sālād-é-shirāzi on their primary plate so that a bit of the naturally formed salad dressing is absorbed by some of the rice.
  • Māst-ó-Khiār (Yogurt and Cucumber Side Dish): A Persian sofreh is incomplete without a bowl of a yogurt-based accompaniment known as borāni. Borānis combine yogurt (drained or undrained) with some raw or cooked vegetables and one or two simple flavorings. Their popularity stems from the fact that they are simple, healthy, often very quick to prepare, and able to serve multiple needs as a restaurant appetizer, as a side dish, or as a dip for cocktail parties.

    Māst-ó-khiār, the most popular of such yogurt-based dishes, is creamy, tangy, light, and refreshing, with a subtle crunch that comes from cucumbers. It can accompany a wide range of mains from rice dishes to grilled meats or be used as a dip. Other popular borānis incorporate spinach or Persian shallots. You’ll find them on the menus of practically every Persian restaurant in the Western world.
  • Kashk-ó-Bādemjān (Kashk and Eggplant Starter): If you like eggplant, kashk-ó-bādemjān could become your new favorite eggplant dish. If you don’t like eggplant now, this rich, easy-to-make dish could very well change your mind, as it has for many people I know.

    As an appetizer or side dish, kashk-ó-bādemjān is commonly accompanied by some sort of Persian flatbread (such as lavāsh, sangak, tāftoon, or babari) or another type of flatbread such as pita. It can also function as a main dish, served in large portions along with a hefty amount of flatbread and accompanied maybe by a bowl of yogurt and sabzi-khoran, the traditional Persian plate of fresh herbs and feta cheese.

Rice Dishes

Iranians love their rice. Over the centuries, they have refined rice preparation to extraordinary levels and have developed myriad ingenious rice dishes that are justly famous.

Overhead view of Persian rice on a blue paltter
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari
  • Chelow (Steamed White Rice) and Tahdig (Crunchy Rice): The most esteemed among Persian rice dishes, chelow is is snow-white, fragrant steamed rice with light and fluffy, separate grains. To achieve this desirable texture, long-grain white rice is thoroughly washed and soaked and then parboiled for just a few minutes until it is partially cooked. The parboiled rice is then strained and returned to the pot, and it finishes cooking in the steam generated in the tightly covered pot over gentle heat.

    The modest additional effort required for this method is proven worthwhile by the excellence of the results. Chelow rice is often enhanced by a bit of saffron before serving, and is typically offered alongside braises, stews, or grilled meat.

    Tahdig is the delicious, buttery, golden-brown crust that forms at the bottom of a pot of chelow as the rice cooks. It is often the most coveted treat at a Persian meal and usually disappears seconds after it has been put on the table.

    Traditionally, pieces of tahdig are scraped off the bottom of the pot and served either on the same platter as the accompanying rice dish or on a separate smaller plate. Often, the rice and tahdig are served with a slow-cooked khoresh (braise).  A common practice among Persian food lovers is to pour some of the khoresh over their pieces of tahdig so it will soak up the braise’s wonderful savory flavors.

    You'll notice that I have published two separate recipes on Serious Eats for chelow and tahdig, which may seem strange given that both chelow and tahdig are products of the same recipe. This is because there are so many important technical details necessary to create perfect chelow, and then just as many details to produce the best tahdig, that I felt it was better to split those discussions into two instead of overwhelming the reader with all the information at once—each recipe produces both chelow and tahdig, but the headnotes and recipe instructions emphasize those elements differently so that you can better learn the art of creating both.

Meat Braises and Stews

For centuries, slow-cooked meat braises have been an important and wide-ranging class of dishes in Persian cooking. The Persian word for a meat braise is “khoresh” (also khoresht). There are many types of Persian khoreshes, which incorporate different kinds of meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, and legumes in addition to regional specialties and those requiring fresh short-lived seasonal ingredients. Many of these khoreshes can easily be made vegetarian or vegan.

Fessenjan-NaderMehravari-hero
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari
  • Fesenjān (Pomegranate and Walnut Meat Braise): Fesenjān (a.k.a. fesenjoon or khoresh-e-fesanjān) is a meat braise that incorporates ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses and has a subtle, uniquely Persian sweet-and-sour flavor profile. This type of gentle sweet-and-sour flavor is also characteristic of some other Persian dishes; in fact, there is a single word for it in Persian language called “malass.”

    Despite its complex flavor, fesanjān is a simple dish to make, with only three key ingredients: pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and meat. Once everything is cooking in the pot, you merely need to let it simmer gently on the stovetop. The most famous version is made with duck, but it is equally delicious with lamb, beef, chicken, turkey, other fowl, fish, and even with tiny meatballs.
  • Khoresh-é-Bademjān (Eggplant Meat Braise): Another popular braise, khoresh-é-bademjān is  based on chunks of lamb or beef, which are browned and then gently braised in a simple aromatic flavor base of onions, ground turmeric, and tomatoes. Halfway through the cooking process, pan-fried eggplants are added to the pot. The result is a combination of melt-in-your-mouth meat and silky eggplant, surrounded by luscious braising sauce.

    Like practically all other khoreshes, khoresh-é-bademjān is best served as a main dish along with rice, such as chelow with crunchy tahdig. Some Persian home cooks garnish the serving bowl with a couple of lightly sautéed tomato halves.

Pan-Fried Patties

Pan-fried patties—both meat-based as well as vegetarian—are a popular comfort food within the Persian culinary landscape. They require only a few ingredients, are convenient and fast to make, portable, and worth making a large amount since they reheat well as leftovers. Meat and legume based versions have been around since at least the 16th century, whereas patties that incorporate potato have a more recent history.

Overhead view of kotlets on a sliver platter
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari
  • Kotlet (Ground Meat and Potato Patties): Made with ground meat, eggs, and potato, kotlets are relative newcomers to the family of Persian pan-fried patties. Potatoes were not introduced to Iran until sometime between the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

    Because of their versatility, simplicity, and deliciousness, they’re now one of the most popular dishes in Persianate societies. And because each kotlet contains almost as much potato as meat, I’ve heard this dish referred to by many Americans as the “Persian healthy hamburger.”

    Kotlets are often served hot with crispy potatoes, sliced fresh tomatoes, salty cucumber pickles, yogurt, and/or flatbread. They can also serve as a hot accompaniment to plain Persian steamed white rice, or any number of flavored rice dishes, called polows, which are flavored with a wide range of vegetables, legumes, dried fruit, or nuts. In addition to being served for meals at home, they are favored for picnics and as a delicious sandwich filling.

Sweets

Traditionally speaking, the concept of an “after-meal-dessert” does not exist in Persian cuisine. Iranians typically prefer to finish their meals with pieces of fresh fruit and a cup of Persian tea. At the same time, however, Iranians love sweets other times of the day or night, and therefore, there are a multitude of sweet delicacies ranging from frozen dishes to puddings, custards, cookies, cream-filled pastries, and deep-fried confections, as well as syrupy delights.

Side view of faloodeh
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari
  • Fāloodeh (Frozen Noodle Dessert): The origins of this refreshing frozen treat can be traced back to ancient Persia where some of the oldest frozen sweets known to humanity were created. Fāloodeh is made by incorporating thin threads of starch noodles into a slushy sweet rosewater-flavored syrup which is cooled to a semi-frozen state. Served in individual bowls, it is often topped with a splash of freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice and/or a teaspoon of sour cherry syrup. It is a most fitting end to any heavy and rich meal as well as the perfect summer afternoon cooling treat.
  • Sholeh-Zard (Saffron Rice Pudding): Persians use rice and rice flour for an assortment of puddings and custards (both spoonable and sliceable) as well as for cookies and other confections. The queen among Persian puddings and custards, sholeh-zard is a prized delicacy, as its preparation uses more saffron than other Persian sweets that have saffron in them. Sholeh-zard is also considered a ceremonial dish in certain rituals and beliefs that are important to the Iranians.

    Its preparation is simple, requiring only a single saucepan in which whole rice grains are slowly cooked in plenty of water, sweetened with sugar, delicately flavored with saffron and rosewater, and often elegantly garnished with ground cinnamon and slivers of dried nuts. It makes an excellent alternative to such well-known desserts as flan, crème brulée, or panna cotta.

Bringing It All Together: Sample Menus To Get You Started

Menu #1

  • Chelow (Persian White Steamed Rice) and the resulting Tahdig (Persian Crunchy Rice) 
  • Khoresh-é-Bādemjān (Persian Meat and Eggplant Stew)
  • Māst-ó-Khiar (Persian Yogurt with Cucumber)
  • Some flatbread

The overall structure of this menu (rice + stew + yogurt dish) would suffice as a complete yet simple meal in an Iranian household. Each diner’s plate is filled with a small mound of rice and several heaping spoonfuls of khoresh (either on top of the rice or right next to it), one or two shards of tahdig, and couple of spoonfuls of tangy māst-ó-khiār. Many Iranians pour a bit of the sauce from the braise over the tahdig and let it soak in for a few minutes before eating it. Small pieces of flatbread can be used to dip into the māst-ó-khiār or to wipe off any remaining braise sauce from the plate.

Overhead view of finished eggplant stew
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Menu #2

  • Chelow (Persian White Steamed Rice) and the resulting Tahdig (Persian Crunchy Rice) 
  • Fesenjān (Persian Pomegranate and Walnut Meat Braise)
  • Sālād-é-Shirāzi (Persian Cucumber and Tomato Salad)
  • Some flatbread

Structurally speaking, this menu is very similar to Menu #1 with a different meat braise and different side dish. Fesenjan is a richer meat braise than the khoresh-é-bādemjan, making the sālād-é-Shirāzi a slightly more appropriate side dish. Eating practices for this menu are identical to Menu #1.

Menu #3

  • Kashk-ó-Bādemjān (Persian Braised Eggplant with Kashk)
  • Kotlet (Persian Ground Meat and Potato Patties)
  • Lots of flatbread

Unlike the previous two menus, there is no rice included in this meal. A couple of heaping tablespoons of kashk-ó-bādemjān along with a few kotlets (and any of their typical accompaniments as described in the recipe) are placed on each diner’s plate. It is perfectly okay to eat this meal with your hands; use small pieces of flatbread to scoop up some of the kashk-ó-bādemjān and/or wrap slightly larger pieces of flatbread loosely around a kotlet to eat.

You can finish each of these menus with pieces of fresh fruit and a cup of black tea like most Iranians do. However, if you are used to having a formal dessert after your meals, then you should give fāloodeh or sholeh-ard a try. Alternatively, make a batch of fāloodeh and a batch of sholeh-zard and enjoy them as mid-day, mid-afternoon, or late-evening snacks, which is what many Iranians do.

Fāloodeh (Persian Frozen Noodle and Rose Water Sorbet)

In Fāloodeh, delicate threads of frozen noodles are front-and-center in every scoop of this sumptuous rose water–flavored icy dessert.

Side view of Faloodeh
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Fāloodeh is a beloved and refreshing Persian dessert made by incorporating thin threads of noodles into a sweet rose water–flavored syrup that has been cooled to a semi-frozen state. Served in individual bowls, it is often topped with a splash of freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice and/or a teaspoon of sour cherry syrup. It is a fitting end to any heavy and rich meal as well as the perfect cooling treat on a summer afternoon. 

Overhead view of faloodeh
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

The noodles in fāloodeh are not an afterthought, but a primary ingredient, fully integrated into the sweet, icy rose water–flavored mound that surrounds them. They are what sets fāloodeh apart from so many other icy desserts such as granitas, sorbets, Italian ices, slushies, snow cones, and shaved ices.

Most often, particularly among Iranian communities, this icy treat is referred to as fāloodeh-é-Shirāzi. Many, including me, believe the best fāloodeh is made in the southern Iranian city of Shirāz, which is known as Iran’s city of flowers, literature, and poets.

History of Fāloodeh

Some of the earliest frozen sweets known to humanity were created in ancient Persia. By 400 BCE, Persians were making, collecting, and storing ice, even in the middle of summer in the desert. They built structures called yakhchāls, (literally, “ice-pits”), which consisted of a pointed dome above ground and a large storage space below. The ice stored in them was used not only during the hottest summer months, but throughout the year for a variety of purposes such as preserving perishable food and preparing icy beverages and treats. 

Side view of faloodeh
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

The earliest of these treats were snow-like piles of ice topped with natural sweeteners of the time such as fruit syrups and honey. The oldest surviving culinary-related manuscript from ancient Persia (circa 500 CE) documents an interview between King Khosrow II of the Sasanian Dynasty and a young man named Ridak, who wanted to become a royal valet. When the monarch asks Ridak’s opinion about the best sweet treats, Ridak’s response includes “snow with fruit syrup.” It is believed that such early icy treats evolved into what we now know as fāloodeh.

Fāloodeh-type sweets were introduced to the Arab world after the Muslim conquest of Persia in the 7th century. Some historians believe that it was then introduced to Sicily in the 8th century as part of the Arab invasion of Sicily and was a predecessor to contemporary granitas and sorbets. The Indian subcontinent was introduced to fāloodeh from Persia during the Mughal Empire in the 16th century; today it is served there as more of a popular cold beverage and is referred to as falooda.

My Path to Homemade Fāloodeh

During my childhood and teen years growing up in Iran, I never saw anyone making fāloodeh at home. It was one of those special popular treats you enjoyed at an ice cream parlor, from a street corner ice cream pushcart, or as dessert in a sit-down restaurant. 

I have been making fāloodeh in my home kitchen for almost 20 years now. It all began when our family was living in Ithaca, New York, the home of Cornell University. Several times a year, my wife and I hosted groups of Iranian students who were attending Cornell and served them traditional home-cooked Persian food. For one of those occasions, I challenged myself to surprise the guests with something very Persian that they might not have had for a long time—homemade fāloodeh was the answer. It took a bit of controlled experimentation to find the right noodles to use and to determine the best formula for the sugary rose water syrup, but in the end those initial batches were authentic enough that no one could believe that it was homemade.

Over the years, I have improved and streamlined this recipe to replicate those heavenly scoops of fāloodeh that my tastebuds can still remember from my childhood summer trips to Shirāz to visit relatives.

Fāloodeh Key Ingredients

The original method of making fāloodeh, which is still used commercially and in some homes today, starts by making fresh wheat-starch noodles for each batch. A slurry of equal parts (in volume) of wheat starch and water are then cooked long enough for a very thick, almost transparent, paste to be generated. While still hot, the resulting paste is put into a special noodle extruder with tiny holes on the bottom, and long, thin threads of still warm starch noodles immediately drop into a large ice bath below. As soon as they have cooled and gelled enough to handle, the noodles are used to make a batch of fāloodeh. 

ingredients for Faloodeh arranged neatly
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Making fresh wheat-starch noodles at home is time-consuming and hard to master. Fortunately, there is an equally good and very convenient alternative: mung bean noodles or threads (also called glass noodles, cellophane noodles, or, wun sen). When cooked in boiling water, these thread-like white noodles become completely translucent. When frozen, the cooked noodles turn snow-white and opaque.

The other important ingredient in fāloodeh is rose water, which these days is readily available in most local supermarkets. Augmenting the sugar with a bit of light corn syrup helps produce a smooth consistency that does not freeze into a block of solid ice in your home freezer.

Different types of noodles
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

For serving, all you need is a lime or a lemon, and some sour cherry syrup. Sour cherry syrup is popular among Persians for drizzling over sweets and for making thirst-quenching beverages called sharbat (not to be confused with sherbet or sorbet). Bottles of sour cherry syrup can be found in the international aisle of better-stocked supermarkets and are always available in any Persian, Middle Eastern, Afghani, Mediterranean, Indian, or Turkish market. Alternatively, you can use some of the syrup from a jar of Persian-style sour cherry jam, where chunks of whole fruit float in a thick, sweet, fruity syrup.

Equipment and Techniques. for Making Fāloodeh

The recipe makes about 6 cups of fāloodeh and can be prepared in a non-commercial 1.5-quart ice cream maker (either canister-style or compressor-style). Using an ice cream maker produces the ideal texture; by continuously churning as the base freezes, ice crystals are kept to a very small size for a smoother texture. If you don’t have one, not to worry—I’ve included directions for making fāloodeh without one as well.

Unlike most pasta dishes, where the noodles are cooked just to the al dente stage, the dry mung bean threads for fāloodeh need to be boiled until fully cooked, and then some. This is because you want them to absorb as much water as possible, which is necessary for them to become delicately crunchy as they freeze in the rose water–flavored syrup.

Three stages of Faloodeh noodles
Noodles raw, frozen, and thawedSerious Eats / Nader Mehravari

When making fāloodeh with home ice-cream makers (canister or compressor type), keep in mind that the paddle that moves and scrapes the slushy liquid is not designed to properly incorporate the noodles. Don’t be tempted to add the noodles to the ice cream maker all at once as part of the churning process, the way one might when adding mix-ins to an ice cream base. Otherwise, you will end up with a clogged mass of noodles sticking out of the top of the freezer bowl. Instead, after the ice cream maker has done its job of making a pretty stiff frozen slush, add about a quarter of the noodles into the freezer bowl and let the ice cream maker churn for another 5 minutes. Depending on your ice cream maker, you might be able to add another quarter of the noodles followed by another 5 minutes of churning before noodles start to clog up. At that point, stop the ice-cream maker, remove the paddle from the freezer bowl and gently stir the rest of the noodles in by hand.

How to Serve

If you've never eaten fāloodeh before, I recommend the following approach: Start by eating a couple of teaspoons of fāloodeh without adding anything so that you can experience the pure frozen-slushy texture and the rose water flavor. Assuming you have at least a couple of scoops in your bowl, pour a teaspoon or two of freshly squeezed lime or lemon juice on one of the scoops and one or two teaspoons of sour cherry syrup on the other. Taste a lime juice side. Taste the sour cherry syrup side. Finally, take a spoonful from the middle of the two scoops so that you get a bit of both in one bite. This way, you can experience all the flavor possibilities. After that, eat it however you please. 

Side view of faloodeh
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Fāloodeh is slushier and melts a bit faster than most other frozen desserts and its texture changes as you eat it. Typically, by the time you get to the bottom of your dish of fāloodeh you will be left with noodles swimming in the melted slush. That is the way it is supposed to be.

In a medium saucepan, heat sugar and 2 1/2 cups water over medium-low, stirring, until sugar is dissolved, 2 to 3 minutes; remove from heat and stir in corn syrup. Alternatively, in a medium bowl, stir sugar with 2 1/2 cups cold water and let stand, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved, 10-15 minutes. (You can use either method to make the syrup; heat will dissolve the sugar faster but take longer to cool down, while the no-heat method will take longer to dissolve the sugar but will chill faster in Step 2.)

Overhead view of pouring syrup into pot
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Pour sugar syrup into a shallow container and cover. If using an ice cream maker, refrigerate until the syrup's temperature drops below 50°F (10°C), at least 4 hours; if not using an ice-cream maker, transfer to the freezer, then follow instructions in the notes section below.

Side view of pouring syrup into a container
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, combine noodles with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook for 5 minutes. 

Overhead view of noodles boiling in pot
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Drain the cooked noodles in a fine mesh strainer, then transfer them to a cutting board. Form noodles into a rough 3- by 6-inch rectangular pile. Using a large knife or kitchen scissors, cut the pile of noodles into 8 sections, making 1 lengthwise cut and 3 crosswise cuts (the cut noodle strands should be no longer than 2 to 3 inches). Measure the noodles; if you have more than 1 1/4 cups (250g), discard the extra or reserve for another use. Refrigerate the cut cooked noodles in a bowl of cold tap water, covered, until needed. Put an empty, shallow 2-quart container (such as a large tupperware or small baking dish) in the freezer and let chill.

Four image collage of cutting noodles and placing in bowl of water
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

When the sugar syrup is below 50°F (10°C), stir in the rose water. Using an ice cream maker and following manufacturer's instructions, churn syrup until the mixture has turned into a thick, white, slushy mass (for making without an ice cream maker, see notes below). Toward the end of the churning process, drain the chilled noodles in a fine-mesh strainer, shaking the strainer to remove as much water as possible, then add about a quarter of the noodles to the freezer bowl and let the ice cream maker churn for another 5 minutes; if your ice cream maker is still churning smoothly, add another quarter of the noodles followed by another 5 minutes of churning before noodles start to clog up. At that point, stop the ice-cream maker. Gently remove the paddle, scraping any attached slush and noodles back into the ice cream maker.

Two image collage of faloodeh in ice cream make and noodles being added
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Add the rest of the noodles into the ice cream maker and, using a silicone spatula, gently mix in the noodles until evenly incorporated, being careful not to break the noodles into tiny pieces.

Mixing noodles in with a silicone spatula
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Working quickly, scrape the mixture into the pre-chilled container, cover, and return to the freezer. Freeze for 30 minutes, then remove from freezer and, using a silicone spatula, stir the contents with a folding motion. Return to freezer, then continue stirring every 30 minutes until the mixture has the consistency of easily scoopable sorbet; how long this takes will depend on how thoroughly your ice cream maker was able to freeze the syrup; in our tests using a Cuisinart canister-model (non-compressor) ice-cream maker, it took about 2 additional hours of freezer time after churning to freeze firmly enough for serving.

Overhead view of ice cream scooper
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Scoop into serving bowls and serve with lime juice or sour cherry syrup (or both), allowing diners to garnish their bowls as desired.

Overhead view of faloodeh in serving bowls
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Special Equipment

Ice cream maker (optional but recommended), Fine-mesh strainer, shallow 2-quart plastic container with lid

Notes

To make fāloodeh without an ice cream maker: Make the sugar syrup as directed in the recipe. In Step 2, place the sugar syrup along with the rose water in a shallow 2-quart container. Cover, transfer to freezer, and let it chill until ice crystals have begun to form, about 4 hours. While sugar syrup is chilling, cook the noodles as directed in steps 3 and 4. Once ice crystals have started to form, add the noodles to the chilled sugar syrup and stir to combine. Cover container and return to freezer for 30 minutes. Remove container from freezer and stir sugar syrup mixture, making sure to scrape the bottom and the corners of the container. Repeat freezing and stirring every 30 minutes until there isn’t any clear liquid left and you have a thick, white, slushy mass. A spoon scraped across the top should leave an impression that does not disappear right away. Depending on the temperature and the contents of your freezer, you may have to do this over several hours. Serve as directed.

Unlike with ice cream, it is okay to refreeze fāloodeh.

For storing fāloodeh, I prefer high-quality airtight plastic containers over glass or ceramic ones. In a glass or ceramic container, fāloodeh takes longer both to freeze and to thaw to the proper consistency. Choose a container with a high surface-area-to-volume ratio, i.e., wider and flatter than a typical supermarket ice cream tub.

Most mung bean noodles come in 1- to 2-ounce (30g to 50g) bundles, with eight to 10 bundles in each package. I’ve found that different brands work equally well so my advice is to use the thinnest ones you can find. There’s a good chance that your local supermarket carries them in the international aisle; if not, you can find them at all Asian grocery stores.There is no need to unwrap the single strand of the noodle that sometimes is wrapped around the bundle before cooking the noodles; it will unwrap itself on its own as the water heats up.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Unlike ice creams and fruit-based sorbet and granitas, fāloodeh can be stored for an extended period of time—months—if stored in an airtight container in the freezer. This means you can make several batches and have them ready to surprise unplanned guests or impress a group at a last-minute potluck.

Fāloodeh is best served when it is easily scoopable, almost slushy. Since practically all home freezers are set around 0°F (-18°C), fāloodeh that has been made ahead and stored will be hard to scoop. To thaw it to the right consistency, place the container of fāloodeh on the kitchen counter until softened slightly.

Fesenjān (Persian Pomegranate and Walnut Meat Braise)

Fesenjān—an iconic Persian braise—gets its signature sweet-and-sour flavor from a heavy hit of pomegranate molasses and its velvety texture from ground walnuts.

Fessenjan-NaderMehravari-hero
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Persian cuisine is famous for its slow-cooked meat braises. For centuries, braises have been an integral and expansive class of dishes within the Persian culinary landscape. The Persian word for a meat braise is khoresh (also called khoresht). There is a wide range of Persian khoreshes incorporating different types of meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains, beans, and legumes, in addition to regional specialties and those requiring fresh short-lived seasonal ingredients.

One of the most famous khoreshes is fesenjān (a.k.a. fesenjoon or khoresh-e-fesanjān), a uniquely Persian sweet-and-sour meat braise that incorporates ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. The contrasting textures and flavors of the pomegranate molasses and the ground walnuts come together to create a thick and rich braise with an eye-catching dark brown color and subtle sweet-and-sour flavor. This type of gentle sweet-and-sour flavor is characteristic of several Persian dishes. In fact, there is a single word for it in Persian: malass.

The dish’s fame comes in part from the fact that prior to the 20th century, fesenjān was known as the “food of royals” because its ingredients were considered luxurious and therefore beyond the reach of most people. Since the early 20th century, with the inclusion of its recipe in early contemporary Persian-language cookbooks specifically written for home cooks, and as some ingredients have become more widely available and affordable, fesenjān has become one of the most famous and popular Persian khoreshes, both in Iran and the Iranian diaspora. As such, some refer to fesenjān as the queen of Persian dishes.

Despite its royal reputation, fesanjān can be a simple dish to make. There are only three key ingredients: pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and meat, which collectively create a uniquely sumptuous dish. Although the most famous (and ancient) version is made with duck, it is equally delicious with lamb, beef, chicken, turkey, other fowl, fish, and even with tiny meatballs. Don’t be discouraged about the amount of time it takes to make this dish. Once everything is cooking in the pot, all you have to do is let it simmer gently on the stovetop. 

For those who subscribe to ancient culinary humoral principles and practices, as some Persians still do (where warm, cold, dry, and moist temperaments were assigned to ingredients and dishes), Fesenjān is considered a neutral dish, as the “coldness” of pomegranate is balanced by the “warmness” of walnut.

History of Fesenjān

Fesenjān and its key ingredients have a long legacy in Persian cookery. In the 1930s, archaeologists from the University of Chicago found clay tablets at the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 CBE), that listed pomegranates, walnuts, and poultry among the pantry staples of the early people of Iran.

The earliest documented description and recipe for the dish itself, as we know it today, are in two historical Persian-language cookbooks from the 1800s. One of these provides detailed recipes for two different versions of fesenjān and gives credit for the dish’s creation to the people living on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, where there were plenty of wild ducks. The second describes ten different versions of the dish. 

Since ten different versions of fesenjān were well known back in the 1800s, it is safe to assume that the dish had been around much earlier than that. In fact, although not called fesenjān, there are descriptions of multiple braise-type dishes incorporating ground walnuts and pomegranate juice or syrup in the two oldest surviving Persian-language cookbooks from the 1600s.

In addition to its inclusion in historical Persian-language cookbooks, there is also a charming folktale about how fesenjān came about. It is said that Shah Tahmasp I, the second monarch of the Persian Safavid Dynasty (c. 1501-1736), having gotten tired of the green-colored dishes he was fond of, ordered his royal cook to prepare a brown dish for the next day’s lunch. That evening, the cook, in collaboration with his wife and their young daughter, came up with fesenjān, which was very much liked by the monarch the next day.

Fesenjān's Role in persian Culture

Fesenjān is often served for family special occasions or to honor notable guests. It is also an essential part of some Persian wedding meals. Above all, fesenjān has a prominent place in the evening meal during Shab-e-Yaldā which is the Persianate world’s celebration of the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. Shab-e-Yaldā, which literally translates to “the night of Yalda,” is the second-most important cultural celebration in Persianate societies, second only to the Persian new year.

In addition to secular occasions, fesenjān is often served at a range of important religious ceremonies. It is a popular dish for the evening meal during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims, who are observing daily fasting, break their fast. For some Iranian Christians, it is a component of the Christmas Eve dinner. Fesenjān is also an important component on many Iranian Jewish Rosh Hashanah tables. In fact, recipes for fesanjān appear in many popular Jewish cookbooks, such as The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden, as well as in some Jewish community cookbooks, including one published by the Persian Hebrew Congregation of Skokie, Illinois, in 2015.

People living in the northern Iranian provinces of Gilān and Māzandarān, where fesenjān is said to have originated, like their fesenjān as dark as possible—almost black. Over centuries, they have come up with techniques and tricks to achieve the highest levels of darkness desired. The most interesting method involves the use of an iron horseshoe or an iron railroad track nail. After thoroughly cleaning the horseshoe or nail, the cook heats it over an open fire before throwing it into a simmering braise. The idea is that the acid of the pomegranate molasses and the tannins of the ground walnuts interact with the chunk of iron, darkening the color of the dish. I do not recommend you do this at home.

Beyond Iran and Iranian diaspora communities around the world, fesenjān is eaten with some frequency in neighboring counties of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, and the Parsi communities of India. 

Fesenjān's Key Ingredients

Pomegranate Molasses (Robb-é-Anār)

The pomegranate has been a player in the culinary habits of Persian societies for centuries. The most important pomegranate-based ingredient in Persian cookery, made from pomegranate juice, is robe-é-anār, known in the West as pomegranate molasses. Although it has been extremely popular in Persian communities for centuries (as well as Turkish, Azerbaijanian, Indian, and other cultures in these regions), it is lesser known to Western palates.

Culinarily speaking, pomegranate molasses is a juice that has been concentrated by very gentle boiling, which explains its Persian language name, robe-é-anār, where “robe means thickened fruit and “anār” means pomegranate. This magical sweet-and-sour substance is made by gently boiling pure fresh pomegranate juice over an extended period until a deep, dark crimson syrup is formed. Pomegranate molasses is a key ingredient in Persian dishes including braises, soups, vegetable dishes, kabābs, fish dishes, condiments, and marinades.

Fessenjan-NaderMehravari-pomegranate molasses and seeds
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

High-quality, pure pomegranate molasses has a vibrant dark-crimson color. At room temperature, it has the consistency of a pourable thick syrup, similar to light corn syrup or honey. It has a sweet-and-sour taste, but it is more tart than sugary compared to that of other fruit molasses, such as date or grape molasses, because pomegranate fruit has less sugar than those. Its sourness also depends on the variety and ripeness of the pomegranates it was produced from. 

Commercially produced pomegranate molasses is readily available in glass bottles from Persian and Middle Eastern markets, as well as in the international food aisles of well-stocked grocery stores. Unfortunately, many commercial producers add sugar to their bottled pomegranate molasses, and some boil theirs too fast and/or too hot, resulting in a color that is more dark caramel brown than the desired vibrant dark crimson. Since there is no enforced standardization for pomegranate molasses, you will find brands that label their products as molasses, concentrate, syrup, or paste. Moreover, some brands have multiple versions with different viscosities and different sugar contents. For example, Sadaf brand has both a “concentrate” and a “molasses” version, whereas Cortas brand has both a “no-sugar-added” and a “sugar-added” version. Examine the list of ingredients for added sugar, then tip the bottle while holding it against a light source to get a feel both for its color and its consistency. My recommendation is to look for a product that has little-to-no added sugar, a thick but pourable consistency (not like ketchup but more like honey), and a gorgeous dark crimson color.

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Although it’s a bit time consuming and requires patience, pomegranate molasses can be made at home, either from whole pomegranates that you juice yourself or from commonly available pomegranate juice such as those from the Pom brand. The advantage of homemade pomegranate molasses is that you are certain it has no added sugar, and if you take your time cooking it down, it will have a beautiful scarlet color. As a side note, if you end up making your own pomegranate molasses, in addition to using it to make a fesenjān, you can also use it to drizzle on top of fresh green leaf salads or over grilled vegetables. 

Walnuts

After pistachios, walnuts are the most important nut that one would find in a typical Persian pantry. This is not surprising, as the origin of the common walnut that you find in a grocery store goes back to ancient Persia.

Ground walnuts are a key ingredient of fesenjān. Among Persian home cooks, regional and personal preferences dictate how finely the walnuts are ground, ranging from pea-size bits down to a paste. My preference is someplace in between—about the size of coarse cornmeal. I want my tongue to feel the ground walnuts, but I don’t want to have to use my teeth to chew them!

Choice of Meat

I do not know of any other Persian khoresh that is amenable to so many different kinds of meat—duck, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, other fowl, fish, and even tiny meatballs. Yes, the duck version is the most famous and most prestigious. However, it is somewhat involved and time-consuming to prepare and trickier to get right, given that it involves breaking down a whole duck and cooking its different parts for different amounts of time (that said, you will find instructions for how to use duck in the variations section below). If this is your first time making fesenjān, it’s better to try lamb or beef, as they are quicker and easier to prepare.

The best cuts of lamb for Persian-style braising are leg, shoulder, neck, and shank. My everyday go-to cut for braising is lamb leg. It is a hardworking muscle with plenty of intramuscular fat and connective tissue that breaks down during a long braise, creating a texture that is moist and tender.

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If you decide to go with beef, the best cuts of beef for braising include chuck, bone-in short rib, shanks, and as a treat, oxtail.

Signs of a Proper Braise

An important concept in Persian cookery—particularly with braising—is called “ja-oftādan.” There is no single good English word that it translates to. It is that ultimate desired stage of a braise where all the ingredients are thoroughly integrated, or “married” together. There is no free-flowing watery clear liquid, ingredients do not sink to the bottom of the pot, all meat has reached the “falling off the bone” stage (even if there is no bone in the dish), and any fat in the dish has become stained by the pigments of other ingredients, appearing as shiny pools on the surface of the braise. 

You can tell fesenjān has reached its desired final stage when it has achieved a deep brown color similar to that of dark brown sugar; chunks of meat are poking out of their thick surroundings; and pools of translucent, shiny, almost neon-green oil, released naturally by the walnuts, are circling the pot.

People living in the Iranian northern provinces of Gilān and Māzandarān, where fesenjān is said to have originated, tend to like it sourer than others, and therefore they use locally sourced pomegranate molasses made from wild pomegranate trees of the region, which have a much more tart juice. People who live in and around Tehran are known to prefer their fesenjān slightly sweeter, so they add a bit of sugar to the braise. In the central and southern regions of Iran, fesenjān has a sweeter taste from the addition of date or grape syrup. My recipe is more like the version preferred by the Tehranites.

Make sure to take good notes while making fesenjān for the first time, so that you can adjust things in future batches. In particular, keep track of the tartness and consistency of the pomegranate molasses you use, the resulting sweet-tart flavor of the final dish, and the coarseness of the walnuts you grind.

Common Fesenjān Variations and How to Adapt This Recipe to Make Them

I do not know of any other Persian khoresh (braise) that has so many proven variations. Here are examples of how this braise may be adapted.

  • Other Types of Nuts: Various regions of Iran make fesenjān using other types of nuts. Pistachios, almonds, or hazelnuts can be used in place of the walnuts to make an extraordinarily flavorful braise. 
  • Vegetarian: There are two popular vegetarian versions where the meat is replaced with eggplant or butternut squash. For the eggplant version: In step 2, omit the meat and instead peel an equal amount by weight of eggplant. Cut them in half lengthwise, then pan-fry them until deep orange-brown color, about 10 minutes. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 45 minutes, then add the eggplant and continue to simmer for another 45 minutes. For the butternut squash version: In step 2, omit the meat and use about 1 pound of peeled and seeded butternut squash that's been cut into 1-inch cubes. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 30 minutes, then add the squash and continue to simmer for another 60 minutes.
  • Meatballs: Thoroughly mix 1 pound (500g) ground lamb or beef, 1 grated small onion, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric together in a large bowl, then form into 1-inch meatballs. In step 2, omit the meat and instead pan-fry the meatballs in batches until browned all over, 8 to 10 minutes. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 30 minutes before adding the meatballs. Continue to simmer for another 60 minutes
  • Chicken Parts: Chicken fesenjān can be made with chicken drumsticks or boneless skinless chicken breasts, or a small whole chicken. If using drumsticks: In step 2, substitute 4 or 5 chicken drumsticks for the meat. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 45 minutes before adding the drumsticks. Continue to simmer for 45 minutes. Traditionally, if fesenjān is made with chicken or duck drumsticks in it, the drumsticks are prominently displayed in the serving platter. If using boneless skinless chicken breasts: Substitute 1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks, for the meat. Omit the browning in step 2. In step 6, let the water, onion, and walnut mixture simmer for 45 minutes before adding the chicken breasts. Continue to simmer for another 45 minutes. 
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  • Whole Bone-In Duck or Chicken: Cut up a whole bone-in duck or chicken into its primary parts (6 to 8 pieces). In step 2, omit meat and brown all poultry parts including the backbone and neck, in batches if needed. In a Dutch oven, add browned poultry pieces, 3 cups water, 1 teaspoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric. Bring to boil over high heat, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 1 hour. Remove the two drumsticks and set aside. Continue to simmer until meat is falling off the bone, about 30 minutes. Remove poultry pieces and let cool slightly. Remove the skin and bones from the cooked pieces, leaving the two drumsticks untouched. Proceed with step 1, skipping the browning of the meat and using the liquid that the poultry pieces had been cooked instead of water that has been called for in the primary recipe. Once the dish has been simmering for 45 minutes, add both drumsticks and the deboned cooked duck meat and simmer for another 45 min.
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  • Just the Sauce: It’s time to give away a semi-secret that is often used in some Persian restaurants in the diaspora. Follow the primary recipe and skip all references to meat. You will end up with a thick, savory, deep-brown, nutty, sweet-and-sour fesenjān “sauce.” You can make large batches of it days or weeks ahead of time. When you want to serve a fesenjān-sort-of-a-dish, warm up a couple of ladles full of the sauce and pour over pieces of cooked meat.

How to Serve Fesenjān

Like practically all other Persian khoreshes, fesenjān is best served with Persian steamed white rice (chelow), along with a few pieces of Persian crunchy rice (tahdig). Alternatively, fesenjān can be accompanied with a variety of Persian flatbreads (e.g., lavāsh, sangak, tāftoon, babari) or another type of flat bread such as pita.

Here is a secret for enjoying leftover fesenjān that I grew up with (although I have since seen a reference to it in one Persian language cookbook): Spread several spoonsful of leftover cold fesenjān on your favorite bread, making a cold sandwich. It’s perfect as a snack as well as for a picnic.

Given the richness of fesenjān, a side of Persian Shirāzi salad, Persian māst-o-khiār (chopped or grated cucumber, yogurt, crushed dried mint leaves), and/or the ubiquitous Persian plate of fresh herbs called sabzi-khordan (any combination of fresh mint, tarragon, Thai basil, watercress, scallion, radish) is customary, but not necessary.

In a food processor, pulse walnuts until the size of coarse cornmeal, scraping down sides with a rubber spatula as necessary, about 12 one-second pulses. You should have about 2 1/2 cups of ground walnuts.

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In a large Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Season meat with salt and pepper, then add to Dutch oven in a single layer. Cook, turning occasionally until meat is well browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer meat to a rimmed baking sheet or a large plate; set aside.

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Heat the remaining lamb fat in the Dutch oven, over medium heat until shimmering. (If Dutch oven is dry with no remaining fat in the Dutch oven, add 1 tablespoon oil). Add onion and cook until just beginning to turn golden brown, 7 to 10 minutes. 

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Sprinkle turmeric over onion, and cook, stirring constantly until onion is well coated and turmeric is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

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Add 2 cups water to Dutch oven and bring to boil over high heat, scraping up browned bits with a wooden spoon.

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Stir in browned meat and any accumulated juices, ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses, and sugar and bring to boil. Adjust heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until the braise is dark brown, meat is fork-tender, and oil from the walnuts has come to the surface, 1 1/2 to 2 hours; stir gently every 15 minutes and adjust heat as needed to maintain gentle simmer throughout. Add water while braising if needed to avoid scorch on the bottom of the pan and to maintain stew consistency. Season with additional salt, if desired (keep in mind that this dish should not have an overt saltiness, but instead should lean into its tart-sweet flavor profile).

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Transfer braise to heat-proof serving bowl. Garnish with pomegranate seeds, if using. Serve with tahdig and chelow.

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Special Equipment

Food processor, large Dutch oven

Notes

All braising times given are sufficient to result in a well “ja-oftādeh” (integrated) authentic fesenjān. However, with this dish, you won’t go wrong if you let it simmer, covered, over very low heat, for up to one additional hour. A final sprinkling of fresh bright red pomegranate arils (seeds) makes for a beautiful final presentation, but they are purely decorative and may be omitted from the recipe.

In traditional Persian fashion, the meal is served family-style, where individuals start by spooning some rice onto their plate and topping it off with spoonfuls of the braise.

When you make Persian rice (chelow), you also get tahdig (the crispy rice from the bottom of the pot). Because there's so much to say about the techniques for making chelow and its accompanying tahdig, we have two recipes on Serious Eats, one in which the recipe headnote focuses on the techniques for perfecting the chelow more generally and the other that takes a closer look at the art of making tahdig.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Like many other Persian khoreshes, fesenjān can be made a day or two ahead of time and reheated gently.

Fesenjān is extremely leftover-friendly. The braise can be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to three months. Add a few tablespoons of water as needed when reheating.

Kashk-o-Bādemjān (Persian Braised Eggplant With Kashk)

This silky mixture of twice-cooked eggplant with tangy kashk, fried onions, garlic, and dried mint is a mainstay on most Persian restaurant menus.

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Kashk-o-bādemjān (Persian kashk and eggplant) is arguably the most popular warm appetizer in the Persian culinary landscape. This is an unfussy, easy to make, and rich dish. You will find it in the starter section on the menu of practically all Persian restaurants. 

Kashk-o-bādemjān has a silky texture resulting from the eggplants having been cooked twice—initially pan-fried and then braised in a small amount of water. Pan-frying the eggplants to a deep brownish color also provides a subtle caramelized flavor to the dish. A creamy and thick form of kashk—an important fermented dairy ingredient in Persian cookery—gives this dish its unique tangy-umami flavor.

The kashk’s tangy flavor blends into the body of the dish when it is added to the eggplant while braising. After the eggplant is braised until velvety, it is transferred to a serving platter, where more kashk is drizzled on top, guaranteeing that its bright umami flavor will be present in every bite. In addition to streams of creamy kashk, the dish is topped with fried onions, garlic, and crushed dried mint leaves.

In sit-down Persian restaurants in the Iranian diaspora, where dishes are served in courses, kashk-o-bādemjān is typically served as an appetizer. In Persian home settings, where all the dishes for a meal are brought to the table at the same time, it typically acts as a side dish. In all cases, it is commonly accompanied by some sort of Persian flatbread (e.g., lavāsh, sangak, tāftoon, babari) or another type of flatbread such as pita. It can, however, function as a main dish when a large portion is served along with a hefty amount of flatbread and accompanied maybe by a bowl of yogurt and sabzi khordan, the traditional Persian plate of fresh herbs and feta cheese.

Kashk: A Closer Look

As described above, kashk is a key ingredient in this recipe. It is a fermented dairy product and is a common pantry item in Persian cookery. Traditional Persian kashk is a product of the yogurt-making process. Churning high-fat yogurt creates two by-products: butter and a leftover liquid known as doogh (the process is somewhat similar to churning cultured cream to produce butter and buttermilk). The doogh is boiled down into a thick, creamy paste that is strained and dried in the sun: this is kashk. It is tangy, a bit salty, and sourish, with umami characteristics not unlike what one finds in a very mature Parmesan cheese. It imparts a unique and popular flavor to a wide range of Persian dishes including thick soups like āsh-e-reshteh (a vegetable noodle soup), porridge-like dishes including halim (made from wheat and meat), and starter dishes such as this kashk-o-bādemjān.

Kashk is an ancient foodstuff. It has been an essential element in the diet of not only the Iranian people, but also other cultures living in Central and Western Asia, for thousands of years. There are references to it as an important food item in one of the oldest surviving texts in Middle Persian language from the Parthian Empire era of circa 200 BCE to 200 CE.

Kashk began as one of the earliest dairy preservation methods utilized heavily by nomadic people. It was lightweight, which made it quite portable, and it was long lasting as its absence of fat meant it would not go rancid. It was also packed with protein and calcium, and deeply flavorful. 

These days, you can purchase kashk in three different forms: dried powder, dried chunks in the shape of balls or sticks, and jars of concentrated liquid kashk. Regardless of which of the three forms you purchase, for cooking purposes, they are all typically transformed into a thick creamy liquid with the consistency of crêpe batter, so that it can be drizzled.

The dry powder form needs to be rehydrated with water. The dried chunks, which are rather hard, must be soaked in water for about six hours before they become malleable enough to work with. Both dry forms, after being rehydrated, need a bit of heavy-handed stirring (ideally with the help of a food processor, blender, or immersion blender); otherwise, they may have a slightly gritty texture. The easiest form to use for cooking, in a typical modern Western home kitchen, is the paste-like concentrated liquid kashk that comes in glass jars. It has the consistency of thick mayonnaise and is easily diluted for drizzling purposes. (One can also make kashk from scratch at home but that would be a whole different article.)

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Jars of concentrated liquid kashk, which is my recommended form, are readily available from Persian and Middle Eastern markets, as well as in international food aisles of well-stocked grocery stores. In fact, partially due to an increasing interest shown to kashk by such famous chefs and food writers as Yotam Ottolenghi, you may find multiple brands of jars of liquid kashk on the shelves of your favorite specialty grocery store. 

In preparation for this article, I purchased four different brands of kashk from the same Middle Eastern market. They all came in 16-ounce (454g) glass jars and were comparably priced. I tested them for flavor and texture, and I’m glad to say that all four were equally good, which is consistent with my ongoing experience purchasing different brands over the years.

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The Eggplant

Eggplant is one of the most popular vegetables (yes, botanically it's a fruit) in Persian cooking. You will find eggplants in a wide range of Persian dishes, ranging from starters to sides, soups, porridges, egg-centered dishes, rice dishes, braises, stuffed vegetables, pickles, and even jams. 

Although there are many different types of eggplants in different shapes, sizes, and colors, Persian home cooks classify them simply in two groups: skinny purple ones and fat purple ones. The skinny ones, which typically don’t have as many seeds, are meant to be cut up lengthwise and are the preferred type for braising, pan frying, and mashing, while the fat ones are preferred for stuffed eggplant dishes.

The key advantages of skinny eggplants for Persian cookery are that they are easier to pan-fry since they only have to be cut once crosswise to sear, and they hold their shape well during braising.

Practically speaking, any kind of eggplant will do for kashk-o-bādemjān since they will partially be smashed after they're cooked. However, skinny ones are still preferred since they have no noticeable seeds.

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The History of This Dish

Though kashk has been around the Persian cookery landscape for centuries, this dish is a bit younger. You see, eggplant did not find its way into the Iranian plateau until around 8th century CE, likely arriving from India. One of the earliest known references to eggplant being grown in Iran is in an ancient comprehensive book on medicine by the famous Iranian physician, philosopher, and alchemist Abu Bakr al-Rāzi, who lived in c. 9-10th century CE. He uses the color of eggplant grown in Iran as the definition of purpleness. 

One of the earliest known references to kashk-o-bādemjān is in the work of the 14th century satirical Persian poet Boshaq At’Ameh, who used Persian culinary terminology in his poetry. The first full-fledged recipe for a dish that very much resembles contemporary Persian kashk-o-bādemjān is in a 16th century Persian language cookbook.

Equipment Needed

Kashk-o-bādemjān preparation asks for the peeled eggplants to be pan-fried before being braised. My go-to vessel for pan-frying has been my well-seasoned 12-inch cast-iron skillet. It works especially well for pan frying not-too-thick slices—no thicker than 1 inch (2.5 centimeters)—of eggplant. When it comes to kashk-o-bādemjān, I typically have more eggplants to pan-fry than comfortably fit in my largest cast-iron skillet. This is when I now pull out my not-used-very-often electric pancake griddle. With it, I get three times as much frying surface, and over the years, I have noticed that I use less oil and get as good results as when I use my beloved cast-iron skillet. So if you have an electric griddle, consider turning it into a multitasker if it is not already.

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The Cooking Method

Practically all historical cookbooks, and many contemporary ones, including Persian language ones, mention a bitterness in eggplant and often recommend salting and draining before cooking. First of all, modern food science tells us that the molecules in eggplant that might be a source of bitterness are way too big for salt molecules to pull out—salting simply masks our perception of any bitterness. Moreover, such bitterness that may have been present in older, larger, eggplant varieties grown in dry environments is no longer an issue these days. The eggplants you find in your favorite grocery stores are bred not to be bitter. 

The spongy internal structure of eggplants, particularly the fatter ones, soak up oil when being pan-fried, which makes the resulting dish very rich. Over the years, cooks have come up with all kinds of tricks to minimize the oil-soaking-ness of eggplants: immersing the eggplants in salty water for an extended period of time, pre-cooking them in a microwave, brushing them with egg whites, etc. Here, there's no need to worry about any such pre-processing of eggplants. The extra richness achieved by eggplants soaking up oil during pan frying is a key characteristic of this dish. Moreover, as detailed in the recipe below, any truly extra oil will drip away naturally if the pan-fried eggplants are left to rest on a cooling rack placed over a baking sheet for a few minutes.

The final stage of this dish’s preparation, which takes place right before it is taken to the table, involves topping it with several ingredients (golden fried onions, drizzles of kashk, olive oil or butter infused with crushed garlic and crushed dried mint leaves). This is just a reminder for you to stage all the toppings to ensure the completed dish arrives at the table still hot.

In a medium bowl, whisk kashk paste with 1/4 cup (60ml) water until well combined. Adjust consistency with additional water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it is thick but pourable (similar to a crêpe batter); set aside.

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Set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet and line with a triple layer of paper towels. Fill a 12-inch cast-iron skillet 1/4 inch deep with oil, then heat over high heat until oil is shimmering but not smoking. Working in batches to prevent crowding the skillet, carefully add eggplant slices, flesh side down, and fry, flipping once halfway through, until eggplant is dark golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer eggplant to prepared rack. Add more oil to skillet, if needed, then repeat with remaining eggplant.

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In a separate large saucepan, add the fried eggplant, 3/4 cup water, pepper, and turmeric and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes, adjusting heat as needed to maintain simmer.

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Uncover and add half of the reserved diluted kashk. Using a fork or potato masher, gently stir to combine and break up the eggplant until halfway mashed. Cover and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally and continuing to gently mash and break down the eggplant mixture, until eggplant is broken down and sauce has thickened, about 30 minutes. Sauce should be chunky but well blended and emulsified into a cohesive mixture. If any undesired excess oil remains, use a spoon to remove from the mixture.

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Meanwhile, in a separate small saute pan, melt butter over low heat (or heat 2 tablespoons olive oil until shimmering). Add mint and garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.

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Transfer braised eggplant mixture to a shallow serving bowl. Drizzle with remaining diluted kashk. Top with fried onions, then spoon garlic-mint mixture over top. Serve with lavash or pita bread.

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Notes

I prefer to use slender, purple-hued eggplant. Thin eggplants labeled as Japanese eggplant or Chinese eggplant will both work well in this recipe. You may substitute fatter round eggplants such as globe eggplant; if using this type, slice them into 1-inch-thick (2cm) disks for frying. 

The recipe calls for concentrated liquid kashk, which is the easiest form of kashk to use for cooking. However, dry kashk—whether in powder form or chunks—can also be used. Substitute 7 ounces (200g) dry kashk for each cup of concentrated liquid kashk. The dry powder needs to be rehydrated with water. The dried chunks, which are rather hard, must be soaked in water for about six hours before they become malleable enough to work with. Both dry forms, after being rehydrated, need a bit of heavy-handed stirring (preferably using a food processor, blender, or immersion blender); otherwise, they may have a slightly gritty texture.

Kashk is available at most Persian and Middle Eastern markets. If you don’t have access to kashk of any kind, you can create your own substitute by blending TK finely grated Parmesan cheese into TK crème fraiche, thinning with water as needed. Alternatively, you can stir TK lime juice into tk sour cream.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Steps 1 through 4 can be done a day or two ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container. When ready to serve, heat the cooked mixture of eggplant and kashk in a saucepan over medium-low heat or in a shallow serving platter in the microwave. Perform steps 6 and 7 a few minutes before you want to serve the dish.

The braised eggplant and kashk mixture can be stored in an airtight container and frozen for up to 3 months. 

Pan-fried eggplants freeze quite well as long as they are stored in an airtight container. Whenever I see good-quality skinny eggplants at a reasonable price, I buy several pounds, pan-fry them, and store them in 1-pound portions in freezer bags for making this or other eggplant-based dishes later.

Store bought thick liquid kashk typically comes in 16–fluid ounce glass jars. Once opened, it must be refrigerated and will last only two to three weeks. If you don’t think you will go through a whole jar within that time period, here is a proven technique to extend its life to months: Divide any leftover thick liquid kashk into small silicone molds or in ice cube trays and freeze. Once frozen, pop the kashk cubes into individual small airtight freezer bags (three or four per bag) and store them in your freezer for future use. When you want to use them, drop a few frozen cubes into a mixing bowl, let them defrost at room temperature for 10 minutes, and dilute to a drizzle-able state by adding a tablespoon or two of water.

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Māst-o-Khiār (Persian Yogurt with Cucumber)

Whether eaten as a side dish, a dip, or an appetizer, there’s no wrong way to enjoy māst-o-khiār, a simple combination of tangy yogurt and refreshing cucumber enjoyed throughout Iran.

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Open any Persian restaurant menu in the Western world and you are sure to find māst-o-khiār. This popular Persian yogurt and cucumber dish is versatile, serving many roles on the table, from a starter to an accompaniment for rice and grilled meats, or even as a dip. A Persian sofreh—the physical table setting, and the people gathered around it for a meal—is unthinkable without a bowl of some kind of yogurt-based accompaniment, and māst-o-khiār is arguably the most popular among them. 

The combination of plain yogurt and finely diced or shredded fresh cucumber is simple and easy to put together yet produces an exciting contrast of flavors (sharp, tangy, and refreshing) and textures (creamy and crunchy) all in one bit. 

It’s a winning combination—just look at how many iterations of yogurt mixed with fresh cucumbers exist throughout the Middle East, and Central Asia, and southeastern Europe: Greek tzatziki, Turkish cacik, Bulgarian tarator, Indian raita, and Iraqi jajeek, just to name a few. While these yogurt-based, sauce-like dishes have many similarities, here I will speak to the unique characteristics and history of māst-o-khiār. 

History of Māst-o-Khiār

Māst-o-khiār is a member of a large family of Persian side-dishes called borāni that are made from a mixture of yogurt (drained or undrained), raw or cooked vegetables, and a few simple seasonings. Their popularity stems from the fact that they are simple, quick to prepare, nourishing, and able to serve multiple needs. 

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The word borāni is thought to have originated in the ancient Persian Sassanian dynasty, around 630 CE. The queen of Iran at the time, Poorānkokht, was known for her love of yogurt. The royal chefs created a variety of yogurt dishes for her, which became known as "poorani'' after the queen herself. After the Arab conquests of Iran, since the letter "p" did not exist in the Arabic alphabet, the name of the dishes evolved to its current version.

The Main Ingredients in Māst-o-Khiār

This simple recipe consists of just two main ingredients—cucumber and yogurt—so the selection and treatment of these ingredients is critical for this recipe's success.

Cucumber: To dice or shred? That is the question, and in my experience and research there is no consensus among Persian cooks. Some swear by a small dice while others strongly prefer the texture of the cucumber when shredded or grated. Based on having made thousands of batches over several decades, I have found that it simply comes down to personal preference. Whether the cucumber is diced or shredded, both versions will have a comparable flavor and creaminess. Of course there are some expected differences in texture—your tongue feeling tiny cubes of crunchy cucumber versus longer and thinner strands of it, but the main difference comes down to the time it takes to prep a dice compared to shredding.

For me, it takes a bit longer to finely dice than relying on a box grater or food processor to do the bulk of the labor for me. So if I am making a double- or triple-batch (which I often do since this stores so well and pairs well with almost everything), I’ll use the large holes of a box grater or the shredding disk attachment with my food processor. My personal favorite, however, is half grated and half diced—it’s the best of all textural worlds.

Whether diced or shredded, just make sure to use a thin-skinned cucumber such as Persion or English cucumbers with relatively few seeds compared to other types of cucumbers. If you do end up using a thicker-skinned and seedier cucumber (think Kirby or American), I recommend dicing the cucumber, as shredding will release too much liquid and require an extra straining step.

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Yogurt: You can use regular (undrained) yogurt or drained "Greek" (drained) yogurt. The drained yogurt will give you a thicker māst-o-khiār perfect to be used as an appetizer or a dip, while regular undrained yogurt will give you a thinner, more pourable version that works well as an accompaniment spooned over rice or grilled meat.

And while a full-fat yogurt will of course result in a richer māst-o-khiār than a reduced-fat one, what’s more important f is the yogurt's flavor. Tanginess is key here. The tangier the yogurt, the tastier your māst-o-khiār. Traditional Persian yogurt is tangier than most yogurt types found in U.S. supermarkets, so you’ll need to make a point of finding a tangier yogurt. If you have access to Persian, Mideastern, or Mediterranean markets, you’ll be able to find the right yogurt. In North America, look for such brands as White Moustache, Damavand, Abali, Sadaf, and Karoun. If you live in the United Kingdom, look for brands like Alwand, Abali, Naz, Pegah, or Diba. Another option if you have the time and dedication is to make your own homemade yogurt, and  increase the fermentation period by 8 hours for a properly tangy Persian-style yogurt.

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Variations of Māst-o-Khiār

As is common with simple and versatile recipes, there are many māst-o-khiār variations that are often based on family or regional preferences. One popular variation involves the addition of six finely diced or crushed cloves of garlic. Just be prepared for the garlicky punch with this version. Another great option for allium lovers is to add your preferred amount of finely chopped red onion to the yogurt mixture. Or, add more texture with chopped fresh tomatoes (my father’s favorite version).

The Persian cold soup āb-doogh-khiār is a popular summer dish that is made by diluting māst-o-khiār with icy cold water and adding raisins, chopped walnuts, and additional herbs such as dill and cilantro. It makes a perfect summertime lunch with crushed dried Lavash bread (or crushed dried pita or crackers) added to each bowl right before eating.

How to Serve Māst-o-Khiār

No matter how it is prepared, māst-o-khiār should be served family-style, in a single large bowl for family and guests to scoop into. If serving it as a dip or as a formal appetizer, Persians enjoy it with a basket of Persian flatbread (e.g., lavāsh, sangak, tāftoon, babari) or another flatbread such as pita will also work.

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Whether spooned over succulent meat and fluffy rice for dinner, or scooped onto a flatbread to start a meal, there is no wrong way to enjoy this Persian yogurt and cucumber dish. 

Dice the peeled cucumber into 1/4-inch (0.5cm) pieces. Alternatively, shred the cucumber on the large holes of a box grater.

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In a large mixing bowl, stir together the cucumber, yogurt, mint, and pepper. Season with salt to taste. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with additional mint for garnish, if desired. Serve.

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Notes

English cucumber may be substituted for Persian cucumber with an equal amount by weight. Information on how to dice cucumbers can be found here.

Regular (undrained) yogurt or Greek (drained) yogurt will both work in this recipe. The drained yogurt will produce a thicker māst-o-khiār perfect as an appetizer or a dip. Regular undrained yogurt will make a thinner and more pourable māst-o-khiār that is great served as an accompaniment to a rice dish or grilled meat. You can use full- or partial-fat yogurt; keep in mind that full-fat yogurt will produce a richer result, but more important than anything is to use an appropriately tangy yogurt if at all possible (see headnote for more guidance on yogurt type).

Make Sure to use dried spearmint, and not dried peppermint for this recipe.

When it comes to the amount of cucumber and yogurt, māst-o-khiār is a very flexible recipe in the sense that you do not need to be exact.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Māst-o-khiār always tastes better the day after it has been made. Simply store it in a covered container in the refrigerator. 

If you do make it a day ahead of time, and want to increase its natural tanginess, leave it in a covered container on your kitchen counter at room temperature overnight before transferring the container to your refrigerator. The yogurt will naturally ferment a bit more.

Māst-o-khiār keeps very well: Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. I almost always make a double batch.

Khoresh-é-Bādemjan (Persian Meat and Eggplant Stew)

Filled with melt-in-your-mouth meat and luscious eggplant, this aromatic stew is hearty, comforting, and undeniably delicious.

Overhead view of finished eggplant stew
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Khoresh-é-bādemjan is one of the most popular Persian khoreshes, or meat braises, thanks at least in part to its centuries-deep roots in the Persian culinary landscape and ease of preparation. Both hearty and comforting, it's also undeniably delicious. To make it, chunks of lamb or beef are browned and then gently braised in a simple aromatic flavor base of onions, ground turmeric, and tomatoes. Halfway through the process, pan-fried eggplants are added to the pot and the gentle cooking continues. The result is melt-in-your-mouth chunks of meat nestled alongside silky eggplant in a luscious braising sauce.

Side view of khoresh-é-Bādemjan
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History of Khoresh-é-bādemjan

Khoresh-é-bādemjan has a long legacy in Persian cuisine. Several of the oldest surviving Arabic language cookbooks, which contain a slew of Persianized dishes, document the existence of meat braises with eggplant in the royal cuisine of ninth-century Iran. Those early versions differ a bit from contemporary khoresh-é-bādemjan recipes in that they were flavored with vinegar instead of tomato. That’s because tomatoes were not introduced into Iran until some time in the 19th century CE. (The literal translation of the Persian word for tomato, gojeh-farangi, is “foreign plum.”) Since then, tomatoes have found their way into a large number of Persian dishes. 

Eggplants are integral in a wide range of Persian foods: They're added to soup, porridge, rice, and egg dishes; braised; stuffed; pickled; and even made into jam. For stuffing, Persian home cooks prefer the fatter, globe-shaped eggplants, but slender eggplants are better for braising and pan-frying, since they have fewer seeds and can be simply halved lengthwise before cooking. They are also more likely to keep their shape during braising. Although recipes sometimes recommend salting eggplants to remove bitterness and prevent them from soaking up oil, neither precaution is necessary. Today’s eggplants have been bred not to be bitter. And the richness that comes from eggplants soaking oil while they cook is a key characteristic of this and other Persian khoreshes. Any truly extra oil will drip naturally away as the pan-fried eggplants rest on a wire rack placed over a baking sheet.

Overhead view of eggplant
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As for the meat, khoresh-é-bādemjan is typically made with either lamb or beef. If you have the option, go with lamb, as that is the preferred meat among most Persians (the earliest known domestication of sheep took place in the Zagros Mountains of western Iran about 10,000 years ago, while cattle raising did not flourish there until the Middle Ages). The best cuts of lamb for Persian-style braising are leg, shoulder, neck, and shank. These cuts contain intramuscular fat and connective tissue that break down during the long, slow, moist cooking process, giving the meat a moist and tender texture. I especially like leg of lamb because it is quite adaptable and it’s the most readily available cut in American supermarkets. I typically purchase a 4- to 5-pound (2- to 2.4kg) deboned leg of lamb, trim the unwanted fat, and divide it into one-pound portions that I cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces for braising; if I'm not going to be using all the meat within a day or two, I freeze it. Not only is this more economical, but it also gives me more control over the quality and size of the pieces of meat. If you decide to go with beef, the best cuts of beef for braising include chuck, bone-in short rib, shanks, and oxtail (though oxtail has a lot of bones to deal with).

Tell-Tale Signs of a Perfect Braise

Khoresh-é-bādemjan embodies an important concept in Persian cookery called “ja-oftādan” (Persian: جا افتادن). It describes the ultimate and most desired stage of a braise when all the ingredients are thoroughly integrated and “married,” suspended in thick, liquid. At that point, the meat will have reached the “falling off the bone” stage of tenderness (even if it doesn’t contain bones), and any fat will have picked up the color of one of the key ingredients in the dish, appearing as shiny pools on the surface of the braise. 

Overhead view of braise
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You can tell that khoresh-é-bādemjan has reached this state when it has achieved a brownish-orange color, the chunks of meat are poking out between the surrounding silky strips of eggplant, and deep-orange pools of oil, released naturally from the pan-fried eggplants, are circling the pot.

Variations of Khoresh-é-Bādemjan

Traditionally speaking, many Persian dishes take advantage of short-lived seasonal ingredients. A popular late springtime variation of khoresh-é-bādemjan involves the use of unripe green sour grapes. In Farsi, sour grapes are called ghooreh and are a popular souring agent; they are used either fresh whole, juiced into verjuice, or dried and ground. They are harvested in late spring when they are no larger than the size of a jellybean. To make this popular late springtime variation of khoresh-é-bādemjan simply add 3/4 cup of sour grapes about 30 minutes before the end of the braising time. (Fresh sour unripe green grapes freeze quite well: When I get my hands on them in the spring, I first separate the individual grapes from the stems, then freeze most of them for future use.)

Overhead view of grapes
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Although lamb and beef are the most popular meats for making khoresh-é-bādemjan, it is sometimes made with bone-in or boneless chicken parts.

How  to Serve Khoresh-é-Bādemjan

Like practically all other Persian khoreshes, khoresh-é-bādemjan is best served as a main dish accompanied by a plain rice dish such as the chelow (Persian steamed white rice), along with a few pieces of crunchy tahdig. It is normally transferred to a large dish and served family-style; some Persian home cooks garnish their khoresh-é-bādemjan with a couple of lightly seared tomato halves as well.

Overhead view of khoresh-é-Bādemjan
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Set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet and line with a triple layer of paper towels. Fill a 12-inch cast-iron skillet 1/4 inch deep with oil, then heat over medium-high heat until oil is shimmering but not smoking. Working in batches to prevent crowding the skillet, carefully add eggplant slices, cut side down, and fry, lowering the heat as needed to prevent the oil from smoking and flipping once halfway through, until eggplant is dark golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer eggplant to prepared wire rack. Repeat with remaining eggplant, topping up with additional oil if needed. Set cooked eggplant aside. 

Two image collage of eggplants frying in a cast iron pan and eggplants after being fried
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In a Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Season meat evenly with the salt and pepper and add to the saucepan in a single layer. Cook, turning occasionally, until meat is well browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer meat to a plate and set aside.

Two image collage of meat pieces browning and cooking in pot
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Heat remaining fat in the Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering, and add chopped onion. Cook until the onion is softened and golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. 

Overhead view of onions browning in a pot
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Stir in turmeric and cook until aromatic,  30 seconds. Stir in tomato paste and cook until well incorporated and beings to darken in color, 1 minute longer.

Four image collage of adding tumeric and tomato paste to pot
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Add 2 cups water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Scrape the bottom of the saucepan to free up any brown bits stuck to the bottom. Stir in the meat and return to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook for 10 minutes.

Two image collage of adding water and meat to the pot
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Remove the lid and give the contents a gentle stir. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Stir in lemon juice.

Overhead view of adding lemon juice to pot
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Gently arrange the eggplant halves on top of the meat in an even layer, overlapping if needed. Using a spatula, gently press down on the eggplant and carefully shake the pot in a swirling motion to submerge the eggplant into the braising liquid (you don’t want to break the eggplant pieces by stirring them in). Cover and continue cooking at a gentle simmer for 30 minutes longer, swirling the pot every 10 minutes.

Two image collage of eggplants added to pot arranged neatly on top of meat and cooked through
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Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat 1 1/2 teaspoons oil over medium heat until shimmering, then cook the tomato slices until limp, about 5 minutes.

Overhead view of tomato slices cooking in pan
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Season with additional salt or lemon juice, if desired (Persian dishes are often more sour than salty, though feel free to follow your personal preferences). Gently transfer the finished braise to a serving dish. (Rather than spooning it in, which can break up the eggplant too much, I usually tip the pot carefully over the edge of the serving dish so that the contents can slowly slide into it.) Garnish with tomato slices and serve.

Side view of dumping stew into a bowl from pot
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Notes

I prefer to use slender, purple-hued eggplant. Thin eggplants labeled as Japanese eggplant or Chinese eggplant will both work well in this recipe. You may substitute fatter round eggplants such as globe eggplant; if using this type, slice them into 1-inch-thick (2cm) disks for frying. 

If you own an electric griddle, you can use it to fry the eggplant slices. With its large surface area, the griddle allows you to fry in fewer batches than a cast-iron pan, and I have found that it uses less oil and gives results that are just as good.

All braising times given above are sufficient to result in a well “ja-oftādeh” (integrated) authentic khoresh-é-bādemjan. However, with this dish, you won’t go wrong if you let it simmer, covered, over very low heat, for another 30 minutes or more; it will simply get more flavorful.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Like many other Persian khoreshes, khoresh-é-bādemjan can be made a day or two ahead of time and reheated gently.

Pan-fried eggplants freeze quite well as long as they are stored in an airtight container. Whenever I see good-quality skinny eggplants at a reasonable price, I buy several pounds, pan-fry them, and store them in 1-pound portions in freezer bags for making this or other eggplant-based dishes later.

Khoresh-é-bādemjan is extremely leftover-friendly. Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to three months.

Sholeh-Zard (Persian Saffron Rice Pudding)

This rich and creamy Persian rice pudding is subtly flavored with saffron and rosewater then topped with decorations meant to impress.

Overhead view of intricately decorated Sholeh Zard
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In the world of Persian puddings and custards, sholeh-zard reigns as the queen. This rice pudding's prized status is most likely due to its liberal use of saffron that gives the dish its distinct yellow hue and subtle earthy aroma, as well as the pudding’s final ornate edible decoration that serves as a regal crown.

While its esteemed reputation and embellishments make it a classic and cherished rice pudding among the Persians, the preparation is actually very simple— requiring only a single saucepan and a simple simmering technique. The rice is slowly simmered in plenty of water, sweetened with sugar, delicately flavored with saffron and rosewater, and elegantly garnished with ground cinnamon and slivers of dried nuts.

Overhead view of Sholeh-Zard
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There are a range of rice and rice flour-based desserts in Persian cuisine—puddings and custards (both spoonable and sliceable) as well as cookies and other confections—but what sets sholeh-zard apart from other rice pudding recipes that I’ve eaten is its vibrant yellow color, its balanced saffron-rosewater flavor, and its creamy texture where the grains of rice are barely visible. Moreover, unlike many other types of rice pudding, Sholeh-Zard  does not rely on milk, cream, egg, flour, or other thickeners or emulsifiers to achieve its signature creamy texture. As seemingly simple as this preparation is, this rice pudding’s history is rich and deep.

The History and Cultural Importance of Sholeh-Zard

Sholeh-zard has been present in the Persian culinary landscape for centuries. The earliest documented reference dates back to between the 8th and 11th centuries CE and has been known by different names in different regions of Iran. A list of names of common food items in ancient Iran between the 8th and 11th centuries CE, published in a recent historical study, includes a dish called zardi (or zardeh) which the historians believe is what sholeh-ard used to be called during that time frame. 

Side view of Sholeh Zard
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Sholeh-zard is a compound term made up of the Persian word “sholeh,” which refers to a family of highly starchy and thick dishes, both savory and sweet, where rice is often a key ingredient, and the word “zard,” meaning yellow. Along with sholeh-zard’s documentation in early historical records, it’s also mentioned in Persian literature, poems, proverbs, and sayings from centuries ago. My favorite example is a poetic writing from the 10th century CE where the author, in addition to including a list of sholeh-zard’s ingredients, uses its bright yellow color as an analogy to the way the faces of lovers glow like the sun.

Sholeh-zard is also intertwined in religious practices. It has taken on a prominent role in the Islamic practice of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, frequently appearing at the pre-dawn and post-sunset meals that bookend the daily fast, and is often prepared by Iranian Shia Muslims as part of their obligation of small- and large-scale votive giving.

A Canvas for Culinary Artistry: How to Decorate Sholeh-Zard

Persian cooks are known for elaborate ways of decorating certain dishes, in particular for special occasions and to honor guests, and sholeh-zard is a perfect dish to express this artistry. Its bold yellow color and flat and firm surface make it an ideal canvas for elaborate decoration.

Overehead view of a single decorated serving of sholeh zard
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Once poured into its serving bowl and cooled down to room temperature, sholeh-zard develops a very thin skin on top that helps to preserve the texture and moisture of pudding below while providing a dry and stable surface for visual embellishments. This top surface is almost always garnished with a combination of ground cinnamon, bright green slivers of pistachios, white slivers of almond, and crushed dried rose petals, formed in geometric designs ranging from simple to extravagant.

As a child, I learned how to decorate sholeh-zard from my aunt. She taught me the traditional way of making precise and clean decorative lines from ground cinnamon. The method is fairly simple, but requires patience and repetition before perfecting. Start with a clean kitchen towel, and use the tips of your index finger and thumb to grab a pinch of cinnamon from a bowl. While firmly pressing the tips of your index finger and thumb together, simultaneously move your hand and rub the tips of your index finger and thumb together. The rubbing will cause the powder to gently fall, and the motion of your hand will cause it to make it a line. Simple repeat in a slow and steady motion to create your desired geometric pattern. Wipe the tips of your fingers with a kitchen towel between each pinch. It takes practice to draw super fine lines. Iranians do not worry too much about how fine the lines are. The important thing is having gone through the motions, the process, and the experience of making some sort of design on top of your sholeh-zard.

Close up an of an individual serving of sholeh-zard
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An alternative method for decorating with ground cinnamon is to fold a small (roughly 4x4 inch) piece of parchment paper in half by making a sharp crease. Open the fold halfway and put a teaspoon of ground cinnamon in the crease between the middle of the fold and front edge of the fold. Tapping the side of the fold, while holding it at an angle will cause the cinnamon to gently fall onto the surface below. Use controlled, steady, gentle taps while moving the make-shift parchment funnel to create your desired pattern.

Rice, Rice, Baby: Which Rice to Use and Why

The rice is everything in this recipe. It acts as the comforting sponge that absorbs the aromatic flavors of the saffron, cinnamon, and rosewater and it is how this pudding’s thick and creamy texture is achieved. The success of this recipe relies on unlocking the rice’s full starch potential, since the rice alone—no added thickeners—is what creates the pudding's texture and consistency.

One key to this is water. Starches love to absorb moisture, and for good sholeh-zard, we want the rice's starch to do as much of that as possible. By placing the rice in water and heating it gently, the starch molecules have the time and correct heat environment to absorb a lot of water, swell, and eventually break down and thicken the pudding. The technical word for this process is gelatinization.

The other key to achieving the proper texture is selecting the right kind of rice. There are two main types of starch molecules in rice that work together to cause gelatinization—amylose and amylopectin—and different varieties of rice contain different ratios of these two types of starch molecules. Rice that is high in amylose tends to yield more distinct and separate grains (think long-grain varieties like jasmine and basmati rice); rice that is higher in amylopectin, such as medium- and short-grain varieties, tend to produce a stickier result.

Side view of different types of rice
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For Sholeh-zard, since we want the rice to break down into a thickened and lightly gelled mass (much more so than other types of rice pudding you may be familiar with), the best option is rice that is higher in amylopectin. Unfortunately, in the U.S., bags of rice are not labeled with their respective ratio of starch molecule types. Instead, rice varieties are marked by grain size (long-, medium-, short-grained), by breed (e.g., arborio, bomba, jasmine), or by culinary application (sushi, risotto, paella).

In Iran, Persian cooks often save their high quality, long-grain white rice for making their prized rice dishes like chelow. For making Sholeh-Zard they instead use a variety of locally grown medium- or short-grain rice, such as the variety called gerdeh, or they use “broken rice,” which are the cracked and shattered fragments of rice that are sifted out of the intact grains before sale. Other than it being broken into small pieces, there is nothing wrong with this rice, and in some cases it offers culinary advantages. In addition to cooking faster than whole grains and being cheaper, it also breaks down more quickly, which means that even though it tends to come from grains that are higher in amylose than amylopectin, it's perfect for puddings such as sholeh-zard.

Here in the United States I have tested many rice varieties in my efforts to make the traditional sholeh-zard I know and love. Based on the countless batches I have cooked and tasted, my recommendation is to use white rice that is labeled medium-grain or short-grain on the packaging. Broken rice is also a great option (with the perk of a shorter cooking time), if available. 

Tips For Cooking Persian Rice Pudding

As I described earlier, sholeh-zard is a simple, one pot recipe. Simmer, stir, and watch—this is the basic course of cooking. But achieving consistently creamy sholez-zard every time does require attention to the details. Here are a few tips for perfect pudding.

To start, although not absolutely necessary for making Sholeh-Zard, I always wash my rice before cooking. Washing rice helps remove dust, sand, and other unwanted foreign debris, particularly if your rice comes in a traditional burlap bag.

Side view of washing rice
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Unlike other Persian steamed rice dishes such as the famous Persian steamed white rice, chelow, it is not necessary to soak the rice before cooking sholeh-zard. That said, soaking the rice for a couple of hours will hydrate the rice and reduce the cooking time once it goes on the heat.

The most critical aspect of making sholeh-zard is the slow cooking of the rice in plenty of water. The rice needs to be cooked until the grains are fall-apart soft, but still somewhat intact, which takes time and lots of water. You'll know it's ready when the rice is very smooth and creamy, but not so broken down that it looks like it's been pureed in a blender. You can also check for the correct consistency by pressing a few grains of cooked rice between two fingers: They should not show any resistance whatsoever, turning into a sticky paste when pressed.

Pressing of rice between two fingers to show consistency
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Subtle is Best: The Flavors of Persian Rice Pudding

There are a couple additional “tricks” that Persian cooks use for cooking and flavoring their sholeh-zard. Adding a portion of the steeped saffron at the beginning of the cooking allows the yellow color of saffron to penetrate the grains of rice fully, while adding the rest of the steeped saffron towards the end of the cooking ensures the delicate aroma of saffron is not lost. Soaking the almond slivers in rosewater while the rice is cooking slightly softens them without losing all of their crunchiness. Moreover, the rosewater-soaked almond slivers, when bitten into, provide an extra, but subtle, release of rosewater flavor.

Overhead view of ingredients
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In some regions of Iran, cardamom is used as an additional flavoring. It makes a great substitute for the ground cinnamon. The best way to add cardamom is to add one or two whole green cardamom pods to the pot at the beginning of the cooking process. Make sure the cardamom pods do not have any cracks on their exterior so that the seeds do not disperse into the pudding. This avoids someone later accidentally biting into a cardamom seed for an unwanted intense hit of cardamom flavor. 

Also be careful when stirring to avoid accidentally crushing the cardamom pod. As an insurance policy, put the cardamom pods in a piece of square cheesecloth and gather the sides forming a pouch. Tie the bundle with a pieces of kitchen twine and throw it in. You can then fish the cardamom out when you are done cooking the pudding.

Meant to Impress: How to Serve Sholeh-Zard

After it has been cooked, hot steaming Sholeh-Zard is either transferred into large bowls for family-style serving or into individual serving bowls. Transferring it into large bowls is more popular with Persians, as individuals can spoon out as much as they want and (hopefully) have seconds. Larger and wider bowls also provide a larger canvas for the top to be decorated in more complex fashions.

Overhead view of sholeh zard with tea
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Although Sholeh-Zard can be served hot right after it has been cooked, it is often served at room temperature or chilled (when served hot, it is typically not decorated, or is more simply garnished with toppings without an attempt at making them into more beautiful shapes and designs). Regardless of serving temperature, a cup of hot black tea goes best with it. Whether enjoyed as a midday dessert, after dinner, or even as breakfast, this silky and refined pudding should be savored. 

In a small bowl, soak the slivered almonds in the rosewater; set aside.

Overhead view of almonds soaking in rosewater
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In a separate small bowl, steep the ground saffron in the 3 tablespoons hot water; set aside.

Overhead view of seeping saffron
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In a large bowl, combine rice with enough cold water to cover. Using your hand, swirl the rice until the water turns cloudy. Pour off the cloudy water through a fine-mesh strainer, then return the drained rice to the bowl and refill with fresh cold water. Repeat 5 to 6 times until the water runs clear, then drain rice. 

Two image collage showing rice in a bowl before and after being rinsed
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In a 5- or 6-quart heavy-bottom pot or Dutch oven, combine the washed rice with 1 tablespoon of the steeped saffron mixture and 7 cups (1.7L) water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then lower heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pot occasionally, until the rice grains are plump and suspended in a thickened slurry roughly the consistency of regular yogurt (not Greek) yogurt, 20 to 25 minutes. (To check for proper consistency, carefully press a couple grains of rice between your fingers: The grains should show no resistance and turn into a sticky paste.) If the mixture is too thick or the grains of rice are not fully cooked, add boiling water in 1/2 cup increments and cook as needed until desired consistency is reached and/or rice is done. 

Four image collage fo cooking rice on stovetop and showing goal consistency
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Add sugar and continue to cook over low heat until the sugar is fully dissolved and pudding is glossy, about 10 minutes.

Overhead view of adding sugar to rice mixture
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of steeped saffron, the soaked almonds with the rosewater, and the 3 1/2 tablespoons butter until the butter is melted and the saffron has fully integrated into the pudding while stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from heat, cover, and let rest for 15 minutes.

Four image collage of added saffron, almonds and butter to rice mixture in pot
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Ladle pudding into individual serving bowls or into one large shallow and wide serving bowl and let cool to room temperature, 20 to 30 minutes. Decorate the top with ground cinnamon, pistachios, almonds, and/or rose petals into your preferred decorative pattern only once the pudding has cooled and a thin skin has formed on the surface. Serve.

Overhead view of fully decorated sholeh zard
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Notes

This recipe can easily be halved to serve 4 to 6. Reduce each ingredient by half and reduce cooking time in step 4 by 5 to 10 minutes and the cooking time in step 5 by about 5 minutes.

It is best to grind saffron from threads as needed. Like many spices, saffron retains its flavor better in its whole (thread) form. Store-bought ground or powdered saffron if often dull and stale, or, worse, not a pure product. While you likely don't have a kitchen scale that can reliably weigh a single gram of saffron, it is often sold by the gram in small containers. If, for example, you had a 2g box of saffron, you would grind half of those threads for this recipe, which is most easily done in a small marble or stone mortar and pestle.

Feel free to omit the slivered almonds from this recipe for personal preference.

Persians refer to the resting of the cooked pudding in step 8 as “dam-keshidan.” There is no good English translation for this term. Culinarily speaking, it is something between integrating, steeping, steaming, and resting—all at the same time. It is an ancient technique that is used in the preparation of many Persian rice-centric dishes as well as when making Persian-style tea. For sholeh-zard, its purpose is to allow all the flavors to fully blend together. 

Persians like their sholeh-zard to be very sweet. The amount of sugar specified in the recipe results in a minimum acceptable sweetness level. After you have made it for the first time, taste and adjust the amount of sugar to your preferred level of sweetness.

The final color of sholeh-zard should be deep bright yellow as illustrated in the pictures in this article. If the color appears too pale, add more steeped saffron, one teaspoon at a time, until desired color is reached.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Sholeh-zard can be covered and refrigerated  for up to 1 week.

Kotlet (Persian Ground Meat and Potato Patties)

These versatile pan-fried patties are made from a mixture of ground meat, eggs, and finely mashed (or riced) boiled potatoes.

Overhead view of kotlets with tomatoes and french fries
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

One of my strongest childhood memories in Iran is the uniquely luscious smell that would fill the house a few short minutes after the first few kotlet patties had been pan-fried in the kitchen. This smell would signal that it was time to rush into the kitchen to see if I could distract the cook in order to steal one of the first, still sizzling-hot kotlets as a quick snack. My wife, who did not grow up with Persian cuisine, is similarly drawn to the kitchen as soon as I start pan-frying a batch, volunteering to “test” one or two!

Overhead view of kotlets on a sliver platter
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Kotlets are pan-fried patties made from a mixture of ground meat, eggs, and finely mashed (or riced) boiled potatoes. Mine are spiced with a simple mixture of salt, black pepper, and turmeric. Though one will encounter flavoring variations depending on the region of Iran and the cook who's making them. Kotlets are quite popular and very well known across the entire country of Iran as well as the Persian diaspora. Their popularity stems from their ease of making and their versatility: They can be served hot or cold, and they can function as a main dish, an accompaniment, or a quick small snack. In addition to being served for meals at home, they are favored for picnics and as a delicious sandwich filling.  

When freshly made (or when properly reheated in a toaster oven), they have a soft crust and a delicate interior that does not feel dense or oily. Their flavor leans more towards potato, with the lamb and seasonings playing more subtle but important supporting roles. Left on the kitchen counter unattended, they will disappear quickly.

 A kotlet split in half resting on a white plate on top of other finished kotlets
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

History of Kotlets

Within the Persian culinary landscape, there is a family of pan-fried patties (meat-based as well as vegetarian),  some of which have been around for a long time. Kotlets are relative newcomers to this family, as potatoes were not introduced to Iran until sometime between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In fact, the Persian word "kotlet" is a loanword based on the French word "côtelette," which had found its way into the Persian language shortly after European travelers began to explore Iran extensively in the early 19th century.

Although it’s not an ancient dish, it is one of the most popular ones. Since the meat constitutes less than 50 percent of a kotlet’s ingredients by weight, some members of the Iranian diaspora communities in North America refer to it as the “Persian healthy hamburger.”

Kotlet Ingredients: A Closer Look

Ground lamb or beef are the go-to meats for this dish. Although Persians love lamb, they just as often make kotlets with beef. When it comes to the coarseness of the ground meat or its fat content, kotlet is very forgiving, so you can go with your normal preferences. 

Overhead view of ingredients for kotlets
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The most readily available potato varieties in Iran are Pashandi (brown-skin, high-starch potatoes, similar to russets) and Estānboli (yellow-skin, low-starch potatoes, shaped like fingerlings). Iranian cooks typically use the high-starch variety for their kotlets.

Over the years, I have tested making kotlets with a variety of commonly available potatoes, including russet, Yukon Gold, red, and fingerling potatoes. Based on my tests, the high-starch, low-moisture content and floury texture of russet potatoes makes them ideal for producing authentic-tasting Persian kotlets that have a crunchy crust and delicate interior. Russet potatoes also cook faster and break down into a mash more easily than other types.

Method and Equipment

It's best to cook and process your potatoes as though you were going to make fluffy mashed potatoes, meaning: Peel them, cut them into approximately 2-inch chucks, and wash them before boiling (to remove surface starches that can cause gumminess); rinse them after boiling (to remove surface starches once more); and mash them into a smooth mass with no chunks. Although a conventional potato masher will work, the best and quickest method is to use a ricer or a food mill, if you have one. Never use a food processor to mash your potatoes as it will release too much starch, turning your potatoes into an undesirable, stretchy mess.

Side view of pushing potatoes through a rice mill into a bowl
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

It's important not to mix the mashed potatoes with the other ingredients until after they have already been partially mixed with each other. Otherwise, the heat of the mashed potatoes may scramble the eggs, which is not what you want.

Once all the ingredients have been mixed into a uniform tacky mass, my directions ask you—simply for the sake of efficiency—to scoop out the entire mixture into 50-gram portions  before forming the first patty. Only then do you form the patties one at a time, putting each formed patty into the skillet before forming the next one. There are two reasons for this. First, if you made all the patties ahead of time, including lightly coating them with flour, the flour on the surface would be absorbed by the moist patty mixture and would fail to properly crisp up once fried. Second, every time a patty is placed in the hot skillet, the temperature of the oil drops. Forming the patties one at a time and adding them incrementally slows the rate at which they go into the pan, allowing the oil temperature to recover in between patties. 

Sometimes, meat patties have the tendency to balloon during pan-frying. Slightly dimpling the patties prevents ballooning and helps even cooking. After placing each patty in the frying pan, gently press the back of a soup spoon onto the middle of the patty, making a slight dimple – not more than 1/8 inch deep. 

Comparison photo showing undimpled and dimpled patties
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

While pan-frying, carefully shaking the pan (sliding it back and forth) from time to time distributes the oil uniformly around the patties, increasing the efficiency of the conduction and convection heating that is taking place, and producing more even browning. It also reduces the chances of patties sticking to the pan.

How to Serve

Traditionally speaking, as a main dish, kotlets are often served hot with some crispy potatoes (French fries, shoestring fries, or oven-roasted—who doesn't enjoy a little starch-on-starch?), along with one or more sides of sliced fresh tomatoes, salty cucumber pickles, yogurt, and flatbread. As an accompaniment, they are served hot along with plain Persian steamed white rice (chelow) or with any number of Persian rice dishes called polows, which are flavored with a wide range of vegetables, legumes, dried fruit, or nuts.

Overhead view of kotlet with different side dishes
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Freshly pan-fried kotlets can be kept warm, while retaining much of their gentle external crispiness, by transferring them to a wire rack set inside a rimmed baking sheet in a 250°F (120°C) oven until serving time.

Cold kotlets are popular snacks at home and are perfect for lunch boxes. Huge piles of them are taken to picnics accompanied by some sort of Persian flatbread such as lavāsh, sangak, tāftoon, barbari, or another type of flatbread such as pita.

Side view of a kotlet sandwich
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

One of the most popular traditional Persian sandwiches is made with kotlet: A few cold kotlets are placed inside of a slitted 6- to 8-inch bread roll (e.g., Persian bolki bread, Vietnamese Banh Mi bread, hero roll, ciabatta, baton, or a piece of baguette) which has been slathered with butter and/or spicy mustard along with some combination of fresh cilantro leaves, thinly sliced onions, tomatoes, and salty cucumber pickles.

You should try it, if you have any leftovers.

In a large saucepan, cover the potatoes with at least 1 inch cold water. Season with salt (the water should taste seasoned but not unpleasantly so). Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook until potatoes are tender, approximately 15 minutes.

Side view of potatoes boiling in water
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Drain potatoes into a colander and then briefly rinse with warm running water. Let stand in colander until the potatoes' residual heat dries them slightly, 1 to 2 minutes.

Overhead view of cooked potatoes in a collander
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Press the cooked potatoes through a ricer or a food mill into the now-empty saucepan. Alternatively, mash well with a potato masher or whisk.

Side view of pushing potatoes through a rice mill into a bowl
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

In a large mixing bowl or in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the eggs vigorously until foamy. 

Overhead view of foamy eggs
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Add ground meat, ground turmeric, pepper, and 2 1/2 teaspoons (8g) salt and mix either by hand or with the stand mixer until ingredients are well combined.

Two image collage of meat and seasoning mixture added to eggs in a metal bowl, before and after being mixed.
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Add mashed potatoes and mix well until ingredients are thoroughly combined into a uniform sticky mass. (I use my bare hand to do this, which is not only the fastest and most effective method, but also gives you a feel for the mixture that you will be making patties from.)

Two image collage of adding potatoes to the meat and egg mixture, before and after being combined.
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Preheat oven to 250°F (120°C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Scoop out 1 3/4–ounce (50g) portions (3 to 4 tablespoons) of the mixture onto the parchment paper (I use my #20 ice cream disher to do this).

Overhead view of portioned mixture on a parchment lined baking sheet
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Spread flour in a pie plate or wide, shallow bowl. Set a wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet. 

In a large cast-iron skillet or stainless-steel sauté pan, heat 1/8 inch oil over medium heat until shimmering (you can also tell whether the oil is hot enough if a couple of pea-size pieces of the mixture dropped in sizzle vigorously). 

Side angled view of heating oil in a cast iron skillet
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Very lightly dredge 1 portion of meat mixture in flour, then shake off excess flour. Gently form into an oval patty approximately 1/2 inch thick, and carefully place in the skillet. Using a soup spoon, gently press a slight dimple, no more than 1/8 inch deep, into the middle of the patty. 

Two image collage of patty formed and being slightly dimpled when put into pan
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Repeat dredging, forming patties, and putting in the skillet until the skillet is full but not crowded; leave about 1/2 inch space between patties. (I can comfortably fit 7 or 8 patties in my 12-inch cast iron skillet.)

Overhead view of meat patties in skillet
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Cook until the first patty that you have placed in the skillet is deep brown on the bottom, about 8 minutes. Flip patty, then continue to flip subsequent patties as each browns sufficiently, and cook until the second side is deep brown, 4 to 5 minutes longer. Transfer cooked patties to prepared wire rack and keep warm in oven.

Two image collage of meat patties cooking in skillet and on rack after being cooked
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Continue forming and frying until all of the mixture has been used and all the patties have been pan-fried.

 A kotlet split in half resting on a white plate on top of other finished kotlets
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Special Equipment

Large sauce pan, colander, ricer or food-mill, pie plate or wide shallow bowl, large cast-iron skillet or large stainless-steel sauté pan

Notes

Kotlet is an excellent reuse of leftover mashed potatoes from holiday dinners.

This recipe can easily be doubled if you want extra leftovers. If making two batches, although it’s not critical, do consider replacing the oil in the skillet after the first recipe's worth as, by then, some of the dredging flour that has come off the patties has burned.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The potatoes can be cooked, mashed, and stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator a day or two ahead of time. I don’t recommend mixing all the ingredients ahead of time because the eggs get deeply absorbed by the mashed potatoes and ground meat, turning the mixture into a very dense mass which makes it harder to form the patties and changes the texture of the kotlets.

After the cooked kotlets have been thoroughly cooled, they can be transferred to an airtight container and stored in the refrigerator for about a week—although they will disappear much faster than that! Kotlets also freeze very well if stored in freezer-safe plastic bags or containers.

Cold cooked kotlets can easily be warmed up if zapped for a minute or two in the microwave but will not be crispy. The best way to heat up kotlets and restore their external crispiness is to warm them up in your toaster oven or full-size oven at 300°F (150°C) for about 10 minutes. If the kotlets have been frozen, there’s no need to defrost them; just increase the heating time to about 15 minutes. You can tell they are ready when you see tiny bubbles of oil forming on the surface.

Sālād-é-Shirāzi (Persian Cucumber and Tomato Salad)

Sālād-é-Shirāzi (Persian Cucumber and Tomato Salad) is a popular Iranian salad featuring a combination of cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions that is refreshing, simple, and quick to make.

Overhead view of Shirazi salad with bread
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Although Persian cuisine is full of starters, side dishes, and accompaniments, there aren’t many that can be classified as salad. The three most popular salads among Persians are sālād-é-shirāzi (tomato and cucumber salad), sālād-é-olevieh (which has Russian origins and is something between contemporary chicken, potato, and egg salads), and sālād-é-fassl (a seasonal fresh green salad often augmented with a bit of cooked ingredient such as pinto beans or beets). 

 Sālād-é-shirāzi is often referred to as the unofficial national salad of Iran, primarily because of its popularity, but also because its primary colors of green (from cucumber), white (from onion), and red (from tomato) are the three primary colors of the flag of Iran. Sālād-é-shirāzi takes its name from the southern Iranian city of Shirāz, which is known as Iran’s city of flowers, literature, and poets. This refreshing salad’s main ingredients are cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions, which are tossed with a simple vinaigrette made from olive oil, an acidic ingredient (most often verjuice, though vinegar, lime, or lemon juice can be used), plus salt and pepper. It has a pleasant salty-sour flavor with a crisp bite from the onion and cucumber and a welcome juicy finish from the tomato.

Overhead view of shirazi salad on a blue background
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

 While Persian cooking traditions date back 2,500 years, this salad is a relatively modern dish that came together in the late 19th century, when tomatoes were first introduced to Iran. 

 Sālād-é-shirāzi is a very popular accompaniment at many Persian meals, particularly when there is some type of rice or kabāb as the main dish. In the hot and dry days of summer, when there are plenty of cucumbers and tomatoes available, this salad can also be served as a light and refreshing meal all its own, accompanied with Persian flat breads such as lavash, barbari, tāftoon, or sangak.

The Origins of Sālād-é-Shirāzi

Similar salads are prevalent in other Middle Eastern and Central Asian food cultures, such as the Afghani salad, Israeli salad, Indian kachumber salad, and the Palestinian falahiyeh salad. While I have not seen any authoritative information that either proves or disproves whether these similar salads from Middle East and Central Asia are related and/or are based on each other, there's at least a good chance Sālād-é-Shirāzi is a somewhat related to the these similar diced tomato/cucumber/onion salads in the neighboring regions. 

While similar in their core ingredients, these salads all have their own unique identity, attributes and background stories. The people of Shirāz have a folkloric tale (although most likely not historically accurate as this is not an ancient salad) about the origins of the sālād-é-shirāzi. It centers around a regional monarch who wanted to ensure the continued spiritedness of the people of Shiraz.

As the story goes, he devised a culinary competition where people of Shirāz were to prepare a version of his own complex and time-consuming salad recipe. His recipe called for the laborious tasks of uniformly chopping the vegetables, pressing olives for preparing olive oil, and juicing green unripe grapes for making verjuice. On the final day of the competition, when everyone was supposed to present their prepared dishes for judgment, the monarch declared everyone a winner, because everyone had done an outstanding job of following his complicated recipe. From that day forward, the recipe was commonly known as sālād-é-shirāzi.

The Key Ingredients in Shirāzi Salad

While modern versions of this recipe no longer require you to extract your own olive oil or make your own verjuice, the key to success with this simple salad is choosing the best quality ingredients possible.

Overhead view of ingredients in shirazi salad
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Generally speaking, when it comes to the exact ratios of the ingredients, this salad is quite forgiving. More important is an evenness of cut for each vegetable ,which will ensure that each spoonful has a balanced amount of each ingredient and the proper texture. Try to aim for roughly equal volumes of uniformly diced cucumbers and tomatoes and a slightly lesser amount of onion that is diced a bit finer than the cucumbers and tomatoes.

  • Cucumber: The recipe calls for Persian cucumbers, which have fewer and smaller seeds than other varieties such as English cucumber or American garden cucumbers. Persian cucumbers are thin skinned, crisp, and aromatic. If unavailable at your local supermarket, English cucumbers are an excellent substitute with an equal amount by weight. While I prefer peeling the cucumbers in my salad for a less bitter flavor and more refined texture, they can be left unpeeled for even more crunch.
  • Tomatoes: Practically speaking, any variety of tomato will do. What is important is using tomatoes that are as ripe as possible, as this salad will not be exceptional if the tomatoes are not good. 
  • Onions: Red onions are the preferred onion type in this recipe. They are pleasantly pungent and bring assertive flavor and crunchiness that balances out the mild flavor of the cucumber and the juicy texture of the tomatoes.The bright purple hue of red onions adds visual appeal as well. Yellow onion will work in this recipe too, but I would not use white or Vidalia onions as they are a bit too sweet for this salad.
  • Crushed Dried Mint Leaves: The salads I enjoyed growing up in Iran always had mint in them. The mint adds a delicate aroma without masking the flavors of the accompanying freshly chopped ingredients. For Persians who still subscribe to ancient culinary humoral principles and practices (where warm, cold, dry, and moist temperaments were assigned to ingredients and dishes), mint is not optional because mint has a warm temperament that balances the cold temperaments of the cucumber and tomato.
  • Acid: Persians love their souring agents. The most traditional acid used in this salad is verjuice. In fact, in Iran’s Fars Province—of which Shiraz is the capital—this salad is also known as the sālād-é-abghooreh (meaning "verjuice salad"). Red-wine, apple-cider vinegar, lime juice, or lemon juice are all acceptable substitutions for the verjuice, and popular among many Persians. Seville Oranges (Bitter Oranges) are a prized souring agent in Persian cooking. If in season and available, try replacing half of the acidic ingredient in this recipe with Seville orange juice.

A Dressing That Practically Makes Itself

Some raw-tomato recipes on Serious Eats praise the benefits of salting and then draining the tomatoes in advance to draw out water and concentrate the tomato's flavor. While yes, this is helpful if you want to avoid a puddle of tomato juices collecting on the bottom of the bowl, in the case of this salad, I actually want the pool of flavorful liquid at the bottom—it adds fresh vegetal flavor to the salad. 

Overhead view of shirazi salad
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

The naturally released liquids from the tomato and cucumber are critical elements of this recipe, combining with the added acid, oil, salt, and pepper to form an even more flavorful dressing. To this end, it's necessary to let the salad sit for at least 15 minutes before serving so there's time for the dressing to "make itself." Persians never let this growing pool of dressing go to waste. It is best to spoon it over rice or throw a few small chunks of bread or crackers in to soak the dressing up and enjoy.

Serving Suggestions

Generally speaking, this dish is considered a side dish that can accompany practically any main dish, except maybe soup-like mains. If the main dish involves some sort of rice dish, many Persians serve several spoonfuls of this salad on their primary plate so that a bit of the naturally formed salad dressing is absorbed by some of the rice. For a salad with a bit of a fiery kick, consider adding two cloves of minced garlic or one finely chopped small fresh Thai green chile.

In a large bowl, whisk verjuice (or vinegar or citrus juice), oil, dried mint, salt, and pepper until combined. Stir in tomato, cucumber, and onion and toss until well coated. 

Two image collage of ingredients for shirazi before and after being mixed
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Let salad sit for 15 minutes until flavors blend and tomatoes and cucumbers begin to release their juices. Sprinkle with sumac. Serve. 

Overhead view of shirazi salad
Serious Eats / Nader Mehravari

Notes

Make Sure to purchase dried spearmint, and not dried peppermint for this recipe.

Any tomato variety will work in this recipe, as long as it is fresh and ripe. Information on how to dice tomatoes can be found here.

English cucumber may be substituted for Persian cucumber with an equal amount by weight. Information on how to dice cucumbers can be found here.

Seville Oranges (Bitter Oranges) are a prized souring agent in Persian cooking. If in season and available, try replacing half of the acidic ingredient in this recipe with Seville orange juice.

For a salad with a bit of a fiery kick, consider adding two cloves of minced garlic or one finely chopped small fresh Thai green chile.

This salad is most often served as a side dish, but is also great served as a light main dish along with some bread.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The dressed salad can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 days before serving. The tomatoes will soften in texture, but the onion and cucumbers will retain most of their crunch.

Alternatively, the vegetables can be cut and refrigerated in separate airtight containers for up to 3 days then tossed with the prepared dressing right before serving.