Mention the Middle East, and images of vast, barren deserts may come to mind. It’s not too far from the truth, as 85% of Iran is classified as arid or semi-arid, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But for a country that seems so dry, Iran produces a surprisingly diverse variety of crops. From rice to grapes, pomegranates to aubergines, these crops are all grown locally and are central to Iranian cuisine.
Thanks to its unique topography and location, Iran can be divided into three climatic zones: Caspian, Baluchi, and Irano-Turanian. The Alborz mountain in the north and Zalgros in the west prevent rain clouds from coming in, resulting in the central and southern lowlands and eastern parts of the country receiving very little precipitation. As such, Iran receives less than a third of world average precipitation.
In spite of this, the main food-producing areas are located in the north and northwestern parts of Iran, utilising rain-fed agriculture or irrigation to produce the myriad of crops we see today.
There are a few varieties of kabab, like kabab barg and kabab koobideh that are popular in Iran. In kabab barg, beef, lamb, or chicken fillets are marinated and barbequed on skewers. With kabab koobideh, pictured here, ground meat is used. According to tradition, the kabab was invented by medieval soldiers who used their swords to grill meat over open fires.
Also known as the “potato of Iran”, aubergines feature in many popular Iranian dishes. In khoresh bademjan, literally translating to “eggplant stew”, they are cooked with tomatoes and beef to form a hearty meal.
Introduced during the Safavid dynasty in the 16th century, rice was a specialty and the food of the rich in Northern Iran, whereas bread was the staple for the rest of the country. Today, the northern provinces of Mazandaran and Gilan are the primary rice-growing regions, accounting for the output of more than 80% of Iran’s rice. Iranian long-grained rice is prized for its aroma, and is typically cooked with saffron.
Nan-e lavash, or lavash bread, is the most commonly-eaten bread in Iran, but has its roots in Armenia. It is a soft, unleavened flatbread that quickly turns brittle when dry. Traditionally, the dough is rolled flat and slapped against the walls of a clay oven. Sesame or poppy seeds are sometimes sprinkled on top before baking.
A popular summer salad, Shirazi salad originated from and is named after Shiraz in Southern Iran. Made of finely diced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions, it is served with a dash of lemon juice and garnished with mint.